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There's no business case for gutting our national environment laws

By Lindsay Hesketh - posted Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Over the past few years, the Australian business lobby has launched a fierce campaign against the national process in place to protect Australia's unique and precious natural environment.

Australia's overarching national environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act is a national watchdog, placing conditions on or, if necessary, vetoing developments that threaten matters of national environmental significance.

The Commonwealth has used its powers in the past to keep oil rigs out of the Great Barrier Reef, end sand mining on Fraser Island and keep cattle out of Victoria's Alpine National Park. It has constantly been successful where state enforcement has failed.


However, the business lobby claims that our national environment laws are laborious, expensive and a double up of state requirements that suppresses the growth of our national economy.

The remedy they say is simple – hand over approval powers for environmental regulation to state and territory governments. However, on examining the facts beyond the rhetoric there appears to be no real business case.

ACF's New Economics Advisory Service (NEAS) put the microscope to the business lobby's claims and produced a report on the performance of the EPBC Act over the decade since its introduction.

Information on the Department of Environment's website states that between 2000-2008, out of the 4731 projects assessed, only 28% required approval by the Federal Minister to proceed due to the assessment process revealing negative impacts or irreparable damage to the surrounding environment.

There also appears to be little cost to the economy as a result of this federal protective oversight. The only publicly available reporting of process costs are the results of industry field surveys conducted by the Australian National University and the costs in the Department's own reporting which both show modest expenditures.

Statistics also reveal that the rate of growth of fixed capital investment in the Australian economy over the last decade increased by 96% compared to a 55% increase in the growth rate of EPBC referrals.


So with no business case, the question remains of who stands to win by winding back our environment protections?

The NEAS found that out of all project approvals, the industries that dominate projects referred for approval are; exploration and mining for minerals, oil and gas (23%); land-based transport (10%); energy generation & supply (9%); and commercial development (22%).

Unsurprisingly, the businesses that have been loudest in their attack on the EPBC Act are those that are pursuing activities with huge environmental impact or risk, in particular mining and gas extraction, even though these sectors account for less than one third of approval applications and represent less than half the membership of the principal business lobby group, which advocates on their behalf [1].

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About the Author

Lindsay Hesketh has been forests campaign coordinator at the Australian Conservation Foundation since 2001. In addition to campaigning for the protection of Australia’s rare and threatened natural forest and woodland ecosystems the task involves helping Australia’s wood products industry make the transition to well managed plantation and agroforestry. Lindsay was compelled to campaign for our magnificent forests having lived most of his life amongst the tall forests and rainforests of Victoria’s Upper Yarra Valley where he gained much knowledge about ecosystems and the domestic native timber industry.

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