Transfer of power to State poses threat to environment

This might be a good news for Santos, Chevron, Woodside, Shell, BHP Billiton, ExxonMobil, Origin, Ta Ann—name it—and all those other giants engaged in the business of “exploiting” Australia’s natural resources. They will have more freedom to dig and rig, build dams, or haul native logs—if the power to enforce environmental laws will be transferred from the Federal Government to the State Government.

Undated photo shows BHP Billiton running this machine at Mt Newman mine in Western Australia. (AP Photo/BHP Billiton,HO)

The Council of Australian Governments earlier this year agreed to reform controversial environmental laws. It proposes changes that would give states autonomy to take control over local environmental laws.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)  administered by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts covers the assessment and approval process of national environmental and cultural concerns. It also administers specific Acts that oversee activities relating to marine resources, importing, heritage issues, hazardous waste, and fuel quality.

State and territory environment laws apply to specific business activities and are administered by both state and local governments in the form of licences and permits.

The plan to hand over control of national environmental powers to state and territory governments has outraged the Greens. Last month, an alliance of more than 35 environmental organisations sent more than 10,000 petition signatures to Environment Minister Tony Burke to oppose the proposals.

The Wilderness Society of Australia warned that without Federal powers to override the states, places of high conservation values would be exposed to exploitation. This is the case of the Great Barrier Reef, the Franklin River, the Daintree Rainforest and Fraser Island, for example. If left to the State Government, they would have been destroyed, the group said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) notes that in the past, under the national environment law, the Federal Government has been able to save  the Great Barrier Reef from State Government plans to allow oil rigs.

However, the reef is still at risk from climate change, catchment run-off, coastal developments and shipping. Recent reports show it has lost 50 per cent of its coral cover since 1985.


Protestors at Franklin Dam site in 1982. In 1978, the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission announced plan to build Franklin Dam, but failed. In 1982, the Federal Government declared the area as a World Heritage Site. (Photo: Tasmania Wilderness Society/National Archive of Australia)

Lonergan Research poll in November said the vast majority of Australians, about 85 per cent, believe the Federal Government should be able to block or make changes to major projects that could damage the environment.

Last week, the plan sounded to have been resolved. The Wilderness Society thought it could sit back and relax—at least for now. In a press release dated 7 December, the Society said the Federal Government has saved business and environmental organisations from a legislative and litigation nightmare by not handing over environmental approval powers to the states.

Wilderness Society National Director Lyndon Schneiders noted, “The business community has avoided a train wreck. The Federal Government seems to have recognised that our environment is essential to our national interest.”

Now is the time to put in place a robust system that guarantees the highest level protection of areas of national and international significance and for the Federal Government to continue to be the guardians of those values.

Greenpeace flashes a banner to support a UN team dispatched to assess the Great Barrier Reef in early 2012.

However, the ACF today pushed the red button: “Our federal environment laws – the last resort of protection for our precious places and species – are under attack.” Despite a concerted campaign of environmental organisations, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will put the plan on hold till next April, Chief Executive Office Don Henry said in a statement circulated by email. ACF Director of Strategic Ideas Charles Berger also noted, “the plan is not completely off the table and big business is bound to push the government to reconsider.”

You can bet big business will be pushing these changes, which would make it easier for developers and miners to irreparably damage reefs, wetlands and heritage areas by taking away the national layer of scrutiny and review.

So the fight to pressure politicians not to allow businesses to exploit the environment is expected to go on until the Government will “dump this reckless idea for good, “ the ACF said.

Blog Link: Asian Correspondent

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Greenies win for the world’s largest marine sanctuary

It does not happen quite often for the greenies to celebrate. But today, there is reason for euphoria and optimism as the Federal Government breaks the news of making Australia’s vast stretch of seas and oceans as a national reserve.

The whale shark, white shark, humpback whale, and other world’s largest fish inhabit the North-west and South-east regions. (Photo: Supplied)

Environment Minister Tony Burke said more than 2.3 million square kilometres of ocean environment will be declared as a national marine reserve networks– a historic win since the plan was incubated a decade ago. This plan will position Australian waters to be the world’s largest marine sanctuary.

