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SMH – Environment

Good evening,

The biggest environmental news this week was the confirmation that federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is planning to water down her long-awaited “nature positive” reforms.

The crossbench and environmental groups now face the classic conundrum: do they campaign for or against the reforms? On one hand, they want laws to pass this term of parliament. On the other, they want to make the actual environmental protections stronger if possible.

As climate and energy correspondent Mike Foley reports, Plibersek is expected to start releasing her initial bills this week, including the creation of a federal Environment Protection Agency to handle development decisions and enforce regulations.

But an EPA is only as strong as its enforcement powers, and its funding not being at the whim of the government of the day. The plan also kicks the can down the road for the much deeper reform of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Plibersek had earlier promised to release a comprehensive suite of draft nature repair laws for public comment by the end of 2023, including national environmental protection standards.

Her pledge built on an earlier promise to end the steady stream of native wildlife losses. Australia’s extinction rate is one of the worst in the world, with about 100 unique flora and fauna species wiped out since colonisation, and 1900 threatened species now at a heightened risk of extinction. Plibersek promised “no more extinctions” on her watch.

Former competition watchdog Graeme Samuel released a once-in-a-decade review of the EPBC Act in October 2020, calling for comprehensive reform, including national standards and greater protections for threatened species. He said current federal laws failed to prevent the “continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems”.

The consultations on reforms to the EPBC Act have been held behind closed doors, but over the past few weeks there has been a steady din from the resources sector claiming the government is rushing through the reforms and that they should be divided into separate bills to allow closer scrutiny. Western Australian Premier Roger Cook weighed in, warning his federal Labor colleagues not to create more “green tape” and risk jobs and investment in his state.

Plibersek this week confirmed there would be no omnibus bill for environmental reform, as happened with industrial relations. She will instead release her legislation in tranches, starting with the EPA and an office of Environment Information Australia, which will provide data to the EPA.

Plibersek said she is still committed to the broader suite of reforms and new national standards, but did not commit to introduce further legislation in this term of parliament. With an election due by May next year, the Albanese government will be very mindful not to invite a “jobs at risk” campaign in resources-rich states like Western Australia and Queensland.

Plibersek’s reforms would also be on a collision course with the Albanese government’s agenda to push renewables. Investors say under the existing EPBC laws, it is already taking between two and three years for environmental assessments on renewable projects to be completed, and a more onerous process could make it worse.

Still, environmental groups are bitterly disappointed in the delay to deep reform, labelling the existing EPBC Act as a failure. They point to the fact that in 24 years, more than 700 fossil fuel projects have been approved under the current laws, including more than 500 that didn’t trigger an environmental assessment at federal level. Only a couple were not ultimately approved – one recently by Plibersek because it was close to the Great Barrier Reef, and one back in the mid-2000s.

Environmental laws are just “green tape” if they merely slow a project down. What environmentalists want is laws that will stop, not just delay, bad projects.

They fear if Labor can’t achieve meaningful reform when dealing with a crossbench of Greens and teals, it never will. But for now, it’s status quo.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons
Environment reporter

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