Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act Review 2020

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act provides a basis for challenges to projects and practices that endanger our environment, and flora and fauna such as Adani, Coal Seam Gas in the Pilliga (Narrabri), and the Murray-Darling river system.

Clearly this Act is not achieving what it should.

The deadline for submissions to the EPBC Act Review has now passed, but people can still make a brief comment to the review at any time using the online comments form.  Comments will not be treated as formal submissions, but they will be read and considered as part of the review.  You will need to limit your response to 300 words. The review will publish on its website each submission and comment received, except for those provided in confidence.  To make a comment visit the link: https://epbcactreview.environment.gov.au/get-involved

We’ve added below some points that you can use as a basis or prompt for your own comments. By this we hope to make it easier for individual members of the public to give support to the non-government environmental organisations who have also put in submissions.

Please also see the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre Submission to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act Review.

Topic: Economic Considerations

Section 3A of the EPBC Act infer priority should be given to environmental protection and conservation over economic development (as does the name of the Act). But this does not seem to be reflected in Australia’s environmental record. For a large, sparsely populated country we have a poor environmental record. So maybe it is not the objectives but the application of the Act that needs consideration.

In which case greater use of cost benefit analyses in decision making is not recommended as it is a technique that lends itself more readily to identification of tangible economic development costs and benefits than difficult to value intangible environmental costs and benefits. In order to apply C-B analysis to environmental vs economic decisions, the environmental costs and benefits need to be converted into economic metrics. Despite techniques being available by its very nature C-B analysis is biased against environmental valuation. C-B analysis is better suited to evaluation of similar alternative projects such as a rail vs road project.

Section 3A is clear in its identification of the long-term nature of environmental benefits. This is not only with respect to inter-generational equity but also with respect to yet-to-be revealed scientific understanding of these benefits.

Australia’s poor environmental record suggests we are too quick to trade-off long-term environmental damage in the name of short-term economic benefits – seemingly in contradiction to 3A b. Biasing the decision-making process further towards economic considerations will only worsen this record.        

(240 words)

Topic: Great Barrier Reef

The present EPBC Act has not delivered better outcomes for Australia’s environment and heritage, for business and for the community. The Great Barrier Reef is a good example of this failure. 

Australia has been locked into an economy that is reliant on extraction industries. Consequently, Australia is a country that is not prepared to meet the challenge of Climate Change. The interpretation and manipulation of the Act for these purposes has meant we have not met the objects of the EPBC Act.

Despite the “protection of water resources from coal seam gas development and large coal mining development” being listed as a matter of national environmental significance, the Federal government gave approvals for the harvesting of water by Adani for the Carmichael mine.

Despite the “the Great Barrier Marine Park” being listed as a matter of national environmental significance, the Federal government has allowed the construction of Abbot Point and Gladstone LNG plants and port.  These have endangered the Reef through pollution and a huge increase in shipping.

Despite the “world heritage” and “national heritage” being listed as matters of national environmental significance, the Barrier Reef is now close to being taken off the World Heritage list.

Despite the “the marine environment” being listed as a matter of national environmental significance, coral has been bleached and marine life reduced.

There has been a rapid decline in Australia’s shore birds. Many of these are migratory species are dependent on areas on the Barrier Reef.

These failures of the present Act, its administration and lack of independence from the government of the day means that a new Act is needed and it should be administered by a statutory body independent from the government of the day.

(283 words)

Topic: The Review in general

The Discussion Paper contains material that is designed to include “potential focus areas for reform and possible alternatives.” Professor Samuel who has undertaken the Review, states that “These are not my settled views”. This is some consolation because much of the Discussion betrays an intention to weaken this Act, that has already shown itself unfit.

Terms and suggestions found in the Review Discussion document show that this Review of the EPBC Act is more concerned with treating the environment and biodiversity as an economic opportunity rather than a context in which our society must operate. They reveal the ideological bias of the Review. 

(103 words) Expand as you wish to length of 300 words

Topic: Koalas

Biodiversity Protection is listed in the Discussion Paper as one of the 10 elements of the EPBC Act. Part 13 of the Act lists, among other things, threatened species. The Koala was listed as Vulnerable under the EPBC Act in May 2012.   A Recovery Plan was supposed to have been written and finished by December 2014. 

It is hard to know exact koala numbers. The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) estimates that there could be as few as 43,000, and that this would mean that the species would be “functionally extinct”. This is debatable, but there is no doubt the koala is in real danger.

The EPBC Act has failed to protect the koala’s habitat, allowing extensive land clearing and logging. The situation has become more urgent. The bushfires in 2019-20 burnt much Koala’s habitat. In addition, after the fires logging has been permitted in areas adjacent to the areas affected by bushfire. The situation is urgent.

The provisions in the Act for measures to deal with this pressing matter are unwieldy and complicated and can be overturned by the Federal Minister responsible.  The present government has not been able to bring forward a workable policy on Climate Change, which is a vital factor in dealing with the survival of this species. Government by either party in Australia is heavily lobbied by those whose interests are contrary to the koala’s habitat and conserving biodiversity.   

The sad and dire situation illustrates clearly shows why a National Sustainability Commission and a National Environmental Protection Authority must be established.

(258 words)

Topic: Adani

The Discussion Paper for this Review talks about “improving transparency to ensure better use of information, accountability and trust in the system”.

The ongoing issue of the Carmichael mine development by the Adani company is a prime example of how the present EPBC Act has been ignored, misused and manipulated.

(Write here the incidents where the Act has been ignored, misused and manipulated.)

A new Act must be developed that includes the establishment of a National Sustainability Commission and a National Environmental Protection Authority.

