To fix Australia’s environment laws, wildlife experts call for these 4 changes — all are crucial



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Don Driscoll, Deakin University; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, The University of Melbourne; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

The independent review of Australia’s main environment law, released last week, provided a sobering but accurate appraisal of a dire situation.

The review was led by Professor Graeme Samuel and involved consultation with scientists, legal experts, industry and conservation organisations. Samuel’s report concluded Australia’s biodiversity is in decline and the law (the EPBC Act) “is not fit for current or future environmental challenges”.

The findings are no surprise to us. As ecologists, we’ve seen first hand how Australia’s nature laws and governance failure have permitted environmental degradation and destruction to the point that species face extinction. Even then, continued damage is routinely permitted.

And the findings aren’t news to many other Australians, who have watched wildlife and iconic places such as Kakadu and Kosciuszko national parks, and the Great Barrier Reef, decline at rates that have only accelerated since the act was introduced in 1999. Even globally recognisable wildlife, such as the platypus, now face a future that’s far from certain.

To reverse Australia’s appalling track record of protecting biodiversity, four major reforms recommended by Samuel must be implemented as a package.

1. Setting standards

One of the many failings of Australia’s environmental laws is there has never been a point beyond which no further impacts are acceptable.

The government almost never says “enough!”, whether it’s undermining wetlands for a new mine, or clearing woodlands for agriculture. Species continue to suffer death by a thousand cuts.




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For example, the original distribution of the endangered southern black-throated finch of southern and central Queensland has shrunk to less than 10% due to land clearing and habitat degradation. Yet, further clearing was approved for coal mines, housing developments and sugar cane farms.

Biodiversity offsets, which aim to compensate for environmental damage by improving nature elsewhere, have for the most part been dreadfully ineffective. Instead they have been a tool to facilitate biodiversity loss.

Two black-throated finches on a branch, one flying, against a blue sky.
Land clearing and cattle grazing are among the threats black-throated finches face.
Stephanie Todd, Author provided

The centre piece of Samuel’s report are proposed new National Environmental Standards. These would provide clear grounds for drawing a line in the sand on environmental damage.

Legal, rigorous enforcement of these standards could turn around Australia’s centuries-long record of destroying its natural heritage, and curb Australia’s appalling extinction rate — while also providing clarity and certainty for business.

Vital features of the standards Samuel recommends include:

  • avoiding impacts on the critical habitat of threatened species

  • avoiding impacts that could reduce the abundance of threatened species with already small and declining populations

  • no net reduction in the population size of critically endangered and endangered species

  • cumulative impacts must be explicitly considered for threatened species and communities

  • offsets can only be used as a last resort, not as a routine part of business like they are at the moment.

Under the proposed National Environmental Standards, any new developments would need to be in places where environmental damage is avoided from the outset, with offsets only available if they’re ecologically feasible and effective.

2. Greater government accountability

The federal environment minister can make decisions with little requirement to publicly justify them.

In 2014, then environment minister Greg Hunt controversially approved an exemption to the EPBC Act for Western Australia’s shark cull. This was despite evidence the cull wouldn’t make people safer, would harm threatened species and would degrade marine ecosystems. Hunt could shirk the evidence, deny the impacts and make a politically expedient decision, with no mechanisms in place to call him to account.

Tiger shark swimming near the sea bed
Tiger sharks and white sharks were targeted in the WA cull.
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Samuel’s report states the minister can make decisions that aren’t consistent with the National Environmental Standards — but only as a “rare exception”. He says these exceptions must be “demonstrably justified in the public interest”, and this justification must be published.




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Why we’re opposing Western Australia’s shark cull: scientists


We think this epitomises democracy. Ministers can make decisions, but they must be open to public and robust scrutiny and explain how their decisions might affect environments and species.

Improved accountability will be one of the many benefits of Samuel’s proposed independent Environment Assurance Commissioner, which would be backed up by an Office of Compliance and Enforcement. Samuel says these must be free from political interference.

These are absolutely critical aspects of the reforms. Standards that aren’t audited or enforced are as worthless as an unfunded recovery plan.

3. Decent funding

Samuel urges improved resourcing because to date, funding to protect species and the environment has been grossly inadequate. For example, experts recently concluded up to 11 reptile species are at risk of extinction in the next 50 years in Australia, and limited funding is a key barrier to taking action.

A small lizard sitting on a human hand
Victoria’s grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) is one of 11 reptile species identified as at risk of extinction.
Michael Mulvaney/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

And it has been proven time and again that lack of action due to under-resourcing leads to extinction. The recent extinction of the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys were all attributable, in large part, to limited funding, both in the administration of the threatened species listing process, and in delivering urgent on-ground action.




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Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink


We need only look to the COVID pandemic to know when faced with emergencies, the government can rapidly deploy substantial sums of money for urgent interventions. And we are well and truly in an environmental emergency.

Spending to care for the environment is not a cost that delivers no return. It’s an investment that delivers substantial benefits, from creating jobs to cleaner water and healthier people.

4. Increase ecological knowledge

Engaging experts is key to achieving Samuel’s long-overdue proposed reforms. He calls for the immediate creation of expert committees on sustainable development, Indigenous participation, conservation science, heritage, and water resources. This will help support the best available data collection to underpin important decisions.

Ultimately, though, much more investment in building ecological knowledge is required.

Australia has more than 1,900 listed threatened species and ecological communities, and most don’t even have active recovery plans. Ecologists will need to collect, analyse and interpret new, up-to-date data to make biodiversity conservation laws operational for most threatened species.

For example, while we know logging and fires threaten greater gliders, there’s still no recovery plan for this iconic forest possum. And recent research suggests there are actually three — not simply one — species of greater glider. Suspected interactions between climate change, fire and logging, and unexplained severe population declines, means significant new effort must be invested to set out a clear plan for their recovery.




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Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof


Samuel recommends Regional Recovery Plans be adequately funded to help develop some knowledge. But we suggest substantial new environmental capacity is needed, including new ecological research positions, increased environmental monitoring infrastructure, and appropriate funding of recovery plans, to ensure enough knowledge supports decision making.

Cherry picking recommendations condemns our species

Samuel’s report has provided a path forward that could make a substantial difference to Australia’s shocking track record of biodiversity conservation and land stewardship.

But Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s response so far suggests the Morrison government plans to cherry pick from Samuel’s recommendations, and rush through changes without appropriate safeguards.

If the changes we outlined above aren’t implemented as a package, our precious natural heritage will continue to decline.




