Close this search box.
Aus Env Min responds to Samuels EPBC Review

It takes an average of 640 days or two years to approve a renewable energy project, according to federal government data. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen.

Jacob Greber, Plibersek kicks off biggest nature law overhaul in two decades, The Australian Financial Review, 8 December 2022

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has vowed to accelerate approvals for renewables and housing projects while imposing a new water constraint on unconventional shale gas and forcing businesses to show how they are helping meet Australia’s 43 per cent emissions reduction target.

In the most wide-reaching overhaul of the nation’s habitat, flora and fauna protection laws in more than two decades, Ms Plibersek said the government would next year introduce legislation to establish an independent “tough cop on the beat” Environmental Protection Agency charged with policing businesses, landowners and developers.

Although environmental groups welcomed the government’s move to toughen nature laws, Labor will very likely need the support of the Greens and independent Senator David Pocock who are demanding a more explicit climate trigger as well as outright bans on new fossil fuel projects. Senator Pocock will also insist on significant additional funds for nature conservation.

The laws will also likely trigger protracted negotiations with businesses, who are concerned over the degree of ministerial oversight of the new EPA, as well as potential conflicts between jurisdictions.

In what appears to be an early attempt to win over the crossbench, Labor says it will require project proponents to publish their anticipated scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, which are directly caused or controlled by a company, and to demonstrate how their development plans align with Australia’s 43 per cent emissions reduction target.

The changing climate would be a “mandatory consideration” in regulators’ environmental planning decision-making, the government said.

“Nature is being destroyed,” Ms Plibersek said on Thursday. “Businesses are waiting too long for decisions. That’s bad for everyone. Things have to change.”

As part of Ms Plibersek’s desire to streamline approvals, the federal government will enable states and territory authorities to be accredited under national environmental laws to make decisions on behalf of the Commonwealth, with oversight by the new EPA.

‘Continue to play a role’

However, the government has acknowledged that getting every state and territory on board is unlikely, potentially complicating processes for approvals.

“As accreditation will take time, and not all jurisdictions will seek or continue to satisfy the requirements for accreditation, the Australian government will continue to play a role in environmental decision-making,” the government said in its Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business.

Ms Plibersek said the government’s legislation would be released as an exposure draft in 2023 before being introduced into parliament by the end of the year

The laws will be based on three basic principles: clear national standards of environmental protection; improving integrity and speeding up decisions; and building trust and integrity.

The proposed overhaul of Australia’s environmental protection regime and the 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was a last-minute Labor election promise, announced on the day before the May 21 poll.

Can’t afford to wait

After more than six months of deliberation, Thursday’s announcement is Labor’s first formal detailed response to the 2020 review of the EPBC Act by Graeme Samuels, who found governments had failed to protect vulnerable habitats and endangered animals.

Alongside the devastation of biodiversity across the nation outlined in this year’s damning State of the Environment report, the government emphasised on Thursday that decision-making for approvals was taking too long.

As an example, it takes an average of 640 days or two years to approve a renewable energy project, according to federal government data.

“We can’t afford to wait that long to approve energy projects or much-
needed housing.”

Labor’s proposed overhaul will also expand the existing environmental water trigger to include “all forms of unconventional gas”, including shale and tight gas.

Environmental offset rules will be overhauled to force proponents to first demonstrate how they are avoiding and mitigating harm, before resorting to offsets.

Ms Plibersek will establish a “nature repair market” to make it easier for businesses and individuals to invest in nature protection and rehabilitation projects, establishing a parallel market with the carbon trading scheme.

Both will be regulated by the Clean Energy Regulator.

The new EPA will be an independent statutory entity, and will be responsible for compliance and enforcement under the new act, “holding proponents to account for their information, decisions and undertakings”.

“This will include the publication of mandatory guidelines to inform the development and submission of environmental, social and economic information in support of applications,” the government’s paper said.

Catastrophic loss of wildlife

“The EPA’s regulatory functions will extend to wildlife trade regulation (EPBC Act) and the Sea Dumping, Ozone and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Management, Hazardous Waste, Product Emissions Standards, Recycling and Waste Reduction, and Underwater Cultural Heritage Acts.”

Although the body will be independent, the government said the environment minister “will have the power to call in decisions that would otherwise be made by the EPA, with a requirement for full transparency about any decisions and reasons”.

Felicity Wade, national co-convener of the Labor Environment Action Network, described the announcement as a “first step” in addressing the catastrophic loss of wildlife and environment.

“The real game-changer is the national environmental standards that will shift the national laws away from process to outcomes.”

“This will create a legal requirement to actually end the extinctions – including the power to protect core habitat from development. The announcement that native forests will be subject to these standards is also a major breakthrough.

“Forests and logging have been exempted from national environmental laws, even as populations of animals like the koala crash. This has to end.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy said she was encouraged that Ms Plibersek intended for the new national EPA to have “decision-making powers to stop political influence affecting nature protection”.

“We support environmental standards applying to all industries – including native forest logging, which has an exemption under the present law.”

See also: Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business