(71 words) Expand as you wish to length of 300 words.

Topic: Land Clearing

Land clearing and the lack of proper policing and administration of this, is illustrated in the case of the death of NSW Environment Officer, Glen Turner in 2014, and the subsequent small fines imposed on the son and brother of Ian Turnbull. Ian Turnbull was convicted of shooting Glen Turner. This came under the jurisdiction of the NSW State government.  

However, the Federal Government has not dealt with the issue that lay at the heart of this murder. The poplar box grassy woodlands on alluvial plains, is a type of grassy eucalypt woodland found in New South Wales and Queensland. The Poplar Box Grassy Woodland on Alluvial Plains was nominated for protection as a nationally listed ecological community under Australia’s national environment law, the EPBC Act. The nomination was accepted in 2013. In 2017 the assessment was submitted. In 2018 the Minister made a statement that he would delay the decision to consider a review into the interaction between the national environment law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – and the agriculture and food production industries. Since 2013, the land clearing in this region has continued and impacted on the koala population. In 2020 the Poplar Box Grassy Woodland on Alluvial Plains and Koalas are not even mentioned in the EPBC Act Discussion paper.   Koalas are now under threat of extinction.

This example shows why the present situation, where the EPBC Act is subverted and undermined by politics, must be changed and a National Sustainability Commission and a National Environmental Protection Authority be established.

(253 Words)

Topic: Indigenous People

Under the heading: “What the EPBC ACT does” this document “recognises the vital role Indigenous Australians and their knowledge play in the conservation and sustainable use of Australia’s environment and heritage.” These sentiments are also expressed in the Introduction.

Indigenous people still have knowledge of use of plants for food and medicine, of dealing with fire, of significance of land elements. Their art, culture and social mores are of this land. Yet this Discussion paper does not expand on the brief statement in the description of what the Act does, even though such Indigenous knowledge may be crucial in light of Climate Change. For example, crops indigenous to this land may offer viable alternatives to traditional European agriculture.  

Events of the recent past show that the statements about respect for heritage and making use of the knowledge and experience of Indigenous people are lip service. The battles of Indigenous Australians with Adani and government, and between Santos and Indigenous people in the Pilliga and the Northern Territory show this.

This Discussion paper talks about” alternative regulatory processes” where there is self-regulation and coregulation, which so suit the neoliberal philosophy of small government and allow for manipulation by rich and powerful enterprises.  It talks of “offsets” which are a strategy already shown to be faulty because small government means inadequate policing and follow up.  

“Inclusion and Transparency” is needed. This is not going to be achieved when the Minister of the day has the final say even though his decisions may be contrary to Science and Indigenous rights and when the government of the day is prepared to take advantage of the COVID19 crisis to fast track projects opposed by Indigenous people and environmentalists.  

(289 words)

Topic: Coal and Water Resources

In Box 4 the EPBC Act includes in “Matters of national environmental significance” the “protection of water resources from coal seam gas development and large coal mining development”. The Act has not been effective in achieving its statutory objectives in this matter.

The Wallarrah Mine was approved in 2018 in the water catchment for the NSW Central Coast. This thermal coal mine has been rejected since 2010 because of its impacts on drinking water.  In 2020 the NSW government approved coal mining under the Woronora Reservoir. This is contrary to the advice of Water NSW and despite the proven damage to the water catchment in the Special Area around the dam. The Springvale thermal coal mine has been polluting the Sydney water catchment. Now the same company wants to extend the Angus Place thermal coal mine. This involves sending up to 30 megalitres of mine water a day taken from the environment to the new Springvale Water Treatment Plant. This is to service the Mt Piper Power Station.  This mine has already had devastating effects on the natural environment and the extension will exacerbate the impacts.

The Carmichael thermal coal Mine was granted a special water licence by the Queensland government, giving unlimited access to groundwater until 2077. This was followed by the approval of the mine by the Federal Environment Minister. This is all despite the science on the effects of this water extraction still being uncertain. Agriculture, biodiversity, vast underground water supplies are all threatened by this licence and approval.

Note that thermal coal is in the process of being displaced by renewable energy.

National Environmental Standards should be distanced from politics, and a National Sustainability Commission and a National Environmental Protection Authority be established.

(288 words)

Topic: Guiding Principles of the Review

The principles laid out to guide the Review of the EPBC Act have an ideological bias.  Three of these five principles are –

  • “making decisions simpler, including by reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens for Australians, businesses and governments”
  • “supporting partnerships to deliver for the environment, supporting investment and creating new jobs” 
  • “streamlining and integrating planning to support ecologically sustainable development”

The ideology here is that the environment and biodiversity is to be subject to economic development. This does not recognise other perspectives held by significant sections of the population, namely –

  • the view that the human species is intimately related to Nature, i.e. environment and biodiversity, and that we need to learn about and respect these non-human systems in order to thrive and be supported by these systems.
  • the view that the humans are the stewards of the natural world not the manipulators.

There is no mention in these five guiding principles of Climate Change. This is a staggering omission that is a perfect example of the ideological bias.  How can this Review deal appropriately with important issues of changes to the environment and changes to and loss of biodiversity without significant recognition of Climate Change? The COVID19 Crisis has shown us how important proper recognition of a crisis is. The shortcomings of these principles mean that vital issues of future such as the changes to sea levels, weather patterns, pollution, effects on vegetation and animals are not focused on. The crisis of climate change is already here and must be recognised for this Review to have any chance of dealing with the Guiding Principle: “improving transparency to ensure better use of information, accountability and trust in the system”.

(276 words)