Read more:
A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky


The Conversation


Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne; Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

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

A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky



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Peter Burnett, Australian National University

It’s official: Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in deep trouble. They can’t withstand current and future threats, including climate change. And the national laws protecting them are flawed and badly outdated.

You could hardly imagine a worse report on the state of Australia’s environment, and the law’s capacity to protect it, than that released yesterday. The review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, by former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, did not mince words. Without urgent changes, most of Australia’s threatened plants, animals and ecosystems will become extinct.

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley released the report yesterday after sitting on it for three months. And she showed little sign of being spurred into action by Samuel’s scathing assessment.

Her response was confusing and contradictory. And the Morrison government seems hellbent on pushing through its preferred reforms without safeguards that Samuel says are crucial.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley
Environment Minister Sussan Ley appears hellbent on pushing through the government’s agenda.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A bleak assessment

I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the EPBC Act. I believe Samuel’s report is a very good one.

Samuel has maintained the course laid out in his interim report last July. He found the state of Australia’s natural environment and iconic places is declining and under increasing threat.




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Moreover, he says, the EPBC Act is outdated and requires fundamental reform. The current approach results in piecemeal decisions rather than holistic environmental management, which he sees as essential for success. He went on:

The resounding message that I heard throughout the review is that Australians do not trust that the EPBC Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community.

Boy takes photo of burnt bush
Australians feel the EPBC Act is failing the environment.
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A proposed way forward

Samuel recommended a suite of reforms, many of which were foreshadowed in his interim report. They include:

  • national environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, to guide development decisions and provide the ability to measure outcomes

  • applying the new standards to existing Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). Such a move could open up the forest debate in a way not seen since the 1990s

  • accrediting the regulatory processes and environmental policies of the states and territories, to ensure they can meet the new standards. Accredited regimes would be audited by an Environment Assurance Commissioner

  • a “quantum shift” in the availability of environmental information, such as accurate mapping of habitat for threatened species

  • an overhaul of environmental offsets, which compensate for environmental destruction by improving nature elsewhere. Offsets have become a routine development cost applied to proponents, rather than last-resort compensation invested in environmental restoration.

Under-resourcing is a major problem with the EPBC Act, and Samuel’s report reiterates this. For example, as I’ve noted previously, “bioregional plans” of land areas – intended to define the environmental values and objectives of a region – have never been funded.

Land cleared for development
The system of environmental offsets, which compensates for damage to nature, should be overhauled.
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Respecting Indigenous knowledge

One long-overdue reform would require decision-makers to respectfully consider Indigenous views and knowledge. Samuel found the law was failing in this regard.

He recommended national standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making. This would be developed through an Indigenous-led process and complemented by a comprehensive review of national cultural heritage protections.




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The recommendations follow an international outcry last year over mining giant Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. In Samuel’s words:

National-level protection of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians is a long way out of step with community expectations. As a nation, we must do better.

Indigenous women
Indigenous knowledge should be heard and respected.
Richard WainwrightT/AAP

Confusing signals

The government’s position on Samuel’s reforms is confusing. Ley yesterday welcomed the review and said the government was “committed to working through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders”.

But she last year ruled out Samuel’s call for an independent regulator to oversee federal environment laws. And her government is still prepared to devolve federal approvals to the states before Samuel’s new national standards are in place.

In July last year, Ley seized on interim reforms proposed by Samuel that suited her government’s agenda – streamlining the environmental approvals process – and started working towards them.

In September, the government pushed the change through parliament’s lower house, denying independent MP Zali Steggall the chance to move amendments to allow national environment standards.

Ley yesterday reiterated the government’s commitment to the standards – yet indicated the government would soon seek to progress the legislation through the Senate, then develop the new standards later.

Samuel did include devolution to the states in his first of three tranches of reform – the first to start by early 2021. But his first tranche also includes important safeguards. These include the new national environmental standards, the Environment Assurance Commissioner, various statutory committees, Indigenous reforms and more.

The government’s proposed unbundling of the reforms doesn’t pass the pub test. It would tempt the states to take accreditation under the existing, discredited rules and resist later attempts to hold them to higher standards. In this, they’d be supported by developers who don’t like the prospect of a higher approvals bar.

A koala in a tree
Australia’s iconic places and species are headed for extinction.
Shutterstock

A big year ahead

Samuel noted “governments should avoid the temptation to cherry pick from a highly interconnected suite of recommendations”. But this is exactly what the Morrison government is doing.

I hope the Senate will force the government to work through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders, as Ley says she’d like to.




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Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof


But at this stage there’s little sign the government plans to embrace the reforms in full, or indeed that it has any vision for Australia’s environment.

All this plays out against still-raw memories of last summer’s bushfires, and expected pressure from the United States, under President Joe Biden, for developed economies such as Australia to lift their climate game.

With the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November, it seems certain the environment will be high on Australia’s national agenda in 2021.The Conversation

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.

We found a huge flaw in Australia’s environment laws. Wetlands and woodlands will pay the price



Lorraine Oliver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Manu Saunders, University of New England; Deborah Bower, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, University of New England

From ethereal kelp forests off the south east Australian coast to grassy woodlands and their stunning wildflowers, many ecological communities are under threat in Australia.

But national environment legislation — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act — has so far been ineffective at protecting them.

In our recent paper, we identify a major flaw in the current approach to listing threatened ecological communities for protection under the EPBC Act: the requirement to meet unrealistic condition thresholds.

In other words, where areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, they’re considered too degraded to warrant conservation and aren’t protected under the EPBC Act.

A seadragon in a kelp forest
The giant kelp marine forest of south east Australia is among 85 threatened ecological communities listed under the EPBC Act.
Shutterstock

What’s an ecological community anyway?

An ecological community is a group of species that co-exist in a specific type of habitat and interact with each other. For example, a mangrove community is clearly different in structure and the types of plants and animals is supports, compared to what you would see in a salt marsh community nearby.

Just like individual species, ecological communities can occur over thousands of kilometres, even though examples of this type of community may only be found in small and patchy areas across that range.

There are currently 85 threatened ecological communities listed in the EPBC Act, and the majority of them are listed as critically endangered or endangered.

Major threats to these communities include land clearing and development, which can increase their risk of extinction.




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For example, less than 5% of the box gum grassy woodlands remain in good condition. This critically endangered community is home to a number of threatened plant and animal species, such as the spotted-tailed quoll, but many areas have been degraded and cleared for farming, threatening their survival.

The flaw in the law

Most listings of threatened ecological communities contain very specific “condition thresholds”. These thresholds were introduced to the legislation in 2005 in an effort to prioritise habitats considered higher quality.

