A bill putting environmental decisions in the hands of state governments known for their destructive behaviour is under consideration, writes Sue Arnold.
AT A TIME when Australia’s wildlife and environment are in desperate need of major policy changes which address the catastrophes as a result of bushfires and drought, the Morrison Government is hell-bent on reintroducing a one-stop shop environmental approval system.
The euphemistically named Streamlining Environmental Approvals Bill would hand over to the state governments responsibility for approval and management of major project development impacts on threatened species, ecosystems, biodiversity, and World Heritage areas.
Without bothering to wait for the final report from the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC), Environment Minister Sussan Ley is ploughing ahead with further weakening Australia’s failing environmental legislation.
The prospect of approval powers being the responsibility of the Berejiklian, Palaszczuk, Andrews, Marshall, Gutwien, McGowan Governments is grim news. Given the environmental record of these state governments, no thinking person would have any confidence in the Morrison Government’s move.
Around the same time, the newly released Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry noted:
The 2019-20 bush fire season was extreme and extremely unusual. It showed us bush fires through forested regions on a scale that we have not seen in Australia in recorded history and fire behaviour that took even experienced firefighters by surprise. The total tally of fire-generated thunderstorms in south-eastern Australia since the early 1980s increased from 60 at the end of 2018-19 to almost 90 at the end of the 2019-20 bush fire season — an increase of almost 50% in one bush fire season.
Boer et al (2020) note that major fires in eastern Australia’s temperate broadleaf forests – dominated by eucalypts – are relatively common. However, usually only a small percentage of this forest biome burns annually, typically less than 2%, even in more extreme fire seasons. As noted previously, an unprecedented proportion of this biome was burnt in the 2019-20 season, almost 20%.
According to the report, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) estimated that the fires affected the habitat of at least 293 threatened animals in NSW alone.
A few weeks earlier, the WWF released a report undertaken by Professor Chris Dickman together with scientists from three universities demonstrating more than 3 billion animals had died in the fires or subsequently from starvation and dehydration.
Whilst the outrage over the Morrison Government’s failure to address the environmental catastrophes is focused on the PM and his Minister for the Environment, it’s worthwhile going back in history to the creation and subsequent adoption of the controversial one-stop shop approvals.
The current steps being taken by Sussan Ley are entirely reminiscent of Hunt’s early days.
According to journalist Marian Wilkinson in her recently released book, ‘The Carbon Club’, within 24 hours of the swearing-in of the new Abbott Government in September 2013, the new Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, had sacked the head of the Climate Commission.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website states:
On 16 October 2013, the Minister for the Environment, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, announced that the Government had approved the framework for delivering the One-Stop Shop. This includes a three-stage process with each of the willing jurisdictions, comprising:
- signing a Memorandum of Understanding
- agreement on bilateral assessments and updating any existing agreement with the state
- negotiation of approval bilateral agreements within 12 months
According to a Hunt media release on 29 October 2014:
Bilateral agreements are put in place to protect the environment, ensure an efficient, timely and effective process and minimise duplication between Commonwealth and state processes.
“This vital reform will save business in Australia about $420 million every year,” said Minister Hunt.
“Duplication of federal, state and local planning processes adds complexity and cost to environmental approvals across the country — with no added environmental benefit.”
“Under current arrangements, major projects can be delayed through multiple and duplicative approval processes, even if the project is environmentally acceptable.”
In February 2014, Hunt gave the approval to streamline the processes which previously required offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas activities to abide by regulations under both the EPBC Act and the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (OPGGS Act) and its associated Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Regulations 2009.
The streamlining process was initiated to create a “one-stop shop” for offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas activities in Commonwealth waters delivering faster approvals and removing unnecessary duplication in regulatory processes while maintaining the integrity and standards of the environmental assessment process.
Under the streamlined arrangements, impacts on the following matters protected under Part 3 of the EPBC Act will be assessed solely through the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA):
- World Heritage properties (with the exception of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area);
- National Heritage places;
- wetlands of international importance;
- listed threatened species and ecological communities;
- listed migratory species; and
- Commonwealth marine area. If conducted in accordance with the Program, petroleum activities such as seismic, drilling and production accepted under NOPSEMA’s processes no longer require assessment and approval under the EPBC Act.
Marine creatures including whales, inshore dolphins, dugongs, turtles, listed migratory species and listed threatened species will no longer have the protection of the EPBC Act but are now “protected” by an authority which basically represents the oil and gas industry.
On 27 October 2015, under Greg Hunt, a memorandum of understanding on the common assessment method (MOU/CAM) was signed. No public announcement, no notice in any Commonwealth websites, no public comment, no submissions invited. Very few scientists and conservation organisations are aware of the CAM and its ramifications as state and federal governments as well as the mainstream media have continued to keep the CAM quarantined.
The MOU supported the adoption of the CAM for listing threatened species, in order to reduce duplication of effort and achieve greater consistency in the classification of species across Australia.
Implementation of the CAM will lead to the creation of a single classification for species across Australia, reducing regulatory complexity for both the community and industry.
All state governments have signed off on the CAM:
‘Using the common assessment method, participating jurisdictions will work together to ensure that species are assessed and, where warranted, listed in only one “nationally threatened” category.
The outcome is a “Single Operational List” of nationally threatened species.’
Now in mid-2020, Sussan Ley rechristens the effort to hand over the approval processes to states as ‘single touch environmental approvals’.
The priorities are clear:
‘The One-Stop Shop policy aims to simplify the approvals process for businesses, lead to swifter decisions and improve Australia's investment climate, while maintaining high environmental standards.’
What is clear is that coalition Commonwealth governments are the most catastrophic threat to any future for Australia’s rapidly disappearing forests, ecological communities, rivers and wildlife.
The impacts of such mindless ignorance and irresponsibility will be borne by current and future generations. Restoring Australia’s burnt, drought-affected, struggling environment must be the most urgent priority of any government.
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