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Dire warning about federal environment law reform following public consultation

Community groups from around Australia have raised the alarm at proposed reforms to national environment laws after the first round of public consultation, citing major weaknesses and flaws that threaten to take environmental protection backwards.

The Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCCEEW) has held its first public consultation on the new laws, with the final of two webinars taking place today (Tuesday November 28).

Concerns by community groups following the information provided on the webinar include:

  • There is no proposal to include a ‘climate trigger’

  • The reforms propose a ‘pay to destroy’ scheme that would enable proponents to obtain approvals in return for conservation payments (titled ‘restoration payments’)

  • Community consultation will be weakened by putting it in the hands of proponents, not government, and giving wide discretion as to who they will consult

  • Broad Ministerial powers will be provided to override the new EPA to allow ‘unacceptable impacts’ to be approved on vague grounds like ‘national interest’

  • The proposed definition of ‘unacceptable impacts’ is vague and ill-defined.

There are other key components of the reforms which have not yet been divulged, including possible processes to transfer decision-making to the states, details of proposed National Environmental Standards, and standards for First Nations engagement.

Georgina Woods from Lock the Gate Alliance said, “What we heard is alarming on many fronts. What is needed is a package of reforms that can stop coal and gas projects driving wildlife to extinction, but these reforms won’t do that.

“We’re deeply worried that community consultation is weakened under this scheme, and that the proposal to implement a pay to destroy scheme of ‘restoration payments’ will just allow cashed up coal and gas giants to effectively buy approval to clearfell irreplaceable habitat,” she said.

Lucy Manne from Australia said, “We’re astonished that the proposed reforms do not contain a climate trigger, to ensure that the climate impacts of major projects like coal and gas on the Australian environment are properly considered.

“Climate change is the most severe, long-term threat to the future of natural areas and threatened wildlife, but these reforms won’t even require proper assessment of full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a massive failure,” she said.

Jo Lynch from Hunter Community Environment Centre said, “The Federal Environment Minister promised that this reform would end the extinction crisis, but after hearing the proposal we fear it will exacerbate it.

“We need strong habitat protections that prevent clearing by major projects, and we need decisions to be guided by science not by politics, so having a ministerial over-ride on decisions based on vague concepts like ‘the national interest’ is incredibly worrying,” she said.

Hannah Ekin from Central Australia Frack Free Alliance in Alice Springs said “What we heard on the call really escalated our concerns about the direction these reforms are heading.

“However, we fear that there will be a further sting in the tail and that the government may also be preparing to transfer many key decisions back to state and territory governments. 

“This would be devastating in the Northern Territory where the government has shown itself to be avidly pro-fracking and incapable of impartial decision-making,” she said.


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