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The Federal Government has introduced a Bill to amend the EPBC Act to facilitate their one stop shop policy for environmental approvals.

It’s hard not to be worried when a Bill is slipped into parliament on the morning after the Federal budget. This morning the Feds introduced a Bill to amend the EPBC Act to facilitate their one stop shop policy for environmental approvals.

The Federal Government already had power to make agreements with the States to hand over their environmental approval powers. Except for in one area – coal seam gas and coal mines. Last year a new power was added to the EPBC Act to require any coal seam gas or large coal mining operation that would have a significant impact on water resources to seek approval from the Federal Government. Unlike the other triggers for Commonwealth intervention, the water trigger specifically provided that it could not be handed over to the States under a one stop shop arrangement.

The water trigger, and the prohibition from handing it over to the states, was a direct result of well founded concerns by rural communities that States would be unwilling or unable to properly assess and protect water resources from coal and coal seam gas projects. Tony Windsor championed the amendment. Handing over this power to the States makes little sense. Can we, for example, be confident that Campbell Newman government will faithfully give effect to the intent of that provision?

Although the delegation of the water trigger will be the headline concern, other more subtle amendments are likely to be the most destructive.

For example, the Bill now weakens the requirements on states as to how the EPBC Act is implemented. Where previously the intent was that EPBC requirements had to be in state law, now they can be incorporated via the plethora of guidelines, policies and other instruments a state produces. Commonwealth law is therefore dispersed and diminished in a way that was never intended.

In addition, the Bill allows protection of matters of national environmental significance to not only be entrusted to state governments but also local government. Transferring important national environment protection responsibilities to State governments is already hugely problematic. Passing the responsibility further down the chain of government to local councils just compounds the problem.

The original intent of including provisions in the EPBC Act that allowed the Federal Government to hand its powers over to the states, was that even if the states were wielding this power, they would have to wield it to the same standard and with the same intent as the Commonwealth. In effect it would be a mechanism to bring the States up to a higher national level of environmental protection.

The amendments today make clear what the Australian public concerned about our natural places and wildlife have long feared. That the “one stop shop” will drag Commonwealth protections down to the lowest common state denominator. That the Commonwealth, in its rush to get rid of what it seems to view as unwelcome environmental responsibilities, has bowed to pressure from Queensland in particular to lower its standards. It is in fact the nightmare scenario for the places and wildlife protected under the EPBC Act – if this legislation and the “one stop shop” goes through, national environmental laws are now in the hands of Campbell Newman.

With draft agreements for the handover with NSW and QLD likely to be released this afternoon, we won’t have long to wait to see the environmental impact of handing hard won federal powers over to the States.

Image:Loy Yang open cut brown coal mine and dredgers by Marcus Wong