Condition thresholds are usually defined in consultation with experts and often involve very specific descriptive characteristics, such as minimum patch sizes or numbers of species.

A lagoon beneath a blue sky
Thomas Lagoon in Arding, NSW. These communities support different wildlife depending on the season.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

If areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, it means a landholder doesn’t require approval to clear or develop parts of a community, if those parts are perceived to be “poor quality” habitat.

For example, the condition thresholds for Coolibah-black box woodlands suggest protection only applies to woodland patches larger than five hectares. This ignores the ecological importance of smaller patches that increase the connectivity of habitat in the landscape.

What’s more, condition thresholds make it hard to justify conservation funding to restore areas that don’t meet those criteria.

Wildflowers strewn across a dry lagoon on a cloudy day
Little Llangothlin Lagoon in Llangothlin, NSW, is one of the 58 lagoons are left in the Northern Tablelands.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

Unrealistic thresholds threaten wildlife

This is bad for biodiversity conservation in Australia for two reasons.

First, excluding examples of a threatened ecological community from protection because they don’t meet restrictive condition thresholds assumes these areas have no ecological value.

This is clearly a flawed assumption, as small, disturbed or degraded remnants can still be important to conservation. They could, for instance, be a target for restoration, a source of regeneration for nearby areas of the community as part of a larger natural corridor, or a habitat for threatened species.

Let’s take the critically endangered ecological community of the Cumberland plain woodland in the Sydney Basin as an example. Only 9% of the woodlands’ original extent remains today.

Despite providing habitat for threatened squirrel gliders, bats, and land snails, urban development in areas containing the woodland were continually approved during the 2000s — a death by a thousand cuts for the species and communities in patchy conditions.

A lagoon during drought
Saumarez Lagoon in NSW during the drought last year, and wouldn’t meet the protection thesholds.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

Second, restrictive condition thresholds aren’t appropriate for conservation and management of communities that naturally change over seasons and years. This is particularly a problem for dynamic ecosystems like wetlands that cycle through natural dry and wet phases.

Wetlands can support completely different groups of plant and animal species in different phases, from waterbird breeding events when they are wet, to kangaroos and butterflies when they are dry.




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Why a wetland might not be wet


These dynamic systems rarely exist in a state that would warrant protection under the restrictive thresholds.

For example, the listing for upland wetlands of the New England tablelands and the Monaro plateau excludes farm dams and domestic water storages.

This is a problem, because most remaining examples of these wetlands are on private property and almost all have been modified by humans in some way, including damming. Few of these modified wetlands would technically qualify for protection.

Yet some of these modified wetlands still support diverse plants and animals and are important sites for migratory waterbirds, such as Latham’s snipe.

Because this threatened community has such a small distribution and very few examples remain (only 58 lagoons are left in the Northern Tablelands), excluding even a few because of unrealistic condition thresholds greatly increases their risk of extinction.

Latham’s snipe uses threatened upland wetlands.
JJ Harrison/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

New attitudes in a changing world

It’s clear governance frameworks have struggled to keep up with the changes in ecosystems that human activity causes.




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These frameworks are often based on a flawed assumption: that natural systems remain essentially the same over time. To prevent further biodiversity loss, we need better understanding of how, when and why ecological communities shift between different states.

Importantly, we need to change our approach to environmental governance frameworks, including seriously rethinking condition thresholds in the EPBC Act, to ensure we can continue to protect biodiversity as it rapidly changes before us.The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Lecturer, University of New England; Deborah Bower, Lecturer in Ecosystem Rehabilitation, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, Adjunct Associate Professor in Landscape Ecology, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, Senior research fellow, University of New England

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

Let there be no doubt: blame for our failing environment laws lies squarely at the feet of government



Harley Kingston/Flickr

Peter Burnett, Australian National University

A long-awaited draft review of federal environment laws is due this week. There’s a lot riding on it – particularly in light of recent events that suggest the laws are in crisis.

Late last week, the federal Auditor-General Grant Hehir tabled a damning report on federal authorities’ handling of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Incredibly, he found Australia’s premier environmental law is administered neither efficiently or effectively.

It followed news last month that mining company Rio Tinto detonated the 46,000 year old Juukan rock shelters in the Pilbara. The decision was authorised by a 50 year old Western Australian law –and the federal government failed to invoke emergency powers to stop it.

Also last month we learned state-owned Victorian logging company VicForests unlawfully logged 26 forest coupes, home to the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum. The acts were contrary both to its own code of practice, and the agreement exempting VicForests from federal laws.

As relentless as Hehir’s criticisms of the department are, let there be no doubt that blame lies squarely at the feet of government. As a society, we must decide what values we want to protect, count the financial cost, then make sure governments deliver on that protection.

Destruction of the Juukan caves drew condemnation.
Richard Wainwright/AAP

Shocking report card

I’ve been involved with this Act since before it began 20 years ago. As an ACT environment official reading a draft in 1998 I was fascinated by its complexity and sweeping potential. As a federal official responsible for administering, then reforming, the Act from 2007-2012, I encountered some of the issues identified by the audit, in milder form.

But I was still shocked by Hehir’s report. It’s so comprehensively scathing that the department barely took a trick.

Overall, the audit found that despite the EPBC Act being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries since it began, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of the laws is neither efficient nor effective.




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While the government is focused on efficiency, the lack of effectiveness worries me most – especially findings concerning so-called “environmental offsets”. These are measures designed to compensate for unavoidable losses, such as creating a nature reserve near a site to be cleared.

In the early years of the law, offsets were rare. By 2015 they featured in almost 90% of decisions, dropping to about 75% last year. In effect, we now rely on offsets to protect the environment.

The Auditor-General found that the absence of guidance and quality control for offsets has led to “realised risks”.

the department accepted offsets for damage to koala habitat in 2015 that did not meet its offset standards.
WWF Australia

For example, offsets must be mapped and disclosed publicly, to ensure their integrity. But not only did the department fail to create a public register, in 2019 it stopped loading offset data into its systems altogether. This makes it likely offsets will be forgotten and so either destroyed later, or put up a second time and thus double-counted.

Hehir cites one example where the department accepted offsets for damage to koala habitat in 2015 that did not meet its offset standards. After negotiations with the developer and involvement from the Minister’s office, the department accepted the offsets. Worse, the developer secured a futher non-complying offset for a second development in 2018, arguing for consistency with the previous decision.

Apart from politicisation and failure to protect the environment, this case reveals a significant legal issue. Under administrative law, a decision is invalid if it has regard to an “irrelevant consideration”. An offset in one development in 2015 is surely irrelevant to an offset in another development in 2018.




