Lukas Coch/AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week announced environmental approvals for 15 major infrastructure projects will be fast-tracked to accelerate investment as Australia emerges from the COVID-19 lockdown.

Under the current system, proponents must seek both state and federal approvals for big developments. The new “single touch” approvals process will involve teams of state and federal officials assessing the projects jointly.

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This is by no means the first attempt by governments to streamline environmental approvals. Morrison says the latest push will be informed by a ten-year review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, which has also been framed around cutting so-called “green tape” that slows developments. An interim report is due this month.

I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the Act. There are ways the laws can be streamlined without sacrificing the environment. But isolated from more comprehensive environmental reform, faster approval will bring significant environmental risk.

Faster environment approvals brings environmental risk. WWF Australia

We’ve been here before

The first national agreement to streamline environmental approvals dates back to 1990, and Bob Hawke’s “New Federalism” push to reduce overlap between Commonwealth and state environmental laws.

More recently, the Gillard government in 2012, at the urging of business interests, sought to strike bilateral agreements with the states to reduce duplication in environmental approvals. The push was abandoned when each state demanded different arrangements, making the proposed system too messy and complex.

In 2014 the Abbott government revived this “one-stop shop” approach, but the move was blocked by the Senate.

A risky business

Environment advocates naturally oppose moves to streamline environmental laws and approval processes. They argue the regime already fails to protect threatened species and biodiversity, and the bar should not be lowered further.

It’s true that while governments may claim faster approvals won’t erode environmental standards, there aren’t many hard-and-fast standards to maintain.

Environmentalists argue current laws are already inadequate. Larine Statham/AAP

Instead, EPBC Act decisions mostly hinge on the minister’s conclusion that assessed environmental impacts are “not unacceptable”, provided certain conditions, such as minimising a project’s physical size, are met. But this is no standard at all, because such decisions are arbitrary and no “bottom line” for a project’s environmental performance is set.

As things stand, the closest thing to an on-ground environmental standard is the environmental offsets policy, which allows environmental damage from a project to be compensated for by environmental improvements elsewhere. But policies are not binding, there is no public register of approved offsets and little evidence of them being monitored and enforced.

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The Act does include mechanisms for setting standards. These include “bioregional plans” intended to inform industry and decision-makers of the environmental values and objectives of a region, and how these should be met.

But since the Act commenced in 2000, just five such plans for marine areas have been developed, and none have been prepared for regions on land.

The Act also provides for recovery plans setting out the actions necessary to support listed threatened species. But as of 2018, fewer than half these species have recovery plans, and where they exist, the plans are often out of date and not specific enough.

Efficient approvals require proper resources

Morrison said his government wants to reduce Commonwealth assessment and approval times for major projects, from an average of 3.5 years to 21 months.
But to do that, his government must stop starving its own regulatory systems of resources.

Between 2013 and 2019, the federal environment department’s budget was cut by 39.7%, according to an assessment by the Australian Conservtaion Foundation. So it’s little wonder approval processes slowed.

In November last year the Morrison government announced A$25 million to reduce unnecessary delays in environmental assessments, including the establishment of a major projects team. In effect, this was merely a reversal of previous funding cuts by this government and some of its predecessors.

What’s more, an efficient approvals process needs good information, yet this can be hard to come by.

The much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information was established in 2010 “to improve the quality and accessibility of Australian environmental information”. It would have reduced the need for fieldwork in environmental assessments. But in my view it was never properly resourced, and it has since been abolished.

An expansion of BHP’s Olympic Dam mine site in Roxby Downs, South Australia, is among the priority infrastructure projects. David Mariuz/AAP

But streamlining could work

There are ways the Commonwealth and states could cut environmental approval times without cutting corners.

The proposed joint assessment teams would have to be well-resourced. They would also have to be authorised to negotiate procedural or cultural obstacles to meeting both federal and state legal requirements.

When I was in the environment department, it was common for federal and state officials to complain their counterparts were not addressing the assessment and approval requirements of the other jurisdiction.

