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Thursday, 26 June 2014
Page: 4095


Senator WATERS (Queensland) (16:04): The Environment and Communications References Committee report just tabled, Environmental offsets, is a very comprehensive report of our inquiry into the nonsensical notion that you can destroy invaluable and unique parts of Australia's environment and somehow just make a different version somewhere else and that that will make up for the damage you have done. It is a very substantive report. Whilst I will make some remarks distancing the Greens from the recommendations in the report, I do wish to commend the substance of the report to this chamber. It is incredibly detailed and I think it is a really comprehensive summary of the damning evidence we received during the hearings.

We referred this issue to the Senate after uncovering a litany of examples where offsets were shown to be farcical—shown to be simply a fig leaf for continued approval of almost every single application that ever passes the Minister for the Environment's desk. One of the most affronting examples was the Whitehaven coalmine at Maules Creek in the Leard Forest. They were allowed to clear endangered box gum woodland—it is classed as 'endangered' for a reason; there is not much of it left—on the proviso that they protect the same type of woodland elsewhere. Unfortunately for them and for that endangered woodland, the offset area was 95 per cent a completely different ecosystem.

The Department of the Environment investigated that—and rightly so, because in my view misleading information had been provided in order to get the approval. Through a series of events that continue to perplex me, the department have now dropped the investigation—despite several reports that show that indeed it was the wrong ecosystem and that they had indeed misdescribed it. That was but one example showing that the notion that you can offset something that is endangered with an entirely different ecosystem—and get away with it—required examination.

Another example is the Abbot Point coal terminal dredging and the offshore dumping of that dredge spoil. That application was also approved, as everything is under these so-called environmental laws. Internal documents from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority found that the damage was going to be so great it would be irreversible and that it would be impossible to offset. That was the internal science from the marine park authority, and yet the offsets have been granted anyway and somehow the dumping of five million cubic metres of sludge is supposed to make the water quality 150 per cent better. That is a notion which sounds a bit strange and is, indeed, completely impossible to achieve. That is a point that the World Heritage Committee made a few days ago.

The third most confronting example in recent times has been the approval of one Mr Palmer's Waratah Coal mine in the Galilee Basin, which is located on top of the Bimblebox Nature Refuge. It is the last remaining remnant vegetation in the Galilee Basin, with 8,000 hectares of pristine habitat, half of which Mr Palmer wants to turn into an open cut coalmine and the other half he wants to longwall mine, leaving it susceptible to subsidence. He said he will protect the same vegetation elsewhere. There is just one problem with that—there is no other vegetation elsewhere. So one wonders why that condition was even granted in the first place. It is no surprise that he has not been able to find an area to protect as compensation. To add insult to injury, if he were able to find some compensatable habitat, there is no land tenure that would protect that land from being mined in the future. That is unless it were turned into a national park, which I am sure Premier Campbell Newman would not have a bar of.

These were some of the examples that led us to seek the Senate's approval to inquire into these issues. Sadly, we heard a litany of really concerning problems not just with the implementation of environmental offsets but also with the very notion itself. We heard evidence that there is a widespread view amongst community and environment groups that offsets are not being used as a last resort. They are meant to be under the policy, but in fact they are very quickly resorted to. They are a first choice rather than a last resort. That is the reason I say they are used as a smokescreen for continued approval. There is no will to refuse development applications. We have had 10 refusals in 14 years.

Another point that was made was that there are no no-go zones for offsets. Apparently, everything is replaceable and there is nothing that is so precious and unique that we should retain it. I beg to differ with that concept. That is what our environmental offsets policy says but I think World Heritage is irreplaceable. I think critically endangered ecosystems and critically endangered species are irreplaceable. In fact, I think nature is irreplaceable but particularly in those examples. A strong recommendation of the report was that the notion that anything goes and that there is nothing off limits needs to be re-examined. We certainly support that.

The other flaw that was identified and came to light through the course of the hearing was that the offsets are often not identified until years after the damage has been done. One would think that in order to get an approval you would need to show that you have found an offset area that is suitable. But, no, that is not the case. Actually you can get your approval and be given years to find somewhere that is suitable. What happens if you cannot find that place? It is tough luck for the environment because you have already been allowed to clear the vegetation on your site. Once again, the environment loses out.

The report also found that there is no register of offset areas. This means a number of problems. It means there is no transparency and the public cannot see whether those areas are still protected, properly managed and delivering on the gains they were promised to make. Secondly, it means that they can be double offset because no-one is noting down somewhere that they are an offset for damage elsewhere. So you might have one offset area that is meant to be compensating for five different areas that are being damaged because no-one is tracking that. That seems to me a ridiculous oversight.

That also means that when an offset area itself that is meant to be protected in perpetuity under the offsets policy is then sought to be destroyed years down the track it can be because it is not on anybody's register saying, 'No, that is meant to be off limits.' So, again, the notion that offsets themselves are able to be offset makes a mockery of the so-called principle that they are to be protected in perpetuity.

The report also addressed the fact that money can be a substitute for protecting a different area. Of course our environment department is starved of funds. It is starved of staff and it is underresourced. However, the notion that you can buy your way out of the rules that are there to protect the environment is one that I find shocking. I believe this option is frequently abused. I do not think you should make money an option for an offset because you simply cannot replace some of these irreplaceable ecosystems with dollars. Money will never be a substitute for those.

We heard that there is also no monitoring of the conditions. The ANAO found this in their report last week as well. The department is so understaffed it cannot do proper compliance monitoring, including of conditions for offsets. We found that no-one was going back to check or asking, 'Did they find the area they were meant to find? Is it the right sort of ecosystem that they are meant to be protecting? Are they managing it properly? If the company goes belly up, is anybody else going to be able to manage it? Is it in fact delivering the environmental gains that substitute for the damage done at the original site?' Nobody is checking any of those things.

It boils down to the conclusion that there is no evidence that environmental offsets are working. Nobody is keeping track. There are all of these assumptions made that nobody bothers anyone to comply with, and so we simply do not know. This again leads the Greens to conclude that they are a smokescreen and a fig leaf for continued approval. They are a green wash, trying to make it look like the environment minister gives a damn when in fact approval after approval has been issued.

In our minority report we included some strong recommendations that I urge both sides of the chamber to consider. We said that the government must refuse projects which have unacceptable impacts on matters of national environmental significance. These are not insignificant areas; these are areas of national environmental significance. There should be some refusals where that damage is going to be done rather than just this smokescreen and fig leaf of continued approvals with offsets. We recommended that the government immediately revoke the approval for the Maules Creek coalmine and not only that but prosecute Whitehaven Coal for providing false or misleading information in the course of seeking their environmental approval. They will have to reopen the criminal investigation to do that, and I will be taking that up with the minister. We recommended that they immediately revoke the approval for the Waratah Coal Galilee project which will eat up the Bimblebox Nature Refuge, that the Abbot Point dumping and dredging approval be revoked and finally that any existing offset areas that have already been set in stone be protected into the future.

Fundamentally, offsets are a joke. They are abused. There is no fixing them. They should be abandoned and we need some refusals. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.