Biodiversity offsets used by mining companies to gain approval for major projects will be investigated in the first of three public hearings of a federal senate inquiry today.
The first hearing will be held in Sydney and hear from environmental groups Lock the Gate, Greenpeace and Northern Inland Council for the Environment who will argue that the federal government’s offset legislation, which requires miners to prove they are preserving land equivalent to the areas which have been disturbed to build a project, are failing.
The inquiry will drill down on a number of controversial projects including Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine project, Waratah Coal’s Galilee project, and the Abbot Point port expansion.
All the projects have been at the centre of intense criticism from environmentalist groups who claim there is a tenuous link between environmental offset plans tabled as part of the EIS and what is preserved by companies in reality.
They argue offsets are not properly monitored and are ineffective in managing environmental damage.
Lock the Gate spokeswoman Georgina Woods said case studies of four projects proves the system is failing.
“Our examples demonstrate the Department of Environment complying repeatedly with requests by coal and gas project proponents to change the conditions of their approvals multiple times to allow for their repeated failure to fulfil the offset conditions imposed on their approvals,” the Lock the Gate submission said.
The examples include the Hunter Valley, where it is argued Rio Tinto’s Ravensworth mine and Glencore's Ulan mine have repeatedly changed its offset package after strict biodiversity packages are approved.
Lock the Gate also claim the LNG terminals on Curtis Island breach an agreed approach within the World Heritage Convention.
While Woods will argue the offset package attached to the controversial Maules Creek mine development in north-west NSW “does not support the critically endangered woodland to be cleared by the mine”.
“In our view, and based on our experience and that of our members around the country, these case studies are not isolated incidents, but expose systemic and institutional failures in the Department Environment and the “offsetting” culture,” Woods said.
Woods is calling on the senate committee to make a recommendation to Environment Minister Greg Hunt to suspend the approval of projects.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace will argue that the current practice of biodiversity offset “while well intentioned, is poorly designed and implemented resulting in a ‘green-wash’ for the approval of highly destructive projects”.
The senate inquiry received 88 submissions in total and will take place in Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane, with a reporting date of June 6.
In its submission, the Minerals Council of Australia, which represents over 85 per cent of minerals production in Australia, said the Greens-led inquiry seeks to support “a broader anti-mining campaign rather than a genuine effort to consider the role played by environmental offsets.”
“While it is important to review the performance of offset arrangements, this Inquiry into Environmental Offsets should be undertaken through science based expert assessment within an appropriate timeframe to avoid the political context behind the Inquiry,” The MCA said in its submission.
While the NSW Minerals Council will argue where offsetting is appropriate, the practice can provide “significant opportunities to harness private investment in conservation and make environmental gains”.
“Government should be looking to take advantage of the opportunities provided by offsetting for environmental, social and economic gains.”
Greens senator Larissa Waters has previously said offsets were “often magic pudding calculations to justify irreversible environmental damage,” and says there is little enforcement to ensure they are delivered.