Offsets policies failing to protect threatened species

Government policies on biodiversity offsets for mining and development projects are failing to protect plant and animal species threatened with extinction and need to be reviewed, the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices (ANEDO) told a Senate inquiry today.

5 May 2014

Biodiversity offsets allow developers or mining companies, as part of their development approval, to buy and/or manage land to compensate for the clearing of forests and areas containing threatened plants and animals. They are supposed to be used as a last resort but have become standard practise in assessing major developments in Australia.

“There is a dearth of evidence to show that offset schemes actually achieve their intended purpose to protect threatened plant and animal species from extinction,” ANEDO representative and EDO NSW‟s Policy and Law Reform Director Rachel Walmsley told a Sydney hearing of the Federal Parliamentary inquiry into environmental offsets.

“Our experience suggests there is a lack of consistency, ecological credibility, rigour, enforceability and legislative parameters for offsetting in Australia.”

Extinction rates for plants and animals in Australia are among the highest in the world with 100 already extinct. A further 1340 plants and 445 animal species are nationally under threat of extinction.

ANEDO said under current laws environmental outcomes are uncertain, and laws do not ensure that offsets are permanent. An example of this is the current Warkworth coal mine expansion near the village of Bulga in NSW, where the mine‟s previous offset area, containing threatened species, was supposed to be protected forever but is now proposed to be mined.

ANEDO raises concerns about the use of biodiversity offsets for a number of major projects including the Maules Creek open cut coal mine in northern New South Wales, the Curtis Island LNG project in northern Queensland, the Bulga open cut coal mine expansion in the NSW Hunter Valley, the Galilee coal project in Queensland, the Roxby Downs uranium mine in South Australia and the Abbot Point Coal Terminal in Queensland.

Proposed changes to biodiversity offsets policies in Queensland and NSW would lower current environmental standards, ANEDO said. “These changes are of serious concern given the imminent accreditation of state standards for environmental assessment and approval for major projects under the Australian Government‟s „one stop shop‟ policy.”

The NSW policy changes allow offsets to be “discounted” where there are economic benefits. This principle potentially allows environmental concerns to be overridden by economic considerations, ANEDO said.

The NSW draft policy also allows the principle of „no go‟ areas (such as critical habitat for threatened species that can withstand no further loss) to be overridden, Even where a project could cause a local extinction offsets could still be considered.

ANEDO is further concerned that rules are being loosened so that unconnected „supplementary measures‟ can be used in lieu of actual offsets. This principle essentially allows a developer to buy their way out of a difficult offsetting requirement. This will be particularly detrimental for areas where there is no offset available because the species or ecosystem to be cleared is so rare.

ANEDO said the review of biodiversity offsetting, as recommended by the Productivity Commission, should be used to establish a single national offsets standard that implements best practice – and ensures that biodiversity and ecological integrity are fundamental considerations in decision-making.

ANEDO said the main principles for a national biodiversity offset standard must include:

  • biodiversity offsets must only be used as a last resort, after consideration of alternatives to avoid, minimise or mitigate impacts
  • offsets must be required to maintain or improve environmental outcomes
  • the requirement of like-for-like offsets, to conserve those species‟ being affected
  • clear parameters including the use of „no go‟ areas
  • offsetting must achieve benefits in perpetuity
  • offset arrangements must be legally enforceable.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: jon.walter@edonsw.org.au or (02) 9017 3915 or 0404647842