And if companies behind developments want faster approvals, they will have to provide information to officials in a timely fashion – something that doesn’t always happen now.

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Australia has learnt much during the pandemic – not only about cooperation between the Commonwealth and the states, but also between government and business. Success in this latest streamlining attempt will demand excellence in both.

The larger challenge is to speed up the process without lowering the environmental bar.

The federal government should commission independent monitoring and evaluation of the environmental outcomes of approvals under these new arrangements. In 2009 a Senate committee recommendedmore resources for monitoring and audits, but nothing has improved in the decade since.

Independent evaluation won’t win over the sceptics, but it might assuage their worst fears.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. re Australia has learnt much during the pandemic … and Success in this latest streamlining attempt will demand excellence in both

    An overly optimistic assessment that Federal and State governments are Eco-literate enough and operating on the right premise … . Committees quickly set up to deal with recovery are indicators of the wrong re-boot.

    In fact the economic perspective is entirely a wrong lens in an Age of Environmental Breakdown and political-and pathways post-Covid show little has been learnt.It is past time Australia includes what little remains of the continent’s fragile Environment in the accounting books because – unless we Financially VALUE our small remaining Natural Capital we are doomed by our perspective to fail.

    When in 2005 Jared Diamond wrote “Collapse – How societies choose to fail or survive” he devoted one chapter to Australia. Forest as a survival mechanism featured high and it is worth quoting what he says below. This I believe has been forgotten by all including of course current Governments. Current government is operating on outdated accounting books. Unless we Financially VALUE our small remaining Natural Capital we are systematically considering the Environment an “externality”.

    Clearly dominant public conversation has forgotten we are exhausting the Ecological basis of Economy and Society. The 250 year old economy has subsumed the ancient ecology of this continent, and in the wider picture the planet.

    Collapse is around the corner due to Political Eco-illiteracy and public un-awareness of the system’s total dependence on what this research calls “critical biological infrastructure” (CBI). Every other infrastructure is in the conversation except CBI. This infrastructure (CBI) has become dispensable at every level and no one is looking at the cumulative loss.

    Ecology has become subservient to Economy…. to financial manipulation, offsetting and law-changing without the acceptance, consideration and understanding of our total dependence on Ecology and Ecosystems – globally.

    Jared Diamond said it well in 2005…and things have gone even more pear shaped since then with bushfires and bio-energy, RFAs and multiple feedbacks and impacts taking us over tipping points. Mr Morrison and Premier Berejiklian (driven by Perretot and Stokes in NSW) should listen … because in the Age of Climate and Environmental Breakdown….. Forest is a survival mechanism for what I call Survival Economics but we are losing this survival mechanism irreversibly …

    JD quote “Apart from Antarctica, Australia is the continent with proportionately the least area covered by forests: only about 20% of the continents total area. They used to include possibly the world’s tallest trees, now felled Victorian Mountain Ash, rivalling or topping California Coast Redwoods in height.
    Of Australia’s forests standing at the time of European settlement in 1788, 40% have already been cleared, 35% have been partly logged, and only 25% remain intact. Nevertheless, logging of that small area of remaining old-growth forests is continuing and constitutes yet another instance of mining the Australian landscape.
    “The export uses… are turned into wood chips and sent mostly to Japan, where they are used to produce paper and its products and make up one quarter of the material in Japanese paper. While the royalty received in Australia for the logs to be chipped has dropped to $7 per ton, the resulting paper sells in Japan for $1000 per ton, so that almost all of the value added to that after it is cut accrues to Japan rather than to Australia. At the same time as it exports wood chips, Australia imports nearly three times more Forest products than it exports, with more than half of those imports being in the form of paper and paperboard products.

    “Thus the Australian forest products trade involves a double irony. On the one hand Australia one of the First world countries with the least forest, is still logging those shrinking forests to export their products to Japan, the first World country with the highest %age of land under forest (74%) and with that still growing……” That was in 2005