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Eco-watchdog gets a bite?

The proposed changes are contained in a paper called the Environmental Regulatory Reform Discussion Paper, prepared by the NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources and released last month for public comment.
The proposed changes are contained in a paper called the Environmental Regulatory Reform Discussion Paper, prepared by the NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources and released last month for public comment. Contributed

AS Donald Trump this week confirmed a proposed US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, two related matters came to mind as worthy of a look for Territorians.

The first emerged last month in a blog by Bill Laurence, the distinguished research professor at James Cook University.

Called Dumb and Dumber: The Global Assault on Environmental Laws, the blog traced a collapse in environmental legislation across the globe.

"Around the world," says Prof Laurence, "the laws and regulations that have been established to protect nature are being conveniently downsized, diminished, swept under the carpet, and ignored." 

Threats to safeguards

By way of examples, Prof Laurence cited a worrying change to the powers of the South African environment minister, formerly authorised to limit environmental damage and oversee ecological restoration on mine sites.

Such powers are now in the hands of the South African mining minister, says the report.

Meantime, in the US states of Idaho and Montana, endangered grey wolves have reportedly been dropped from the endangered species list, meaning they may be shot if found outside controlled zones.

And environmental campaigners may soon be a threatened species themselves, with proposed UK legislation threatening financial penalties for groups that lose lawsuits against developers.

Such moves sit alongside what some call SLAPP suits, or "strategic lawsuits against public participation", designed to burden the critics of a project with the cost of a legal defence, the aim being to stifle opposition through intimidation and mounting legal costs.

The move would seem to spell disaster for freedom of speech, and may mark a turning point in an era otherwise characterised by public participation in decision making.

It is too early to tell whether so-called "anti-SLAPP laws" will offer effective protection for petitioners on matters in the public interest.

But recent research by Guillaume Chapron at Sweden's Agricultural University confirms Laurence's "rising tide of assaults on environmental safeguards worldwide", prompting Chapron and co-workers to develop a public database tracking such environmental rollbacks.

Amid such concerning developments comes a second matter for Territorians to be aware of, which is that the Northern Territory is weighing important reforms to its own environmental laws.

A troubled Territory

The proposed changes are contained in a paper called Environmental Regulatory Reform Discussion Paper, prepared by the NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources and released last month for public comment.

The paper states its aim is to "provide a snapshot of the reform process for environmental impact assessment and project approvals."

Talks with stakeholders are underway, and the community has until June 28 to provide comment on the document, in what is the first stage of a two-stage reform program, with legislative reform comprising the second stage.

The paper builds on an earlier document by the NT Environment Protection Authority released in January, called Roadmap for a Modern Environmental Framework for the Northern Territory.

Since 2013, the Northern Territory Environmental Protection Authority (NT EPA) has provided advice on the environmental impacts of proposed developments under the NT Environmental Assessment Act.

The eventual aim was to be part of a "one-stop shop" approvals process, something that underpinned a Memorandum of Understanding between the Commonwealth and Territory governments the same year.

Being a big jurisdiction with a small population, however, the under-resourced Territory EPA has traditionally performed poorly compared with its counterparts interstate and overseas.

And so there have been hiccups.

A conspicuous example is the $140m construction of a deep sea port at Port Melville in the Tiwi islands without any environmental approval, sparking widespread condemnation and legal challenges from environmental groups.

In January, the Federal Government granted full approval to the port anyway, despite predicted adverse effects on a number of species in the area, and without environmental controls previously deemed necessary.

Last month questions were raised over the EPA unexpectedly dropping charges against the operator of the toxic Redbank copper mine, near the border with Queensland, which had been charged with breaching its waste water discharge license.

Apparently, an agreement was reached between the defendant and the EPA, drawing comment from the presiding chief judge as to the "unusual" nature of such a move.

The road to reform

The current review of the EPA and its operations began after an independent inquiry into hydraulic fracturing by Dr Allan Hawke AC in 2014.

In the report, Hawke recommended the NT Government review its Environmental Assessment Act, and in May 2015 he delivered a Review of the NT Environmental Assessment and Approvals Process (known as the Hawke II Review).

The EPA put the review out for public comment in August 2016 and received 18 submissions, which it incorporated as revisions into the roadmap.

Prior to the provision of mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments as the primary tool for managing environments across the globe, businesses made their decisions largely on two criteria: technical feasibility and financial viability.

Generally speaking, environmental factors were not included.

As the environmental consequences of such developments became apparent, the need for environmental controls was realised, in particular to ensure the various resources affected remained viable for future generations.

The NT Government's discussion paper aims to provide certainty and efficiency to business and conservationists in this process, as well as ensuring outcomes that take a sensible approach to risk.

Party of a set of guiding principles, such aims sit in the Discussion paper alongside being responsive to changes in our knowledge of natural systems, being accountable and encouraging public participation in the process.

The discussion paper proposes that environmental approvals are issued by the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.

While other government departments such as mining may still issue certain project approvals, these will no longer pertain to the environmental impacts of a project.

Environmental impact assessments would be conducted by the EPA, which would also provide strategic level advice on environmental matters.

According to the EPA, The Environmental Assessment Act and the Waste Management and Pollution Control Act, as well some other relevant acts would have to be revised to accommodate the new circumstances and to allow the EPA to do its work.

Importantly, as suggested in the Roadmap report, the EPA would be likely to remain independent of government and the public service and be governed by a board with the expertise and experience to make the decisions required and to take responsibility for them.

The Discussion Paper has the smell of authenticity about it.

But success will depend on how the government shapes its legislation, and whether enough resources are dedicated to the EPA to make it worthy of the tag "environmental watchdog".

Topics:  morrison


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