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Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof


Offsets aside, the Auditor-General higlighted key risks such as high volumes of unapproved land clearing for agriculture, and non-compliance in residential and mining developments. The department had proposed actions to address the issues, but made no progress on them.

And the report found arrangements to monitor whether approval conditions had been met before work started on a project were inadequate, which “leaves the department poorly positioned to prevent adverse environmental outcomes”.

At the end of the day, the federal department doesn’t have the tools to distinguish whether an environmental effect is the result of its own regulations, or other factors such as state programs or extreme weather. Essentially, it doesn’t know if the Act is delivering any environmental benefits at all.

The corroborree frog, which is critically endangered.
Taronga Zoo

How did this happen?

The EPBC Act itself remains a powerful instrument. Certainly changes are needed, but the more significant problems lie in the processes that should support it: plans and policies, information systems and resourcing.

As I wrote last month, between 2013 and 2019 the federal environment department’s budget was cut by an estimated 39.7%.

And while effective administration of the Act requires good information, this can be hard to come by. For example the much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information, established in 2010, was never properly resourced and later abolished.




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Our nature laws are being overhauled. Here are 7 things we must fix


Officials are constrained here. The audit scope does not extend to the government decisions shaping departmental performance. And the department loyally refrains from complaining that government decisions leave it few options.

So while the audit office and the department might believe extensive government cuts are the underlying problem, neither can say so. I’m not excusing the department’s poor performance, but it must manage with what it’s given. When faced with critical audit findings, it can only pledge to “reprioritise” resources.

Vicforests illegally logged Leadbeater’s possum habitat.
D. Harley/Flickr

A national conversation

There is a small saving grace here. Hehir says the department asked that his report be timed to inform Professor Graeme Samuel’s 10-year review of the EPBC Act. Hehir timed it perfectly – Samuel’s draft report is due by tomorrow. Let’s hope it recommends comprehensive action, and that the final report in October follows through.

Beyond Samuel’s review, we need a national conversation on how to fix laws protecting our environment and heritage. The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters, unlawful logging of Victorian forests and the Auditor-General’s report are incontrovertible evidence the laws are failing.

I don’t believe we can lock nature up. But we must look after the things that enable nature to provide not just life, but quality of life. This includes a stable climate, our Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage and the resilience that comes from nature’s richness and diversity.The Conversation

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.

Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws



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Chris McGrath, The University of Queensland

The fossil fuel lobby, led by the Minerals Council of Australia, seem pretty happy with the current system of environment laws. In a submission to a review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, it “broadly” supports the existing laws and does not want them replaced.

True, the group says the laws impose unnecessary burdens on industry that hinder post-pandemic economic recovery. It wants delays and duplication in environmental regulation reduced to provide consistency and certainty.




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But for the fossil fuel industry to broadly back the current regime of environmental protection is remarkable. It suggests deep problems with the current laws, which have allowed decision-making driven by politics, rather than independent science.

So let’s look at the resources industry’s stance on environment laws, and what it tells us.

Cut duplication

The Minerals Council’s submission calls for “eliminating or reducing duplication” of federal and state laws.

The fossil fuel lobby has long railed against environmental law – the EPBC Act in particular – disparaging it as “green tape” that it claims slows projects unnecessarily and costs the industry money.

On this, the federal government and the mining industry are singing from the same songbook. Announcing the review of the laws last year, the government flagged changes that it claimed would speed up approvals and reduce costs to industry.

Previous governments have tried to reduce duplication of environmental laws. In 2013 the Abbott government proposed a “one-stop shop” in which it claimed projects would be considered under a single environmental assessment and approval process, rather than scrutinised separately by state and federal authorities.




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Explainer: one-stop-shop for environmental approvals


That proposal hit many political and other hurdles and was never enacted. But it appears to remain on the federal government’s policy agenda.

It’s true the federal EPBC Act often duplicates state approvals for mining and other activities. But it still provides a safety net that in theory allows the federal government to stop damaging projects approved by state governments.

The Commonwealth rarely uses this power, but has done so in the past. In the most famous example, the Labor party led by Bob Hawke won the federal election in 1983 and stopped the Tasmanian Liberal government led by Robin Gray building a major hydroelectric dam on the Gordon River below its junction with the Franklin River.

The High Court’s decision in that dispute laid the foundation for the EPBC Act, which was enacted in 1999.

In 2009 Peter Garrett, Labor’s then-federal environment minister, refused the Queensland Labor government’s proposed Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River under the EPBC Act due to an unacceptable impact on threatened species.

The Conversation put these arguments to the Minerals Council of Australia, and CEO Tania Constable said:

The MCA’s submission states that Australia’s world-leading minerals sector is committed to the protection of our unique environment, including upholding leading practice environmental protection based on sound science and robust risk-based approaches.

Reforms to the operation of the EPBC Act are needed to address unnecessary duplication and complexity, providing greater certainty for businesses and the community while achieving sound environmental outcomes.

But don’t change the current system much

Generally, the Minerals Council and other resources groups aren’t lobbying for the current system to be changed too much.

The groups support the federal environment minister retaining the role of decision maker under the law. This isn’t surprising, given a succession of ministers has, for the past 20 years, given almost unwavering approval to resource projects.

For example, in 2019 the then-minister Melissa Price approved the Adani coal mine’s groundwater management plan, despite major shortcomings and gaps in knowledge and data about its impacts.




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Independent scientific advice against the mine over the last ten years was sidelined in the minister’s final decision.

Countless more examples demonstrate how the current system works in the favour of mining interests – even when the industry itself claims otherwise.

The Minerals Council submission refers to an unnamed “Queensland open-cut coal expansion project” to argue against excessive duplication of federal and state processes around water use.

I believe this is a reference to the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 expansion project. I have acted since 2016 as a barrister for a local landholder group in litigation against that project.

When approached by The Conversation, the Minerals Council did not confirm it was referring to the New Acland project. Tania Constable said:

The case studies were submitted from a range of companies, and are representative of the regulatory inefficiency and uncertainty which deters investment and increases costs while greatly limiting job opportunities and economic benefits for regional communities from mining.

The New Acland mine expansion is on prime agricultural land on the Darling Downs, Queensland’s southern food bowl. Nearby farmers strongly opposed the project over fears of damage to groundwater, the creation of noise and dust, and climate change impacts.

But the Minerals Council fails to mention that since 2016, the mine has been building a massive new pit covering 150 hectares.

