Can you believe it’s been five years since the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) launched its own nature and climate Investigations Unit?

For five years, ACF’s watchdogs have been shining a light on habitat destruction (sometimes literally), investigating unethical, illegal, polluting and damaging behaviours, and unearthing primary evidence to make the case for change.

In this brief time, the Investigations Unit has helped save critical habitat from destruction, debunked Australia’s ‘junk’ carbon credits, and helped stop one of Australia’s biggest climate polluters from dumping its waste near a World Heritage Area – to name a few.

To celebrate five years of being a thorn in the backside of Australia's biggest climate and nature wreckers, we are highlighting the top five impacts of ACF’s Investigations Unit.

Impact One: Shining a Light on Habitat Destruction

In June 2019, after we noticed that the Federal government had authorised the clearing of native woodlands in Far North Queensland despite evidence it was likely critical Greater Glider habitat, ACF’s Investigations Unit along with an independent ecologist conducted its own field survey.

greater glider in Queensland

Our photographic evidence of threatened Greater Gliders on Meadowbank station, Far North Queensland.

Under the cover of darkness, flashlights in hand, the team trekked through a narrow section of nearby public land only to have their fears confirmed.

The undeniable proof was captured with a simple click of a camera: Greater Gliders were living in the area slated for bulldozing.

Following this discovery, a lengthy round of argy-bargy with the Federal Environmental Department, and evidence that the destruction of this habitat had already begun, the Investigation Unit finally saw some action.

In February 2020, the Federal Environment Department increased the protected Greater Glider habitat in this area by the amount of seven football fields!

Score one for the little guys!

The Greater Glider was added to Australia's list of endangered wildlife in July 2022, having previously been listed as vulnerable. As old-growth forests and tree hollows continue to be destroyed by bushfires and land-clearing, Greater Glider numbers continue to decline. In just 20 years the populations of Greater Gliders have declined by 80%.

Whilst seven football fields of critical habitat aren’t enough to sustain this species indefinitely, without our investigation work even more of this land would have been bulldozed, and many of the animals who called it home would have been killed.

Impact two: ‘Junk’ in the Carbon Credit Trunk

Australian Outback

Outback Australia in the dry season

Many of us have heard about the dodgy practices surrounding Australia’s vegetation-based carbon offsets and credits market, but few may know that this techy topic was first pointed out by ACF’s very own Investigation Unit.

In September 2021, ACF’s watchdogs, along with the Australian Institute, found one in five carbon credits issued by the Federal Government’s $4.5 billion Emission Reduction Fund (ERF) did not represent real abatement and were essentially ‘junk’ credits.

Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) generated by the ‘avoided deforestation’ method of carbon abatement are awarded to landholders who surrender land clearing permits and commit to retaining vegetation on their properties.

Analysis of the data shows projects were being issued ACCUs for retaining vegetation that was never going to be cleared, meaning anyone purchasing these credits is buying non-existent abatement.

Furthermore, the investigation highlights how ACF leads by evidence, not ideology. We would have much preferred that carbon credits were doing their job and genuinely avoiding deforestation. Our Investigations team is on the front line, exposing and teaching about how best to address the climate and nature crisis - leading us to where we need to focus our advocacy and attention.

Impact three: Safe Removal of Woodside’s Toxic Riser Turret Mooring

Aerial photograph of Ningaloo Reef

Aerial photography of Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth Western Australia.

In 2021, ACF’s investigation team unearthed a proposal by Woodside to dump a toxic 83-metre-long steel and plastic mooring next to the Ningaloo Coast world.

Woodside along with the support of the recreational fishing group Recfishwest, had proposed that the riser turret mooring – which contains plastic, polyurethane and water-soluble manganese metal which has the potential to leach into the nearby ecosystem – was suitable to become an artificial reef for sports fishers in the area.

Prior to this, Woodside had initially agreed to remove the riser turret mooring from the ocean but scuttled that plan claiming the poor condition of the structure would make that impossible.

But ACF’s watchdogs weren’t going to let this toxic turret lie.

