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COAG: ‘one-stop shop’ environmental approval deal alarms conservationists

Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s world heritage areas, including the Great Barrier Reef, could be threatened by a new deal which hands over environmental powers to states and territories, say conservationists. Photograph: Richard Fitzpatrick/AAP


Powered by article titled “Coag: ‘one-stop shop’ environmental approval deal alarms conservationists” was written by Oliver Milman, for on Friday 13th December 2013 07.54 UTC

The federal government has struck a deal to devolve environmental powers to the states and territories, a move conservationists warn could dismantle safeguards first put in place 30 years ago.

Tony Abbott signed memorandums of understanding with all state premiers and territory chief ministers at Friday’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting.

The agreements create “one-stop shops” for environmental assessments of projects such as ports and mines, with the states handling the process. Currently, assessments involve the federal government in certain situations under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, a scenario that creates unnecessary delays and ”green tape” for developments, according to the Coalition.

While Greg Hunt, the environment minister, has insisted that he will retain the right to veto environmentally damaging projects, Abbott said he hopes to allow all states to handle approvals themselves.

Queensland and NSW, the first states to sign the agreements, have gone further than other jurisdictions by signing “assessment bilateral” agreements.

Abbott said: “Under those assessment bilaterals the states will do all the assessment work and we hope that in the not-too-distant future we will have approvals bilaterals in place which will mean the states will not only do the assessment but will also do the approvals.”

The prime minister said the new regime will mean “the same high standard of environmental approval but much less red and green tape, much less paperwork for the applicant and a much swifter outcome we hope, which means more investment and more jobs.”

Several major mining firms have bemoaned the length of time it takes to get projects approved, claiming Australia’s process is far more sluggish than other nations, such as New Zealand. The Business Council of Australia called the agreement a “long overdue breakthrough”.

However, conservation groups and the Greens are aghast at the handover of plans, arguing the states do not have the resources nor inclination to properly protect the environment.

Conservationists have warned the handover risks unravelling environmental protections put in place by the Bob Hawke government in the 1980s to prevent the controversial damning of the Franklin river in Tasmania.

The Greens were quick to point out that the two Labor-run states – South Australia and Tasmania – signed up to the handover despite the federal Labor party opposing the move.

This week, Mark Butler, Labor’s federal environment spokesman, said he would not trust Queensland premier Campbell Newman to protect the Great Barrier Reef due to his “shameful” environmental record.

“Labor governments in South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT are trashing Bob Hawke’s legacy and contradicting federal Labor’s position,” said Greens senator Larissa Waters.

“Labor joined the Greens in the Senate this week to call on all states to abandon Tony Abbott’s environmentally destructive plan. Labor is hopelessly conflicted on protecting our environment.

“Tony Abbott wants to put states and territories in charge of approving environmentally destructive projects that impact our world heritage areas and nationally endangered species.

“If states had this power in the past, the Franklin river would be dammed, cattle would be grazing in the Alpine national park and there would be oil rigs on the Great Barrier Reef.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said state premiers were already planning damaging activity, such as land clearing in Queensland and potential uranium mining in NSW.

“The memoranda of understanding signed today paves the way for the undoing of 30 years of national protection for places and species of national environmental importance,” said Jess Abrahams, healthy ecosystems campaigner at the ACF.

“The federal government’s rushed moves to remove environmental protection, combined with a race-to-the-bottom mentality by some states, will lead to poor processes and poor outcomes for Australia’s environment.”


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