Instead of reducing environmental assessment of major projects, Scott Morrison needs to implement a new set of federal environmental laws, which will actually do their job: protect the natural environment from major threats.
A broken system
At present, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, or the EPBC Act, is the national legislation which is expected to ensure protection and recovery of threatened species and ecological communities, and preserve significant places from damage and decline. Under the Act, actions that have, ‘or are likely to have’, a significant impact on a ‘matter of national environmental significance’ require approval from the Australian Minister for the Environment. The Minister will decide whether assessment and approval is required under the Act.
The nine areas which the federal government considers of ‘national environmental significance’, and hence protected under the EPBC Act are:
- world heritage properties
- national heritage places
- wetlands of international importance (listed under the Ramsar Convention)
- listed threatened species and ecological communities
- migratory species protected under international agreements
- Commonwealth marine areas
- the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
- nuclear actions (including uranium mines)
- a water resource, in relation to coal seam gas development and large coal mining development
However, these laws have failed us. When the EPBC Act was first implemented in 1999, the idea was for it to provide reinforced federal environmental protection to areas of national environmental significance. But in reality, many projects that come within the ambit of the Act are not rigorously evaluated for their environmental impact.
According to Samantha Hepburn,
‘The substantive problem with the EPBC Act is that its implementation is subject to departmental discretion and therefore the vagaries of government administration. This is particularly problematic given the political nature of many of these decision-making processes’. That is, it produces ‘political’ rather than science-based decisions, and thus obviously destructive projects – like the Adani mega coal mine – are approved.
New environment laws urgently needed
Climate change is almost universally accepted as one the most serious environmental threats. Yet the EPBC Act does not include a climate change trigger (or a land clearing trigger, and we are seeing massive destruction of native vegetation in states like Queensland). This means these key threats to Australia’s environment will not be protected by EPBC Act.
What we need are a new set of federal environmental laws, which will actually do their job: protect the natural environment from major threats.
But instead of acting to strengthen our environmental laws, the prime minister Scott Morrison is doing the opposite: he wants to reduce environmental assessment of these major projects, labelling the existing system as ‘green tape’ that is stopping development of major projects like coal mines.
Mr Morrison has told the Business Council of Australia that he wants to ‘overhaul’ environmental approvals for major projects as part of an attempt to ‘further streamline’ the industrial relations system.
Mr Morrison says the federal government wants to “get major projects off the ground sooner” by reducing the length of time it takes for businesses to navigate environmental approvals.
‘Cutting Green Tape’ is code for ‘let business do what it wants’. In the real world, it will mean large resource companies being given the green light to cut corners and get their projects waved through by government.
We need laws that work
Major environmental projects always bring substantial ecological or climate costs. Over the years, Australian and state and territory governments have established approvals processes that seek to find the right balance between approving large projects and protecting the environment.
While we have never had a perfect national approvals system, it is essential we do not lose the processes currently in place. And we need to build a set of new laws that are fit for purpose for the challenges we face in Australia in the 21st century.
A truly national approach to environmental protection would build on Australia’s international responsibilities and the federal government's capacity to bring authority and resources to environmental governance.
The national Places You Love Alliance (which we are a proud member of) has identified how we could build new environmental laws that could really protect Australia’s natural and cultural heritage.
Their vision is provided below (and available here):
- Create truly national environment laws that genuinely protect Australia’s natural and cultural heritage. The Federal Government must retain responsibility for current matters of national environmental significance and protect them effectively. National oversight must be expanded to land clearing, biodiversity and ecosystems, water resources, climate change, air pollution and protected areas.
- Establish an independent National Sustainability Commission to set national environmental standards and undertake strategic regional planning and report on national environmental performance. The commission would also develop enforceable national, regional, threat abatement and species level conservation plans.
- Establish an independent National Environmental Protection Authority that operates at arm's-length from Government to conduct transparent environmental assessments and inquiries as well as undertake monitoring, compliance and enforcement actions.
- Guarantee community rights and participation in environmental decision making, including open standing provisions, open access to information about decision making and environmental trends, review of decisions based on their merits, third-party enforcement provisions and protections for costs in the public interest.
Tell the PM – don’t gut our environmental protection
Tell him you don’t support his government gutting environmental assessment laws.