ACF along with Protect Ningaloo, the Cape Conservation Group, and the Conservation Council of WA, quickly sounded the alarm and called on Woodside to abandon this ridiculous plan.

More than 8,000 public submissions were written to the Federal Environment Minister, calling on Sussan Ley to block the proposal.

With the mounting pressure building, the peak body backing Woodside's proposal for an artificial reef withdrew its support for the project - forcing Woodside to safely remove the riser turret from the area. In October 2023, Woodside finally removed it and sent it to be recycled onshore (meaning it was possible after all).

Impact four: Fight Against Potent Methane Emissions

Gas plant

A gas fractionation plant, Australia.

In early 2023, ACF's Investigations Unit took decisive action to address one of Australia's most alarming contributors to climate pollution: fugitive methane emissions.

The team took part in a field trip, alongside the Clean Air Task Force, travelling to coal mines and gas facilities throughout Queensland and NSW to document fugitive methane escaping from coal and gas facilities.

With the use of optical gas imaging (OGI) technology – a super hi-tech camera that can detect methane emissions – the team discovered:

  • Alarming levels of climate-damaging gas pollution escaping from more than 100 sources at 35 industrial sites.
  • 25 visible leaks/vents along Jemena’s JGN and Darling Downs pipelines.
  • 10 visible leaks/vents from Origin’s coal seam gas wells and Shell/QGC gas-gathering pipelines in Queensland.
  • Methane being vented from four of the seven Santos’ coal seam gas wells surveyed in the Pilliga/Bibblewindi forest in NSW.
  • Multiple cases of continuous venting at the APA-operated compressor station at the Wallumbilla Gas Hub.

This investigation revealed that Australia has no idea how much methane is escaping from the fossil fuel industry.

By placing Australia’s coal and gas facilities "on notice," the Unit brought attention to the urgent need for scrutiny and action to address their incompetence and negligent practices.

The investigation into methane emissions is part of ACF’s ongoing commitment to push our government to establish a methane action plan, to force Australia’s big polluters to accurately measure and report their emissions.

Impact five: ACF Crowdsourced Investigations

Land clearing in Australia

Clearing of critically endangered Regent honeyeater habitat identified through ACF Investigates.

I spy with my little eye, something that looks like… land clearing.

In February 2023, ACF’s Investigation Unit launched its first-ever crowdsourced investigations project called ACF Investigates: Habitat Destruction.

Using the power of satellite imagery and a strong online community of concerned nature lovers, ACF Investigates uncovered thousands of potential nature and climate concerns.

In just four weeks:

  • 2,100 volunteers took part in the project from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Sweden, Bolivia, Canada, China, Italy, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands and Sri Lanka
  • 3,681,000 hectares of at-risk native habitat were scanned by these volunteers
  • 41,051 tasks were submitted, over an estimated 2,052 hours — that's over a year of full-time investigation, completed in less than four weeks!

ACF’s Investigations Unit is now examining each and every event of land clearing that the community investigators identified. In some cases we have been able to intervene and stop active habitat destruction.

It is a sad reality that environmental groups like ACF and citizen scientists are the ones having to monitor for breaches in the national environmental protection laws.

ACF’s crowdsourced investigations continue to uncover failures of the Federal government to monitor and enforce breaches of vegetation management legislation, and the desperate need for strong nature laws.

Strong new nature laws are our big chance to stop the destruction of threatened animals' homes, safeguarding the places and wildlife we love for decades to come.

Strong new laws are the lifeline that forests, black cockatoos, and the Great Barrier Reef need to survive and thrive.

The ultimate measure of success for this investigation is whether the Federal government decides to act accordingly and end Australia’s extinction crisis.

Until such time as we see strong nature laws and an independent regulator to enforce them properly, I guess we will have to make do with ACF’s Investigations Unit

Happy Birthday, team.

May you continue to agitate the arbiters of nature and climate destruction.

Hip hip hooray!

Annica Schoo

Lead Environmental Investigator, ACF