West Pit at the New Acland Coal Mine sprawling amid prime agricultural land in 2018. The right half of this pit is outside the area approved for mining under the EPBC Act in 2017 but no action has been taken by the Commonwealth to stop it.
Oakey Coal Action Alliance Inc, Author provided

When mining of this pit began, the mine’s expansion was still being assessed under state and federal laws. Half of the pit was subsequently approved under the EPBC Act in 2017.

But the Queensland environment department never stopped the work, despite the Land Court of Queensland in 2018 alerting it to the powers it had to act.

Based on my own research using satellite imagery and comparing the publicly available application documents, mining of West Pit started while Stage 3 of the mine was still being assessed under the EPBC Act. And after approval was given, mining was conducted outside the approved footprint.

The extent of West Pit on September 30, 2016 and relevant boundaries of the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 expansion, then being assessed under the EPBC Act. At this time, West Pit had extended into the project area still being assessed. Stage 3 was approved in early 2017, and since then West Pit has continued south, outside the area applied for or approved under the EPBC Act.
Adapted from GoogleEarth by author.

Despite these apparent breaches, the federal environment department has taken no enforcement action.

The Conversation contacted New Hope Group, the company that owns New Acland mine, for comment, and they refuted this assertion. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Boyd said:

New Hope Group strongly deny any allegations that New Hope Coal has in any way acted unlawfully.

New Acland Coal had and still has all necessary approvals relating to the development of the pit Dr McGrath refers to. It is also not correct to say that the Land Court alerted the Department of its powers to act with regards to this pit.

The Department is obviously aware of its enforcement powers and was aware of the development of the pit well before 2018. Further, the Land Court in 2018 rejected Dr McGrath’s arguments and accepted New Acland Coal’s position that any issues relating to the lawfulness of the pit were not within the jurisdiction of the Land Court on the rehearing in 2018.

Accordingly, the lawfulness of the pit was irrelevant to the 2018 Land Court hearing.

Dr McGrath also fails to mention that his client had originally accepted in the original Land Court hearing (2015-2017) that the development of the pit was lawful only to completely change its position in the 2018.

State and federal environmental laws work in favour of the fossil fuel industry in other ways. “Regulatory capture” occurs when government regulators essentially stop enforcing the law against industries they are supposed to regulate.

This can occur for many reasons, including agency survival and to avoid confrontation with powerful political groups such as farmers or the mining sector.

In one apparent example of this, the federal environment department decided in 2019 not to recommend two critically endangered Murray-Darling wetlands for protection under the EPBC Act because the minister was unlikely to support the listings following a campaign against them by the National Irrigators Council.

Holes in our green safety net

Recent ecological disasters are proof our laws are failing us catastrophically. And they make the mining industry’s calls to speed-up project approvals particularly audacious.

We need look only to repeated, mass coral bleaching as the Great Barrier Reef collapses in front of us, or a catastrophic summer of bushfires.




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Both tragedies are driven by climate change, caused by burning fossil fuels. It’s clear Australia should be looking to fix the glaring holes in our green safety net, not widen them.The Conversation

Chris McGrath, Associate Professor in Environmental and Planning Regulation and Policy, The University of Queensland

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

Cutting ‘green tape’ may be good politicking, but it’s bad policy. Here are 5 examples of regulation failure



The eastern tributary in the Woronora drinking water catchment
Ian Wright, Author provided

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

Debate about how Australia will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic is heating up. As part of the economic recovery, business groups have renewed calls to cut “green tape” – environmental regulation that new projects, such as new mines, must follow.

In response, federal environment minister Sussan Ley wants to introduce new legislation to cut green tape and speed up project approvals.




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However a major ten-yearly review of the federal government’s key environment legislation is not due to be finished until October.

Cutting green tape is a long-held aim of the Morrison government, which claims excessive environmental regulation unfairly stifles businesses.

But this isn’t the case. In my 30 years of experience researching water pollution, “green tape” has not translated into effective environmental regulation of industry. In fact, I’m yet to see a coal mining operation that’s effectively regulated after approved through the NSW and federal environmental assessment processes.

Here are five examples that show how existing environmental regulations have done little to prevent pollution and toxic chemicals from entering the environment.

1. Closed mines pollute for decades

My research on water pollution from coal mines in the Sydney basin routinely reveals inadequate environmental regulation. I’ve repeatedly uncovered long-standing environmental issues the industry doesn’t seem to learn from, such as pollution continually leaching from active and closed mines.




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As part of my PhD research in 2002/3, I studied Canyon Colliery – a coal mine deep in the Blue Mountains that closed in 1997. The mine constantly releases large volumes of toxic zinc and nickel contaminated water from the flooded underground workings into an otherwise pristine mountain stream.

This caused ecological damage in the Grose River, including a steep reduction in species and numbers of river invertebrates below the entry of the mine wastes into the river.

Contaminated drainage washing out of the closed canyon mine in Blue Mountains National Park.
Ian Wright, Author provided

It’s now 23 years since the mining stopped, but the pollution continues – testimony of weak and ineffective environmental regulation. And it will probably last for centuries.

The Canyon Mine is just one of thousands of contaminated, derelict mining and industrial sites dotted around Australia lacking environmental controls.

2. Wollangambe River

Environmental regulation has become more stringent in the last 25 years thanks to legislation introduced by the Howard government in 1999, and NSW’s Protection of the Environment Operations Act introduced in 1997.

But despite this legislation, many new and active mines that lead to environmental damage have been assessed and approved.

Research by my team at Western Sydney University has documented pollution from an active Blue Mountains coal mine, Clarence Colliery.

The mine caused severe metal contamination and ecological damage to the Wollangambe, a World Heritage River. Our research led to the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) in 2017 imposing more effective restrictions on the release of toxic pollutants from the mine.

The author sampling water in the contaminated Wollangambe River.
Author provided

Despite approvals from both the NSW and federal governments, it seemed no one had noticed the magnitude of pollution from poorly treated mine wastes until our research was conducted. This caused ecological degradation to more than 20 kilometres of the highly “protected” Wollangambe River.

The Conversation contacted Centennial Coal, which owns Clarence Colliery, for comment. They directed us to their statements in 2017, when the EPA finished a five-year review of Clarence’s Environmental Protection Licence (EPL). Then, the company said:

As a result of this review Clarence will operate under a new EPL which will include agreed reductions in metal concentration limits for all water discharged to the Wollangambe. Salinity targets will also be set at 100 EC (electrical conductivity).

Clarence will also be required to comply with a Pollution Reduction Programme (PRP), also issued by the EPA, which will result in Centennial formalising options to address all water quality issues and to meet specific water quality milestones.

3. Georges River

In 2010 I made a submission as part of the environmental assessment for an extension of BHP Billiton’s Bulli Seam coal mining operations (now owned by South 32).

