Miners worried about ‘ever-present threat’ of climate trigger being added to environment laws

Article by Katina Curtis, courtesy of The West Australian

A climate trigger is looming as an “ever-present threat” that is stifling industry confidence as the Government revamps environmental laws, the nation’s peak mining body has warned.

At the same time, the acting Auditor-General has flagged that her office may examine the establishment of the new environmental watchdog once legislation creates it.

The Government split up its planned overhaul of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to move this year on setting up a new independent regulator and deal with changes to environmental assessment and approval rules later.

Legislation for this first stage of the Nature Positive plan passed the lower house last week and will head to the Senate in August after a six-week committee inquiry.

The business community fears that, with the Coalition opposed to the laws, the Government will be forced to compromise with the Greens to get the new watchdog set up.

The minor party has long flagged it wants a “climate trigger” in legislation, meaning the Government would have to consider the emissions potential of projects as part of the environmental assessment.

Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Tania Constable said Labor had promised its law changes would lead to better environmental and business outcomes but so far, all that seemed likely to eventuate was “wrapping the industry in more green tape” in a more complicated regulatory system.

The council has serious reservations about the legislation, including the independent nature of the EPA’s chief executive.

“Allowing an unelected bureaucrat to make decisions on billion-dollar projects that employ thousands of Australians is undemocratic and requires thorough scrutiny,” Ms Constable said.

“Now, more than ever, Australia’s leading industries need certainty to attract investment and create jobs. The ever-present threat of a climate trigger kills that certainty.

“If the Government is truly committed to a future made in Australia, they must reject any proposals to include a climate trigger in the bill. Such an economy-wrecking measure would seriously undermine investment, jobs and economic stability.”

Last month, the Business Council of Australia warned that if a climate trigger had already been in place, dozens of projects now up and running would not have been approved.

Chief executive Bran Black said on Tuesday the climate trigger must not be used as a “bargaining chip in the Senate” to get the EPA up.

While the Government had made the new watchdog an election promise, it had also ruled out the climate trigger in 2022.

“The BCA and the West Australian Premier Roger Cook have been clear that this reform should not add more regulatory burden, but that will happen if a climate trigger or climate considerations are incorporated into the EPBC Act,” Mr Black said.

“Success in these reforms comes down to achieving balance, protecting the environment and allowing development to proceed and we hope the Government and Coalition can work together in a bipartisan way.”

The Government believes it already has the right tool to regulate pollution at major industrial sites after last year’s overhaul of the safeguard mechanism.

“The legislation that recently passed the House of Representatives includes the establishment of a national independent environment protection agency with strong new powers and penalties. It does not include a climate trigger,” a spokesperson for Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek told The Nightly.

The Australian National Audit Office has also flagged it may examine the effectiveness of arrangements to establish Environment Protection Australia as part of its work over the next financial year.

It noted the Government had set aside $121 million over four years to set up the new watchdog.

In an overview of its plans for the year, the ANAO said past audits into the environment department had found failures of regulation within the portfolio, including in governance arrangements and the establishment of risk-based approaches.

“There is a risk that the portfolio entities have not improved their performance in this area and that the desired outcomes of regulation are not being met,” it said.