Australia’s New Coalition Government Threatens EIA Standards

Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia assumed office September 18, 2013 (Source: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tony-abbott-names-his-new-ministry-20130916-2tujb.html)

Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia assumed office September 18, 2013
(Source: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tony-abbott-names-his-new-ministry-20130916-2tujb.html)

The new Liberal prime minister of Australia as of last month, Tony Abbott, is not exactly what one might call a steward to the environment.  Glancing through the Liberty Party of Australia’s website, amid the over 50 policies the coalition has developed, we see no “Policy for the Environment,” but rather many documents displaying the Party’s commitment to jobs, development, and trade at the cost of all else. Abbott would like to do away with essentially all of the current environmental programs in place and enact his Direct Action Plan, which would remove the Carbon Tax and devolve the power of environmental decision-making to the state level in order to do away with “unnecessary ‘Green Tape [1].’” These plans are worrisome for the country of Australia, especially from an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) perspective.

Currently, EIAs are dealt with at both the state and Commonwealth level. States have their own EIA regulations and projects that fall into one of eight categories are dealt with by the Commonwealth under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) of 1999. This applies to projects that impact endangered species, water resources, and World Heritage sites, among other things. These two processes run simultaneously, with bilateral agreements in place to streamline processes. In these cases the Commonwealth accredits state assessments if they are in accordance with Commonwealth standards [2, 3].

The Coalition’s new policy would allow state governments to opt into a deal of “one-stop-shop for environmental approvals,”[1] essentially ‘accrediting’ all state processes and making them the only approval necessary for projects to go through.  It is noted in the plan that this is “as the Business Council of Australia has recommended [1].” If the direct reference to business and development interests isn’t enough of a red flag, delving into the EIA practices at the state level, and recent squabbles over them, we see how problematic this policy is for Australia’s EIA standards.

In 2011, largely in a response to the proposal of 9 new mega-mines and 18 new coal ports along the coast of Queensland (Qld) abutting the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) (Figure 1), the state government amended EIA guidelines to “reduce ‘green tape’ burden [4].” Public funding of the Qld Environmental Defenders’ Office (a department that aided citizens in environmental cases) was slashed and approval processes that distinguished different kinds of activities, such as mining and petroleum exploration, were removed along with EIA requirements for a number of ‘environmentally relevant activities’ [4, 5].

Figure 1. Greenpeace map of proposed coal ports along the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Source:http://www.greenpeace.org/australia/Global/australia/images/2012/Climate/GBR_infographic_large.jpg)

Figure 1. Greenpeace map of proposed coal ports along the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
(Source:http://www.greenpeace.org/australia/Global/australia/images/2012/Climate/GBR_infographic_large.jpg)

When the first coal project (the Alpha Coal Mine) was approved, UNESCO demanded a complete halt to development around the GBR pending an assessment of its over-all health [6]. Environmental indicators appeared down along the GBR and Gladstone Fishing Research Fund had found algal blooms and acidity variations in the water, as well as increased prevalence of disease in marine species [7]. The EIA performed by Queensland was broadly criticized for being deficient and “shambolic,” [8] in the words of Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, merely pushing for the process to be approved in order for development to continue. The Federal government threatened to suspend bilateral agreements on EIA approvals and place the Commonwealth solely in charge of projects within their jurisdiction [8]. This resulted in a standoff between Burke (since replaced by Abbott) and Qld Premier Campbell Newman over EIA standards and processes [9]. Below is Australia’s Network Ten reporting on the public battle that ensued between Newman and Burke.

If the power of EIA is delegated purely to the state level, when state level processes are not up to international or national environmental standards, then there is a real danger of significant demise to the environment, and more specifically immediate threat to the Great Barrier Reef.  Abbott and Newman are proponents of coalmine projects, seeing the economic profit that they bring, and believe the coal companies are capable of providing adequate protection to the environment.  While it is not untrue that industry is capable of following environmental protection standards, their view begs the question of what industry’s incentives would be, or even where they would get their base knowledge of the environment from, if EIAs are brushed aside merely as an impediment to development. EIAs are fundamentally about proper consideration of the environment in planning and decision-making, with the overarching goal of working towards environmental sustainability [10]. The identification of potential impacts and subsequent mitigation of negative effects is inherently impossible of the EIA process is stunted in this manner.

These recent developments in Australia are disheartening for the consolidation of high EIA standards worldwide. It can be compared to Canada’s recent setbacks in EIA just last year, and a warning of how development over energy resources can significantly change the character of a nation. Australia and the world must really take note of these developments, and question whether they are in line with the environmental protection we should be providing to the world.

Author: Maya Kelty

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[1] Liberal Party of Australia. The Coalition’s Policy for Resources and Energy. September 2013.

[2] “EPBC Act.” What Is Protected under the EPBC Act? Australian Government: Department of Energy, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[3] “EPBC Act.” About Bilateral Agreements and How They Work. Australian Government: Department of Energy, 30 July 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[4] “Client Update: Queensland Reforms Reduce ‘green Tape’ Burden.” Allens, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[5] AAP. “Government Takes Razor to Environmental Defender’s Office.” Brisbane Times, 5 July 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[6] Milman, Oliver. “Australian ‘mega Mine’ Plan Threatens Global Emissions Target.” The Guardian, 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[7] Neubauer, Ian L. “Massive Port Projects Threaten Integrity of Australias Famed Great Barrier Reef Comments.” Time World, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[8] Cullen, Simon. “Burke Slams ‘shambolic’ Reef Mine Approval.” ABC News Australia, 6 June 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[9] Alberici, Emma. “Qld Wanted to Lower Environmental Standards.” Lateline Australia. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[10] Noble, Bram., 2008. Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice, Second Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

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