This involved reading thousands of pages of consultant reports explaining how the expanded operation would attempt to avoid or minimise impacts to the environment.

The mine extension was approved. Despite the many “green tape” hurdles, the approved mine was allowed to discharge wastes which our research discovered contained pollutants that were hazardous to river life in the Georges River. These included salt, nickel, zinc, aluminium and arsenic polluting the upper Georges River.

Environmental groups took the coal mine owner to court in 2012, and I provided my evidence for the court case to the NSW EPA.

The EPA has since worked with the coal miner to reduce pollution from the mine.

4. Coal mining under Sydney’s water supply

Many were stunned on March 16 this year, when the NSW government signed off on new coal mine “longwalls” directly under Woronora Reservoir, part of Sydney’s drinking water supply.

Longwall mining is the continuous mechanical removal of coal in underground mines that allows the roof of the mine to cave in after the coal is removed.

So what can they do to a river? Redbank Creek near Picton – 65 kilometres southwest of Sydney – provides a sad testimony.

Redbank Creek no longer flows normally, but has isolated pools of contaminated water.
Ian Wright, Author provided

For nearly a decade, I documented damage where falling ground levels (subsidence) caused by longwalls led to extensive damage to the creek channel.

The land surface fell more than one meter. This caused cracking, warping and buckling of the creek channel. It now rarely holds water in many stretches. Isolated stagnant pools in the creek now accumulate saline and metal-contaminated water containing little aquatic life except for mosquitoes.

The mine responsible for this damage, Tahmoor Colliery, is seeking to extend its operations and the NSW government is currently considering the development.

This mine also disposes of about four to eight megalitres of poorly treated wastes each day to the Bargo River, a popular freshwater swimming river for south-western Sydney.

5. PFAS contamination

Despite the existence of “green tape”, unforeseen problems have left Australia with many contaminated sites that may never be fully cleaned up.

We’ve seen this in the dozens of locations across Australia where toxic PFAS chemicals have contaminated land, water, ecosystems and people.




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These were previously regarded as safe chemical additives, for example in fire fighting foam, particularly at military bases.

Such contamination is very expensive to remediate and in February this year landholders near three defence bases reached a financial settlement for the PFAS damage to their property.

“Green tape” is an emotive word implying unnecessary and slow environmental regulation that delays major projects.

Given my own direct experience involved poorly regulated coal mines, I shudder to imagine the environmental degradation “fast-tracked” environmental regulation will lead to.


The Conversation also contacted SIMEC, which owns Tahmoor Colliery. A spokesperson said:

Mining in NSW is governed by stringent state and federal laws enforced by a number of government departments and regulators. SIMEC Mining acquired the Tahmoor Coking Coal Mine two years ago and takes its environmental, compliance and social responsibilities seriously.

Tahmoor Mine has been operating for well over 40 years. We acknowledge that historical mine activity did impact Redbank Creek and that this was self-reported to the regulator. Since then, SIMEC has worked closely with the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) to enact a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate the creek. Recent rainfall has demonstrated the success of this work and we are confident that the rehabilitation works will restore the creek.

While our operations do produce water as part of the mining process, this is treated and monitored in accordance with our licence conditions. The quality of this water is mandated by our environment protection licence issued and monitored by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). Typically, the water monitoring results are well below those limits allowed by the licence. To further improve water quality, SIMEC Mining has committed to the installation of a new water treatment plant.

Water management has been a key focus for SIMEC in the planning of the proposed Tahmoor South extension. We have commissioned extensive specialist assessments to understand any potential impact on ground and surface water. If our extension is approved, these water assets will be carefully monitored throughout the life of the mine to ensure that should any issue occur, it is detected early and resolved efficiently.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

Our nature laws are being overhauled. Here are 7 things we must fix



A koala mother and joey seeking refuge on a bulldozed log pile near Kin Kin in Queensland. Federal environment laws have failed to prevent widespread land clearing across Australia.
WWF Australia

Jan McDonald, University of Tasmania

Environment Minister Sussan Ley yesterday announced a ten-yearly review of Australia’s national environmental laws. It could not come at a more critical time, as the environment struggles under unprecedented development pressures, climate change impacts and a crippling drought.

The laws, formally known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, have been in place for 20 years.




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Announcing the review, Ley said it would “tackle green tape” and reduce delays in project approvals. She said the laws must remain “fit for purpose” as our environment changes.

Serious declines in most biodiversity indicators strongly suggest the laws are not fit for purpose. Some 7.7 million hectares of endangered species habitat has been destroyed since the Act was established and the lists of threatened and endangered species continue to grow.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley pats a koala during a National Threatened Species Day event at Parliament House in Canberra in September 2019.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The review should ensure Australia’s environmental law achieves what it was designed to do – protect our precious natural places.

The list below reflects the EPBC Act priorities of 70 environmental lawyers and practitioners who were polled by the National Environmental Law Association. Collectively, they have more than 500 years experience of the Act’s operation.

1. Independent decisions with clear criteria

Under the laws, proponents of activities likely to have big impacts on so-called “matters of national environmental significance” must get federal approval. The minister or a representative makes this decision and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, grants approval.

This approval power should be vested in an independent body to take the politics out of decisions. Criteria for deciding on approvals should be clearer, including thresholds for when applications must be refused on environmental grounds.

2. Take stock of cumulative impacts

A search of the EPBC Act will not find any reference to cumulative impacts, or the need to consider whether approval of one proposal is likely to lead to a raft of new projects being proposed. There is little scope to consider cumulative impacts that might happen in future — only when a new proposal constitutes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The Act must do better at considering both how proposed activities and future plans will interact, and the background processes of environmental change and decline.

Suburban sprawl north of Brisbane. Environment law experts say the EPBC Act does not take account of cumulative impacts of developments.
Dave Hunt/AAP

3. Provide funds for proper enforcement

Improving the content of the Act is one thing, but monitoring, compliance and enforcement are critical. There is little point imposing tough conditions if no one is there to ensure they are met. This demands an ongoing sustainable funding base that is not dependent on political budget priorities.

4. Better data and transparency

Access to information about environmental decisions is essential for good governance. Not all documents and decisions are publicly available. It is very difficult to track down detailed aspects of approval conditions – for example, the detail of the groundwater management and monitoring plan for the Adani coal mine. This is especially important when the department’s capacity to oversee compliance is so constrained.




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The Act should consider the need for public registers of all documents and data collected as part of decision-making and monitoring processes, including decisions, approvals, conditions, offset locations, compliance reports and monitoring data.

