Rio Tinto has labelled changes to the NSW Environmental Planning policy as “ill-conceived”, stating it creates further uncertainty for Mount Thorley Warkworth employees.
Amendments to State Environmental Planning Policy (Mining SEPP) were implemented on Wednesday, and could see approval delayed for projects already before the government including Rio’s Mount Thorley Warkworth expansion and Centennial’s Springvale coal project.
The changes will see the removal of a clause which stipulates the economic benefits of a proposed coal mine must be the principal consideration when assessing for approval.
Introduced in 2013, Clause 12AA of the Mining SEPP was criticised for shifting the balance of planning assessments in favour of the mining industry over environmental and social factors.
The Department of Planning said the resource significance provisions in the Mining SEPP had created community and stakeholder concern that the social and environmental impacts of a proposal were not being adequately considered, or given appropriate weighting, by the Department of Planning and Environment or the Planning Assessment Commission.
It said removing clause 12AA addresses the perceived bias and ensures a balanced framework for decision makers to assess the likely impacts of mining developments.
“The proposed planning policy (SEPP) change is about restoring community confidence in the planning system and our proposal reflects the importance of balance in assessing the likely impacts of mining developments,” NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes said.
“Mining plays an important role in the NSW economy, however, we must ensure that our policies reflect the importance of balance in assessing the likely impacts of mining developments,” he stated.
“A crucial pillar of our planning system is that decision makers consider environmental impacts on both the natural and built environments, and social and economic impacts in their assessment of development applications.”
Changes to the legislation means that projects already under consideration must be revaluated. This has led to further public hearings, and delays on approvals, for various projects, including Mount Thorley Warkworth and the Springvale coal project.
Rio has slammed the amendment as “an ill-conceived reaction to an ill-informed minority opinion”.
“It represents the latest in a long line of changes to the NSW regulatory regime, which affect investor confidence and run against the NSW Government’s election commitments to halve assessment timeframes,” Rio said in a submission in July.
“Worst of all, it means yet further delays in the assessment process for the Mount Thorley Warkworth mine, where 1,300 employees and their families continue to face uncertainty about their future and their livelihoods.”
Rio also asked the government to ensure that any changes not affect projects already being assessed.
Glencore, Centennial Coal and Port Waratah Coal Services were also opposed to the amendments.
The NSW Minerals Council said the proposal to completely repeal the provisions is unnecessary and the policy rationale for doing so is “erroneous”.
“Complete repeal of clause 12AA will jeopardise jobs and investment, undermine business confidence, and create sovereign risk for NSW,” the council said.
All submissions were published on the Department of Planning website on Thursday.
The Planning Assessment Commission will hold public hearings next week into the Drayton South and Mt Thorley Warkworth projects before making a decision on expansion plans.