Minister Burke will soon forward his recommendations to the Governor General. He said “Australia is a world leader when it comes to protecting our oceans, and so we should be, we’ve got responsibility for more of the ocean than almost any other country on Earth.”

The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), a leading environmental advocacy group, likewise, said people’s power made this development possible with 450,000 made submissions to Minister Burke.

Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs in the Temperate East Network are home to the critically endangered east coast population of grey nurse shark and the vulnerable white shark. (Photo: Australian Government)

“We look forward to the Government bedding down final management arrangements for the new marine parks as soon as possible, so that all Australians can begin to enjoy the benefits that marine protection will deliver now and into the future,” WFF Marine Campaigner Jenita Enevoldsen said.

A June poll showed that 70 per cent of Australians supported the government’s marine reserves plan ‑ the most decision the government has made. This project started in early 2000’s under a series of comprehensive community consultations, deliberations and science-based region planning.

“These final lines on maps around our sea country cover and protect a wide range of important habitats including coral reefs, seagrass beds, sponge gardens and hundreds of threatened species of whales, sharks, dolphins, turtles, sea lions and sea dragons,” Enevoldsen said.

Giant Green Turtle in the Coral Sea on Queensland. (Photo: Supplied)

Giant Green Turtle in the Coral Sea on Queensland. (Photo: Supplied)

Australia’s oceans is the home to many of the world’s endangered marine animals including the Green Turtle, the Blue Whale, the Southern Right Whale, the Australian Sea Lion and the whale shark.

While it is a big win for conservationists, the marine sanctuary means commerical and industrial activities around the area will be limited, including recreation, commercial fishing, and gas exploration ventures.

However, the Government recognises that there will be impacts on some fishers and it will support those who are affected

A national marine reserve will include the vast stretch of the continent. (Photo: Australian Government)

New marine reserves have been proclaimed in five of Australia’s six large marine regions. The reserves in the South-east region were proclaimed in 2007.

Blog Link: Asian Correspondent

Queensland slams UNESCO, defends gas on the barrier reef

UNESCO has released its damning environmental report on the Great Barrier Reef, but the Queensland State Government hits back saying the report poses an obstacle to the multi-billion dollar seam gas business.

The report came in time when the mineral boom is underway and the Queensland Government is excited about financial gains. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said his Government understands the issues raised in the report but could not accommodate some of its chief recommendations, News Corp. reports.

Newman said his government is in coal business and he is not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down.

UNESCO sent a team of experts in March to assess the status of the reef confronted by both natural and man-made threats. While natural threats could be beyond control, the impact of the latter can be minimised if the Queensland Government can review and adopt strategic solutions.

The international body said the World Heritage listed site is under enormous pressure amid increased developmental activities, including additional port infrastructures in and around the Great Barrier Reef and ongoing management of major liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants at Curtis Island and Gladstone Harbour.

The dredging in Gladstone Harbour for the seam gas has been blamed by local environmentalists for the area’s poor water quality and a skin disease affecting marine life. Green activists say dredging has adversely affected whales and dugongs in the area.

UNESCO recommended to the State Government to stop port facilities expansions and to undertake a comprehensive review and strategic solutions to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the reef.

It warned the reef could officially be listed “in danger” if the federal Government fails to convince the international body it has improved its performance before February next year.

Whether Queensland would be able to help improve environmental conditions of the reef or not, both state and federal governments have already given mineral explorations a go. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke supports the developmental projects saying the approval of applications has been in full swing. He said there was not much he could do to prevent development applications already in progress.

Mining magnates Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart have likewise secured government’s approval of their mining ventures in Queensland. Further, the two mining lords have  been pressuring the Government to allow them to build the world’s largest coal export facility right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The facility is envisioned  to double Australia’s coal exports. The mining moguls expect to hear of Government’s decision in 36 weeks time, GetUp noted.

GetUp, an activist group, said mining billionaires are used to getting their way,” but they’re not the only ones who know how to fight.”  The group has forged a tie up with Greenpeace and BankTrack to undertake an advertising campaign in key financial market in Asia and India to warn potential investors not to invest in these projects.