5. Expand scope of national environmental impact assessment

Commonwealth involvement in environmental approvals is limited to specific “matters of national environmental significance”. Land clearing and climate change are not included in the list of such matters, and are usually considered under state laws.

This means activities that may damage native vegetation or lead to rising emissions are only scrutinised under federal law if they might affect other things, such as threatened species or world heritage places.




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Also, the Act only seeks to protect water resources when the proposed project is a large coal mine or coal seam gas venture. New triggers are needed to require federal assessment and approval for all activities that might significantly affect water, native vegetation and climate change.

Rare black cockatoos in Victoria. The number of threatened species has grown while the EBPC Act has been operating.
THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB

6. Deal with land clearing

Habitat loss is recognised as the primary driver of species decline in Australia. Rates of land clearing have increased dramatically in recent years, despite the operation of the Act.

Stronger protections are needed. These must prevent further clearing of vegetation types that are not adequately conserved in Australia’s system of protected natural areas. In cases where a proponent plans to offset damage caused by their project by restoring land elsewhere, construction should be delayed until work has begun on the restoration project and conservation benefits are occurring.

7. Make strategic assessments truly strategic

Conservation planning and environmental assessment are complex. Major new initiatives can involve interacting influences and trade-offs. The Act’s so-called “strategic assessment” process to some extent accounts for this — for example it might consider development plans across a region, rather than project-by-project.

But strategic planning must occur for a wider range of activities that may have long-term impacts on conservation: for example, the Tasmanian government’s desire to open up the Tarkine region to further mining. The planning must also better consider spatial conflicts and account for future change.

This list is just the tip of the law reform iceberg, but addressing these priorities would be a good start. With only one environmental law expert and no environmental scientist on the newly announced panel, it remains to be seen how these priorities will be addressed, if at all.The Conversation

Jan McDonald, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania

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

Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof



Koalas are among the threatened native species worst affected by habitat loss.
Taronga Zoo

Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, The University of Queensland

Threatened species habitat larger than the size of Tasmania has been destroyed since Australia’s environment laws were enacted, and 93% of this habitat loss was not referred to the federal government for scrutiny, our new research shows.

The research, published today in Conservation Science and Practice, shows that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed in the 20 years since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 came into force.

The Southern black throated finch, one of the threatened native animals worst affected by habitat loss.
Eric Vanderduys/BirdLife Australia



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Some 85% of land-based threatened species experienced habitat loss. The iconic koala was among the worst affected. More than 90% of habitat loss was not referred or submitted for assessment, despite a requirement to do so under Commonwealth environment laws.

Our research indicates the legislation has comprehensively failed to safeguard Australia’s globally significant natural values, and must urgently be reformed and enforced.

What are the laws supposed to do?

The EPBC Act was enacted in 1999 to protect the diversity of Australia’s unique, and increasingly threatened, flora and fauna. It was considered a giant step forward for biodiversity conservation and was expected to become an important legacy of the Howard Coalition government.

A dead koala outside Ipswich, Queensland. Environmentalists attributed the death to land clearing.
Jim Dodrill/The Wilderness Society



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The law aims to conserve so-called “protected matters” such as threatened species, migratory species, and threatened ecosystems.

Clearing and land use change is regarded by ecologists as the primary threat to Australia’s biodiversity. In Queensland, land clearing to create pasture is the greatest pressure on threatened flora and fauna.

Any action which could have a significant impact on protected matters, including habitat destruction through land clearing, must be referred to the federal government for assessment.

Loss of potential habitat for threatened species and migratory species, and threatened ecological communities. Dark blue represents habitat loss that has been assessed (or loss that occurred with a referral under the EPBC Act) and dark red represents habitat loss that has not been assessed (or loss that occurred without a referral under The Act). Three panels highlight the southern Western Australia coast (left), Tasmania (middle), and northern Queensland coast (right).
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

The law is not being followed

We examined federal government forest and woodland maps derived from satellite imagery. The analysis showed that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared or destroyed since the legislation was enacted.

Of this area, 93% was not referred to the federal government and so was neither assessed nor approved.

Bulldozer clearing trees at Queensland’s Olive Vale Station in 2015.
ABC News, 2017

It is unclear why people or companies are not referring habitat destruction on such a large scale. People may be self-assessing their activities and concluding they will not have a significant impact.

Others may be seeking to avoid the expense of a referral, which costs A$6,577 for people or companies with a turnover of more than A$10 million a year.

The failure to refer may also indicate a lack of awareness of, or disregard for, the EPBC Act.

The biggest losers

Our research found that 1,390 (85%) of terrestrial threatened species experienced habitat loss within their range since the EPBC Act was introduced.

Among the top ten species to lose the most area were the red goshawk, the ghost bat, and the koala, losing 3 million, 2.9 million, and 1 million hectares, respectively.

In less than two decades, many other imperilled species have lost large chunks of their potential habitat. They include the Mount Cooper striped skink (25%), the Keighery’s macarthuria (23%) and the Southern black-throated finch (10%).

(a) The top 10 most severely impacted threatened species include those that have lost the highest proportion of their total habitat, and (b) species who have lost the most habitat, as mapped by the Federal Government.
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

What’s working, what’s not

We found that almost all referrals to the federal government for habitat loss were made by urban developers, mining companies and commercial developers. A tiny 1.3% of referrals were made by agricultural developers – despite clear evidence that land clearing for pasture development is the primary driver of habitat destruction.

Alarmingly, even when companies or people did refer proposed actions, 99% were allowed to proceed (sometimes with conditions).

The high approval rates may be derived, in part, from inconsistent application of the “significance” test under the federal laws.

Hundreds of protesters gather in Sydney in 2016 to demand that New South Wales retain strong land clearing laws.
Dean Lewins/AAP

For example, in a successful prosecution in 2015, Powercor Australia and Vemco] were fined A$200,000 for failing to refer clearing of a tiny 0.5 hectares of a critically endangered ecosystem. In contrast, much larger tracts of habitat have been destroyed without referral or approval, and without any such enforcement action being taken.

Clearer criteria for determining whether an impact is significant would reduce inconsistency in decisions, and provide more certainty for stakeholders.

The laws must be enforced and reformed

If the habitat loss trend continues, two things are certain: more species will become threatened with extinction, and more species will become extinct.

The Act must, as a matter of urgency, be properly enforced to curtail the mass non-referral of actions that our analysis has revealed.

