Friday, September 14, 2012

Queensland’s Big Step Back From Environmental Assessment

English: Professor Ian Lowe making a presentat...
Professor Ian Lowe (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science at Griffith University, The Conversation:

The defining characteristic of the Newman government’s environmental policy seems to be a Great Leap Backwards: an old-fashioned determination not to let environmental concerns get in the way of expanding the mining industry in general and the coal industry in particular. It really is a coal-ition government.

There were early signs in such penny-pinching measures as scrapping the public funding of the Environmental Defenders’ Office, which provides legal advice to individuals and community groups when they are resisting inappropriate developments.

Wriggling out of the previous government’s commitment to support large scale solar energy projects, then cutting the feed-in tariff so that householders who install solar panels in future will actually be subsidising electricity retailers, were further signs of a mindset harking back to the fossil-fuel age.

The real worry is the approach to environmental assessment more generally. No objective observer could possibly conclude that industry is currently over-regulated in Queensland.

It has recently experienced specific environmental problems: devastation of fishing in the Gladstone area, methane coming to the surface near coal-seam gas operations. More generally, four national state-of-the-environment reports have documented the steady and systematic worsening of all the major environmental indicators, including the loss of our unique biological diversity.

Yet the first time Mr Newman met with his fellow coalition Premiers, he joined them in calling for the elimination of “green tape”: what they perceive to be needless restrictions on business interests who want to ignore environmental harm to maximise profits.

Then Newman attacked the federal environment minister, claiming that he was causing needless delays to resource projects in Queensland, when he delayed the massive Alpha coal mine because of the inadequacies in the State-based environmental impact assessment.

As I was preparing this piece, the government announced dramatic cuts to the public service in the natural resources area, claiming that “over-regulation” was holding back development and costing the tax-payer money to no good end.

The public face of this change was the rapid passage in July of the Environmental Protection (Greentape Reduction) and Other Legislation Amendments Bill. The Minister said the emphasis is on “streamlining and clarifying assessment and approval processes”, promising “benefits and savings” for “all regulated activities”.

The government claimed there would be no erosion of environmental standards. To be fair, standards in Queensland were not particularly high when the government changed.

Under the previous Bligh government, the environment department generally seemed to see its job as ensuring that no environmental concerns impeded a profitable proposal.

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