It’s not just UNESCO who are against the massive expansion of coal and coal seam gas facilities. We’ve just released an opinion poll that found 79 per cent of  Australians are already concerned about the expansion of mining along the Reef’s recognised heritage area — and that was before UNESCO’s  scathing criticisms started to make headlines nationwide.

GetUp is optimistic the ad campaign will work.  It claims that  in 2009, it funded ads in the European Financial Times to discourage potential investors who were previously considering to fund Gunns’ pulp mill in Tasmania.

Blog Link: Asian Correspondent

Australian Koalas on danger list

Oprah Winfrey cuddles a koala during her trip to Australia in 2010. (Photo: AP)

Australia’s iconic bear– the koala –will become extinct in 10 years unless a national protection is given, Green activists have warned.

The Friends of the Earth and the Gippsland Bush have slammed the Federal Government for its failure to enlist the koala in the Gippsland region of Victoria under the nationwide endangered species list.

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Tony Burke said on Monday koalas in Victoria and South Australia should not be listed due to their abundant numbers in the said regions.

He admitted though that the marsupial is facing possible extinction in three states such as Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Real estate developments in recent years are said to have primarily displaced them from their natural habitat.

More than 40 percent of the specie is reported to have disappeared in Queensland while it dropped by third in NSW over the past 20 years. In the ACT region, koalas have completely disappeared, the SMH also reported.

Sam the koala became famous around the world after this photo was taken during the Victorian bushfires. (Reuters)

Koala advocates led by the Australia Koala Foundation have been pushing for the enlistment of the specie under endangered category since 1996, but the federal government has been ignoring the issue.

Last year, Greens Senator Larissa Waters had pushed for the marsupials to be listed as a nationally-threatened species believing that they are threatened. She said that with fewer than 5000 koalas left in south-east Queensland, for example, the senator believes that koalas along the koala coast may become extinct during the next 10 years.

However, until now, the Environment Minister is not convinced that the specie should be listed under the national endangered list. He said out that that while koalas have disappeared in the three states, the animals abound in Victoria and South Australia.

He, therefore, announced that koala has been listed under endangered species category covering the three states, but not a national listing following a three year scientific assessment by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee He said a species is usually not considered endangered if it is bountiful in some locations.

Following the announcement, the FOE and the Gippsland Bush blasted Burke for not listing the Gippsland’s Strzelecki Ranges koala as endangered or vulnerable.

In a media statement, the Green activists said the future of the Strzelecki Koala is “bleak” adding that the specie has lost 50 percent of its habitat in the past decade due to logging and fire.

FOE spokesperson Anthony Amis said almost the entire habitat of the Strzelecki koala is in private hands. He said the Hancock Victorian Plantations has converted close to 10,000 hectares of koala habitat over the past 14 years. Add to this was the 2009 Churchill and Boolarra bushfires which burnt out approximately 20,000ha of koala habitat.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Strzelecki koalas were killed during those fires. After 14 years of logging key koala habitat, Hancock Victorian Plantations still do not have a koala management plan, and 75% of logs from the Strzelecki Ranges end up at Maryvale Pulp Mill owned by Nippon Paper.

The activists groups claim that most of Victoria’s koalas are translocated from the South Gippsland to the French Island in the 1880′s. These koalas are said to have a low genetic diversity compared to the only native koala population which is based in the Strzelecki Ranges.

Amis is convinced that the “genetically superior Strzelecki koala” holds the key to the preservation of the species in Victoria, because translocated koalas suffer from a range of problems, many of which are the result of inbreeding.

The Strzelecki koala does not suffer from the problems of inbreeding which makes it more robust than its translocated cousins. “Its population is clearly unique in the context of Victorian and South Australian koalas. This simple fact appears to have eluded the Minister.”

Environment Minister Tony Burke during a media ambush interview. (Photo: News Corp)

In a related development, the Envronment Minister lashed out at the new Queensland Priemere Campbell Newman who released a statement claiming the koala protection law as a “needless duplication” and a “mindless red tape.” Newman claims that the environmental law will only serve as a red tape to potentially slow down the construction industry.

Blog Link: Asian Correspondent