ENVIRONMENT EDITOR From:The Australian December 03, 2012 12:00AM
ENVIRONMENT groups have formed a "council of war" to combat business and state government demands to cut "green tape" they fear will weaken protection and lead to a US-style wave of litigation.
A standoff has developed between federal En
A series of decisions involving Woodside's James Price Point gas hub in Western Australia and Rio Tinto's South of Embley bauxite mine in Cape York has brought the issue to a head.
The Business Council of Australia has driven the "green tape" reform agenda, claiming over-regulation is jeopardising $900 billion worth of projects. The council is due to meet on Thursday, before Friday's Council of Australian Governments meeting at which the "green tape" agenda is expected to be set for early next year.
BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott said yesterday that reducing the delays and costs associated with the environmental approvals process was vital to the strength and resilience of Australia's economy.
"It is not about reducing the environmental protections which are important to protect our natural heritage," she said.
West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said the commonwealth should limit its role to matters of biodiversity.
"I think the commonwealth government needs to stay out of environmental assessments and approvals," he said. "I am not saying there aren't issues, and sometimes things go wrong, but this overlay of commonwealth law on top has been the sole reason for this green tape."
But green groups claim the COAG "green tape" reform process has gone too far, with a proposal to remove the federal minister from the approvals process and attempts to weaken the environmental test for developments.
"In our view there is the scope for efficiencies in how environmental assessments are done but the negotiations have become tangled because there is now a push for full environmental approval powers to be delegated to the states," Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Don Henry said.
"Assessments are very different to who makes the final decision.
"I think that would be a disaster for the exercise of Australia's national environment laws and I think it would also deliver great uncertainty for business so I think it is a quite a naive push."
State governments are understood to be seeking a full delegation of authority from the commonwealth. This would mean the federal minister would have no say over individual projects and could only act by revoking the delegation to a state after what were considered to be a series of poor decisions.
Wilderness Society national campaign director Lyndon Schneiders said: "If the BCA's proposal (for approvals) was in operation at the time and the commonwealth government exited from environmental decision making, the Franklin would have been dammed, the Wet Tropics would still be logged, the Great Barrier Reef would be full of oil rigs, Fraser Island would be sand-mined and the Traveston Dam would have been built."
Mr Schneiders said the system could lead to a wave of US-style litigation by environment groups to overturn state decisions.
"If its campaign is successful and Colin Barnett and Campbell Newman become the guardians of our world heritage and national heritage sites, then a new era of litigation to protect these sites from development by environmental groups will be heralded," he said. "We will follow the lead of environment groups in the US and look to the courts to enforce the environmental standards expected by the broader community and to which Australia is committed through a large number of international treaties."
The heads of Australia's biggest environment groups, including ACF, Wilderness Society, World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, have over the past week discussed strategy to combat what they consider a grave threat to the nation's environmental regulation.
World renowned naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough has signed a letter prepared by the Humane Society International to Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the issue. A gathering of environmental groups is planned for Canberra on Thursday to oppose the government's decision to delegate environmental responsibility to the states.
Green groups were also concerned that proposed amendments to the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act would weaken protections for endangered and threatened species.
They said the term "significant impact" under the act had been broadly defined by the courts as being an "impact that is important, notable or of consequence having regard to its context or intensity".
Proposed amendments would change this to "a proposal that would destroy a breeding population of a listed species such that the species is likely to be listed in a higher category of endangerment".
"This is plainly a narrowing of the test because it requires impact at the population level, rather than just an impact at the local level," Mr Schneiders said.
Mr Burke said discussions were continuing with the states and business community. "The basis for this entire discussion with the states has been that there would be absolutely no lowering of environmental standards," he said.