The left pie chart illustrates the breakdown of industries referring their actions by number of referrals; the right pie chart illustrates the breakdown of industries referring their actions by area (hectares). Both charts highlight the agricultural sector as a low-referring industry.
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

If nothing else, this will help Australia meet its commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity to prevent extinction of known threatened species and improve their conservation status by 2020.




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Mapping the critical habitat essential to the survival of every threatened species is also an important step. The Act should also be reformed to ensure critical habitat is identified and protected, as happens in the United States.

Australia is already a world leader in modern-day extinctions. Without a fundamental change in how environmental law is written, used, and enforced, the crisis will only get worse.The Conversation

Michelle Ward, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, Adjunct senior lecturer, The University of Queensland

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

To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws



File 20190308 150700 3qu1wc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Without significant tree cover, dry and dusty landscapes can result.
Don Driscoll, Author provided

Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.

This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.




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Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.

The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.

We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.

Tree loss can increase fire risk

During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.

In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.

Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.

Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.

Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.

Trends from 1978 to 2017 in the annual (July to June) sum of the daily Forest Fire Danger Index, an indicator of the severity of fire weather conditions. Positive trends, shown in the yellow to red colours, indicate increasing length and intensity of the fire weather season. Areas where there are sparse data coverage, such as central parts of Western Australia, are faded.
CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology/State of the Climate 2018

Finally, Australia’s increasing risk of bushfire and worsening drought are driven by global climate change, to which land clearing is a major contributor.

Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk

Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.

Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.

Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.




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In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.

Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.The Conversation

Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

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

Proposed NSW logging laws value timber over environmental protection



File 20180619 38863 ta299m.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Increased logging in NSW could affect threatened species.
Nativesrule, Author provided

Oisín Sweeney, University of Sydney

New South Wales is revamping its logging laws for the first time in two decades, drafting regulations that will govern more than two million hectares of public native forest.

Among the changes are proposals to permit logging in exclusion zones – part of the reserve system – and dramatic increases to the scale and intensity of logging, putting several threatened species at direct risk.

NSW can implement these changes unilaterally. But if it does, NSW will effectively be asking the federal government to agree to changes that directly contradict the federal Threatened Species Strategy and several species recovery plans, and reduce the extent of the reserve system.




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Regional Forest Agreements

The federal government has arrangements with the states called Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). They provide certainty to logging operations by accrediting state logging rules under federal environment law. No other industry gets this treatment – but RFAs are now expiring after having been in place for 20 years.

But the proposed changes to NSW logging laws clearly prioritise timber extraction over environmental protection. In 2014 the NSW government extended wood supply agreements with timber companies, locking in a commitment to logging at a certain level. The changes are cited as necessary to meet these wood supply agreements.

This means abandoning commitments made under the National Forest Policy Statement in 1992, including the concept of ecologically sustainable forest management. This is a fundamental shift and, because of the impacts on the reserve system and threatened species, against the national interest.




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Overlogging is behind the changes

In its 2016 Forestry Industry Roadmap the NSW government made a dual commitment to maintain logging levels without eroding environmental protection. However, the NSW Natural Resources Commission tasked with finding a way to do this reported “it is not possible to meet the government’s commitments around both environmental values and wood supply”.

The commission therefore recommended the NSW government “remap and rezone” old-growth forest and rainforest to increase the area that can be logged and make up timber shortfalls.

There are three kinds of zones that make up protected forest reserves. The first zone requires an act of state parliament to revoke, but the second and third can be revoked by the state forestry minister.

To further increase timber supply, headwater stream buffers – areas around waterways that cannot be logged – will be reduced from 10 metres to five.

The new laws also permit the logging of giant trees up to 140cm in diameter, or 160cm in the case of blackbutt and alpine ash (preferred timber species).

Northeast NSW to see the biggest changes

In northeast NSW, a new “intensive harvesting zone” will cover 140,000 hectares of coastal forests between Taree and Grafton. These forests are in the Forests of East Australia global biodiversity hotspot and many are included in a proposed Great Koala National Park.




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This will see 45-hectare patches of forest cleared of all but a smattering of small trees. The intensity of logging everywhere else in the “selective” harvesting zone will, on average, double.

Implications for wildlife and forest ecosystems

The new proposals move towards a retention model where habitat features are to be retained in clumps over several logging cycles. This “retention approach” is good in theory, but is undermined by the landscape-wide intensification of logging – particularly in the intensive zone – and the need to maximise timber production, not the conservation of forest species.

Although hollow-bearing trees are to be retained, no younger trees – which will eventually replace their elders – are required to be protected. This means the inevitable loss of hollow-bearing trees, exacerbated by logging rezoned old-growth. There is no longer any requirement to protect eucalypt nectar trees, vital resources for the critically endangered regent honeyeater and swift parrot.

A report on the proposals from the Threatened Species Expert Panel reveals that almost no data was available to design the new environmental protections, and there was great uncertainty as to whether they will work. One panel member commented:

The intensive harvesting zones are being formally introduced to prop up an unsustainable wood supply arrangement at the expense of the environment.

It is frustrating trying to be part of the solution when the underlying driver of the wood supply agreements fundamentally restricts any chance of a balanced approach.

The federal government has a problem

The federal government has already committed to extending Regional Forest Agreements with the states. Yet besides potentially reducing the size of the reserve network, NSW’s proposals directly threaten federally-listed species.

Conservation advice for the marsupial greater glider clearly states the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation through intensive logging.

Greater gliders (Petauroides volans) are vulnerable to loss of tree hollows and habitat fragmentation, which will both be exacerbated under NSW’s proposals.
Dave Gallan

Koalas prefer large trees and mature forests, yet the intensive logging zone will cover almost half of identified high quality koala habitat. Legally, loggers will only have to keep 10 trees of 20cm diameter per hectare – far too few and too small for koalas.

The national recovery plan for the swift parrot proposes the retention of all trees over 60cm diameter – clearly incompatible with the proposed intensive harvesting zone – while the recovery plan for the regent honeyeater identifies all breeding and foraging habitat as critical to survival.

Recent research has predicted a 31% probability of swift parrot extinction in the next 20 years, and a 57% probability for the regent honeyeater. Both birds are priority species under the Australian government’s Threatened Species Strategy.

Public feedback on the proposed changes is invited until June 29. After that, the federal government must decide whether it deems the proposals to be consistent with national environment law in a new Regional Forest Agreement. Signing off on these changes will cast serious doubt on the federal government’s commitment to the national environmental interest.




Read more:
Australia might water down illegal logging laws – here’s why it’s a bad idea



The ConversationThe author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dailan Pugh, OAM and co-founder of the North East Forest Alliance, to this article.

Oisín Sweeney, Senior Ecologist at the National Parks Association of NSW, Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.