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The government’s plan to hand over Federal approvals of projects that may damage the environment to the States is not going well.

The government’s plan to hand over Federal approvals of projects that may damage the environment to the States is not going well. What Environment Minister Greg Hunt thought would be an easy exercise is proving more and more difficult by the day.

At the heart of the government’s ‘one stop shop’ policy is the desire to remove the Commonwealth Government from having a role in the approval of potentially environmentally damaging activities, like mines, leaving the decision making up to the states and territories instead.

Commonwealth environmental law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act – allows the Commonwealth government to hand over responsibility for certain projects through approval bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories.

The Government’s bill to amend the EPBC Act, effectively reducing the standards required of state and territory environmental laws and making it easier for them to make bilateral agreements, looks like it’s going to be blocked by the Greens and the Palmer United Party working together. PUP has agreed to vote against the bill, but more importantly, against any individual bilateral agreement that comes to the Senate.

The water trigger is a very significant issue for some of the biggest proponents of the one stop shop. A failure to see it included in bilateral approval agreements would be a significant setback for the government.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. The government did not need the bill to pass to make the bilateral agreements – there are already powers in the EPBC Act to do so. The bill would have made it easier to accredit states' weak environmental laws and crucially to devolve approvals for impacts of coal mines on water resources to states. Without the bill, the water approvals can’t be devolved but other approvals can (supposedly with more safeguards although this is likely to be ignored). Without the bill the government could still attempt to pass bilateral approval agreements in some form with Qld, NSW, ACT and Tas now, as these states have been through all the preliminary requirements already. However with PUP's commitment to vote against them in the Senate, even these reduced agreements won't get through.

Having loudly proclaimed about one stop shop since before their election, it is unlikely that the government will just let it lie. The government might try to find some other way to devolve responsibilities for some matters to the states, for example using strategic assessments or accredited management arrangements.

Regardless of what happens, we are now in a position where responsibility for approvals under the EPBC Act is in the hands of a government which has very clearly indicated it wants to vacate the field when it comes to the referral, assessment and approval regime. 

It’s not a happy situation for our environment.