Who’s the BOS?

The NSW Biodiversity Offset Scheme (BOS) will now apply to federal development approvals in NSW

By Peter Burnett

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley has announced new arrangements with NSW covering the application of biodiversity offsets under federal environmental impact assessment (EIA) laws. Under these arrangements the NSW Biodiversity Offsets Scheme (BOS) will cover both federal and state requirements and the federal policy on offsets will no longer apply.

Sounds complicated and technical, should we care? Absolutely we should. EIA is the cornerstone of our approach to environmental protection in Australia; offsetting has gone from being rare to common over the last 20 years; and the manner in which state and federal governments coordinate their approach to assessing development is key to effective environmental regulation. Everyone with an interest in protecting the environment should care about this new proposal.

Is this an improvement? Do the feds just want to get out of EIA? With offsets becoming the de facto bottom line in EIA, who’s the BOS now?

It is complicated

EIA is complicated, but doubly so under Australia’s federal system, where federal and state governments have overlapping EIA laws. Governments have been trying for decades to reach agreement on reducing the resulting duplication, but with limited success.

When the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) was passed in 1999, one of its big selling points was that it would put an end to EIA duplication through a mechanism known as bilateral agreements, or ‘bilaterals’ for short.

There are two kinds of bilateral. An ‘assessment bilateral’ accredits a state to undertake a single EIA process to inform two approval decisions, one by the Federal environment minister and one by the state.

The more powerful ‘approvals bilateral’ accredits a state to assess and approve developments, without any federal involvement, on the basis that the state system has been accredited as meeting all federal environmental standards under the EPBC Act. The feds tried to go there twice, once under Julia Gillard and once under Tony Abbott, but these ‘one stop shop’ initiatives failed both times.

So we are only talking about assessment bilaterals here.

One of the problems with assessment bilaterals is that they combine two assessments into one but leave two separate approval decisions to be made, applying two sets of policy, including on offsets.

So this latest decision, under which the Commonwealth will apply the NSW BOS instead of its own offsets policy looks like it should streamline decision-making.

And that’s how Minister Ley and her NSW counterparts are selling it, of course. But what about substantive standards on environmental offsets? Does the BOS deliver environmental outcomes as good as, or better than, the federal offsets policy?

How do the two offsets policies compare?

The NSW BOS has some real strengths, especially that it is a statutory scheme administered by a government-controlled trust. This enhances governance by providing consistency, continuity and transparency. It leaves the non-statutory federal policy, which lacks even the basic transparency of a public offsets register, in the shade.

Nevertheless, some environment groups opposed federal endorsement of the BOS. A key concern was that the BOS is aimed at biodiversity generally, rather than at the threatened species and communities protected under the EPBC Act. As a result, it does not have a requirement that offsets address impacts on a ‘like-for-like’ basis, for example to offset an impact on the Eastern Quoll with something that benefits the Eastern Quoll.

NSW addressed this concern by amending its Biodiversity Regulation to impose a like-for-like requirement, but only for impacts on matters protected by the EPBC Act.

Another key concern raised by environment groups is that the BOS typically delivers smaller offsets than the federal policy, especially for species or ecological communities that have a higher threat status (eg, a species listed as critically endangered). The main reason for this difference is that the federal policy, unlike the NSW BOS, uses a discount factor, related to the likelihood of extinction. This discount factor increases the offset quantum as the threat status increases.

Presumably NSW objected to introducing a similar discount factor for federally protected species and communities. So the Commonwealth accepted the NSW position, justifying this with the argument the level of threat ‘would still be considered’ by the Commonwealth ‘as part of the broader regulatory process’.

Despite these soothing words, I think it’s unlikely that the Commonwealth will impose an additional offset in such cases, which arise regularly, because this would undermine the (streamlining) purpose of endorsing the NSW policy in the first place. At best, this caveat provides an escape clause to be invoked in egregious or highly controversial cases.

Different policies in different states?

One effect of Commonwealth endorsing a NSW-specific offsets policy is that this is likely to lead to different outcomes in different states. This is clearly undesirable from an environmental point of view, as ecosystems and bioregions straddle borders. I imagine Minister Ley might agree in principle but defend the difference in outcomes on pragmatic grounds.

The application of different policies also made my lawyer’s antennae twitch. Not only does the the Constitution prohibit the Commonwealth discriminating between states in certain cases, but the EPBC Act itself contains sections that translate these constitutional prohibitions into specific bans.

For example, sections 55 and 56 of the EPBC Act prohibit the environment minister from discriminating between states and parts of states through bilateral agreements in certain circumstances. However, it turns out that neither the Constitutional prohibitions nor the sections of the EPBC Act apply in this specific case, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

So, as undesirable as it might be to have two different policies on the same thing, there is no law against it in this case.

Streamlining or watering down?

In the short term, whether this is a good initiative, a streamlining or a watering down in the interests of putting the states in the driving seat, is a mixed question.

Clearly it will reduce the regulatory impact of overlapping the EIA schemes. And the NSW BOS does have some significant strengths, which the Commonwealth would do well to imitate when it responds to the current review of the EPBC Act.

But it is a worry that the Commonwealth has adopted a policy specifying what is an acceptable biodiversity offset, but then decided that a lower offset is acceptable if the impact occurs in NSW.

In the longer term, however, the more important policy question is not whether an offset is acceptable under a policy, but whether it is sufficient.

This highlights a fundamental weakness of the EPBC Act itself, which is that the Act doesn’t specify any objective standard of environmental sustainability, but leaves it to the environment minister to decide what is ‘acceptable’. Something that is clearly acceptable to a minister may nevertheless fall far short of sufficient.

Hopefully the current review of the EPBC Act led by Professor Graeme Samuel will recommend an approach that sets clear benchmarks for what is sufficient to maintain biodiversity and ecological integrity, and then requires that those benchmarks be met.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay

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