Our national environmental law is a bit wobbly because it doesn’t take planning seriously
By Peter Burnett
Our big and complex national environmental law is called the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (or EPBC Act). When you unpack its major components (as I did in a recent blog) they sort themselves quite nicely into three streams: 1. Identify Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) for protection; 2. Plan for Conservation; and 3. Assess and Approve for Development or Trade.
The streams can be seen as the three legs of a stool, with protecting, conserving and approving designed to combine to ensure that our most important environmental values are looked after, but without blocking economic activity more than is necessary. At least, that’s the theory. Unsurprisingly, there are some problems in practice and in this blog I’ll start with the biggest: the planning leg is half-missing.
One leg is half-missing
The Act provides a planning mechanism for everything that it protects or conserves: bioregional plans for biodiversity and other values; wildlife conservation plans for listed marine, migratory and conservation-dependent species; recovery and threat abatement plans for threatened species; and management plans for heritage places, Ramsar sites and Commonwealth reserves.
The problem is that many of these plans are dated, underdone, or were never created in the first place. I’ll illustrate by examples. In each case I looked up the relevant place or plan on the Department of the Environment and Energy website [www.environment.gov.au] and followed the links.
A number of plans look dated to me. For example, the very first recovery plan listed in the Species Profile and Threats Database, for the great desert skink, was made in 2001 and expired in 2011. The executive summary of the plan says that the Recovery Team will review implementation progress annually and any changes made to the plan will be made available to all stakeholders. There was nothing on SPRAT to indicate whether this had occurred.
Other plans look underdone. I picked the recovery plan for Carnaby’s cockatoo, an endangered species found in the woodlands and plains around Perth. The species has been controversial because Perth’s development often involves clearance of the cockatoo’s habitat.
The recovery plan identifies eucalypt woodlands as critical to the survival of the cockatoo, in part because they provide breeding hollows, which the plan notes take 100-200 years to develop. It goes on to identify protection of nesting habitat as a recovery action and adopts as a performance measure for this the maintenance of the extent of nesting habitat (trees with nesting hollows).
The implication seems clear: don’t clear old growth woodlands. Moreover, the EPBC Act prohibits the environment minister from acting inconsistently with a recovery plan, so a plan containing a statement like this would block development in these areas.
However, the plan stops far short of such language. Under the heading ‘guide for decision makers’, it states only that the success of the plan requires that decision-makers avoid approving activities that will adversely affect the cockatoo, and that they should minimise or mitigate those impacts that cannot be avoided (ie. apply the ‘avoid, mitigate, offset’ hierarchy). The plan goes on to cite WA EPA guidance that it is ‘unlikely to recommend’ approval of projects with a significant adverse impact on the species.
In effect, the plan simply points out that if decision-makers want to save the cockatoo, significant impacts should be avoided, or at least minimised. By pulling its punches, the plan leaves it open to the federal minister to approve the destruction of critical habitat, provided he or she duly considers the plan and applies the mitigation hierarchy to the extent the minister regards as practicable.
At a larger scale, looking at biodiversity more generally, there are no bioregional plans for Australia’s 89 terrestrial bioregions. Nil, none, zero!
Fortunately, Australia’s marine area is much better catered for, with bioregional plans for four of five marine bioregions, supplemented by management plans for marine park networks in each bioregion plus one for the Coral Sea Marine Park.
It’s the politics stupid
Of course, there is a practical explanation for the absence of terrestrial plans. Bioregional plans require joint federal-state action, except on the small portion of land classed as Commonwealth land. Federal cooperation is never easy, even between governments of the same political flavour. Moreover, preparing lots of plans would be expensive and could well stir up local concerns about the whole gamut of development and conservation issues in the region concerned. Such a scenario is, to say the least, politically unappealing.
Yet without bioregional plans project-based environmental impact assessment (EIA) must proceed without contextualised, place-specific guidance on what needs to be conserved and where development can occur. This perpetuates one of the major flaws with project-based EIA, the ‘death of a thousand cuts’, where small environmental impacts are approved in ignorance of their cumulative effect.
The bottom line
While under-done recovery plans may provide some of the guidance that should be coming from the absent bioregional plans, at the end of the day the stool has only two-and-a-bit legs, leaving development decisions pretty much at the minister’s discretion.
This means that a minister who wasn’t really interested in protecting Matters of National Environmental Significance won’t find themselves hemmed in by plans. Even a minister determined to protect and conserve MNES would find that the absence of contextual information a major problem in seeking to make good decisions, just as it’s hard to see where you’re going in a fog.
Who wants a stool with two and half legs?
Image: A pair of Carnaby’s cockatoos feeding on banksia. This species is endemic to south-western Australia. It has experienced widespread loss of nesting and feeding habitat and is considered endangered under the IUCN Red List, and Australian federal and state legislation. Since the 1950s, numbers of the Carnaby’s cockatoo have declined by more than 50%, with its range contracting by over 30%. Image by Leonie Valentine.