As the first year of Tony Chappel’s tenure as Chief Executive Officer of the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) draws to a close, his close personal links with two of NSW’s most notorious polluters in recent decades, Whitehaven Coal and AGL, warrants close examination. The Perrottet Liberal-National government’s decision to appoint him as CEO in May 2022 has placed the fossil industry insider at the pinnacle of power within the environmental regulator, jeopardising the EPA’s exercise of its statutory objectives and powers.
Despite his brilliant educational background in law, management, environmental engineering technology and environmental economics, at Sydney University, Australian Graduate School of Management, Imperial College London and Oxford University, Mr Chappel’s first year has not fulfilled the promise that was held when he launched the NSW EPA’s landmark Climate Change Policy and Action Plan in September 2022.
Appointed after years of organisational churn in which successive acting CEO’s acted as seat warmers, Mr Chappel has brought his expertise in carbon and biodiversity offset markets with him but matters such as the pollution licensing of fossil industries lags behind with no signs from the EPA that it views its role in preventing pollution from coal mining and coal seam gas exploration seriously.
Rather, Mr Chappel’s professional resume shows that he played a senior and pivotal role in helping fossil miners avoid responsibility at critical points where they faced regulatory hurdles, both within Whitehaven Coal and AGL, and for over 3 years as Chief of Staff to former Liberal Planning Minister, Rob Stokes and the Premier Mike Baird. Mr Chappel was also the former President of the Young Liberals 1999-2000. He was also rejected as a candidate for the Federal seat of Berowra by the moderate Liberals in 2016.
Mr Chappel’s LinkedIn resumé tracks his revolving door career from Whitehaven Coal, to Minister Stokes and Baird top aide, then to AGL.
Snapshots of Mr Chappel’s time as CEO of NSW EPA*
Tyre landfilling fiasco at the mines
The EPA’s December 2022 newsletter “Regulation in Action” trumpets the circular economy, and identifies tyre recycling as a priority. Behind such statements lies another reality, on the 14th January 2022 it approved the mass landfilling of off-the-road tyres at mines like Maules Creek Coal in the Namoi Valley. This was while the EPA was, or should have been fully aware that off-the-road tyres were standing to be nominated, and indeed were placed on the Commonwealth Environment Minister’s Priority List on 21st October 2022.
It is astonishing that Mr Chappel, despite his expertise in economic environmental instruments, continues to ignore the importance of economic signals in providing confidence to the tyre recycling industry to establish itself in mining areas. This should include a landfill levy for all tyres landfilled at open cut mines, commencing immediately. A levy should be followed urgently by a deadline for coal mines to stop landfilling of tyres.
Coal effluent pollution in Royal National Park
Also in the December newsletter, the EPA claimed credit for taking “Strong action on Camp Gully Creek pollution clean-up” a reference to discharges of coal effluent from Peabody Energy’s Metropolitan Coal mine into Camp Gully Creek which runs into the Royal National Park, in Sydney’s Southern Highlands. This is despite the fact that the pollution was only brought to the attention of the EPA by community members and citizen scientists, after decades of inaction by the regulator during which the mine has scarcely any monitoring and reporting requirements.
Risks to Sydney’s Water Catchment
Slow response in relation to the Peabody mine is also a risk to Sydney’s water catchment through subsidence and possible contamination leakage.
PFAS exemption for Whitehaven Coal
EPA claims to act on PFAS, but lets Whitehaven off the hook under spurious justification.
This was followed by:
Leak Detection windback in the Pilliga
The EPA vary Santos’ Environmental Protection Licence 20350 to allow for 12 monthly checks for methane leaks instead of six monthly. Condition O6.8 of the EPL previously stated: “2. All gas process plant and equipment must be checked for leaks at an interval not exceeding six (6) months, unless otherwise approved in writing by the EPA.” This coincides with the requirement for the operator to report leaks to government being dismantled. See our related story here.
Failure to protect old growth rainforest
In February 2023 the EPA failed to protect significant old growth forest on the far North Coast of NSW from logging. The North East Forest Alliance described the decision by the EPA to remove a logging exclusion over an old growth forest, identified as a fire refuge in Doubleduke State Forest, west of Evans Head, a dereliction of duty. The EPA were subsequently impelled by community to stop the logging.
*Not an exhaustive list
Prior involvement with coal and gas
At Whitehaven Coal, Mr Chappel helped deliver the Maules Creek mine approval on 23rd October 2012, leaving the company one month later to the role of Chief of Staff for Rob Stokes, then Planning Minister. As Corporate Affairs and Legal Counsel at Whitehaven Coal from September 2011 to November 2012, he was the senior legal officer when the company submitted false and misleading information about the Maules Creek Mine Offsets, now definitively proven to be based on false condition class and mapping disclosures of EPBC the Critically Endangered Ecological Community.
Ultimately when the offsets faced a legal challenge in the NSW Land and Environment Court, instead of critically examining how the Leard Forest could have been cleared successively for years without ever having ground-truthed the claimed offsets, extensions continued to be granted. At stake was the mapping of what would be priority mapping under a new biodiversity offsetting scheme of which Mr Chappel was a key architect.
As the Planning Minister’s senior staffer from November 2012 to February 2016, Mr Chappel was integrally involved in the introduction of Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, a now failed scheme on life-support, which was the subject of a devastating Auditor General’s Report in August 2022 “Effectiveness of the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme”.
After the Agreed Principles of Land Access signed in 2015, which posed as a social licence declaration for coal seam gas, Mr Chappel shortly after jumped ship to the gas industry “Three chief of staff leave Mike Baird’s government, one to Andrew Vesey’s AGL” by Will Glasgow and Joe Aston, 21st February 2016
Mr Chappel, an alumnus of the Montessori education system, has an academic and high level environmental economics background that does not seem in evidence since his commencement at the EPA. The reluctance to take reasonable measures to properly regulate mine effluent and tyre landfilling nor to properly implement its own Climate Change Policy or reflect the Policy in its agency advices to Planning is a losing start for the CEO.
Earlier this year, Mr Chappel told the Australian Financial Review his role includes “nudging businesses that are not yet thinking about decarbonisation to get started and to think hard about their own resilience to climate change”. Judging by new coal and gas projects in various planning stages by Whitehaven and Santos in north west NSW, it appears the EPA’s CEO statements are window dressing focused on 50,000 small fish ie. small and medium businesses, while the carbon polluting whales continue to expand.
With the closure of Liddell coal power station, Mr Chappel has foreshadowed his support for coal ash recycling by his old employer AGL. Based on logging, tyre recycling, PFAS, mine effluent and reduced Leak Detection and Repair Monitoring across coal seam gas operations in the Pilliga, Mr Chappel’s performance to date does not show promise that he can discharge his role at the environmental regulator.
The rise of Ecomodernism through key regulatory positions tasked with environmental protection should concern community. Pollution apologists and facilitators have no place in leadership positions.
Footnote: These views do not reflect on the footsoldiers of the EPA who strive daily to perform their roles with utmost vigour.