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Australian State Gives Energy Companies Easy Access To Resources By Gutting Social and Environmental Approval Processes

By Ari Phillips  

"Australian State Gives Energy Companies Easy Access To Resources By Gutting Social and Environmental Approval Processes"

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Mining equipment  in the Bowen Basin coal mining region of Queensland.

Mining equipment in the Bowen Basin coal mining region of Queensland.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rod McGuirk

QUEENSLAND, Australia — Queensland’s Parliament is the only state parliament in Australia without an Upper House, meaning there’s just one house to keep things in order. This can be a very good thing if you’re the party in power, and a very bad thing if you’re not. Out of the 89 seats in the house, right now the Liberal National Party (similar to our Republicans) hold 74 seats, the Labor Party (like our Democrats) hold seven seats, and three other parties split the remaining seats. The latest way the ruling party is taking advantage of this power is by pushing through seemingly minor processing changes that could actually significantly boost the fossil fuel industry’s growing presence in the region.

The Liberal National Party recently moved to substantially reduce Queensland’s Environmental Impact Statement process. Just like in the U.S., before any proposed mining, oil and gas projects are allowed to move forward, their potential impact on the environment must be assessed. While navigating government bureaucracy can be a mind-numbing experience, the environmental review process is an important tool for measuring, and avoiding, the adverse effects of proposed projects.

The change to the Environmental Impact Statement process was, according to the Liberal National Party, intended to “cut resources red tape.” The move was hailed by the Queensland Resources Council, a non-profit industry association representing the commercial developers of Queensland’s minerals and energy resources.

Queensland, which is more than three times the size of Texas, is endowed with vast coal and natural gas deposits. In recent years, as energy-hungry nations like China and Japan look outside their borders to secure fossil fuels, Queensland has capitalized on these export-driven opportunities, digging deep into the ground in pursuit of the scintillating prospect of ever-deeper pockets of wealth. The result has turned towns across Queensland into fossil fuel boomtowns, such as Gladstone along the Great Barrier Reef coastline, or hubs of drilling, like the interior Darling Downs region.

The government’s press release about the changes to the EIS points out how it could help industries reaping benefits from this boom:

“Significant cuts to red tape by the Resources Cabinet Committee have made it easier to invest in Queensland’s resources. Deputy Premier and Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning Jeff Seeney said the changes would streamline the environmental impact statement (EIS) process, which all large resource projects need to complete before being given the ‘go-ahead’, while balancing environmental needs.”

It goes on to say that while the terms of reference for completing an EIS have been cut from 100 pages to 25, the environmental standards governing resource development have not changed — the same checks and balances will be in place to protect the environment.

This, of course, is according to the infallible checks and balances of a unicameral government with a near 90 percent majority.

Forgetting The Human Impact

David French, Managing Director of Capricorn Investment Partners Limited, a Queensland-based financial services provider, has worked on the economic side of several EISes. He said they can make a difference, giving the example of the Great Keppel Island (GKI) Revitalisation Plan.

“A property developer, Tower Holdings, bought the island and basically held the people ransom, saying they were going to shut down the existing resort unless the government allowed them to develop nearly the whole island, which they didn’t have the lease to. Through the EIS, the plan got knocked back and the developer had to return with a massively scaled-down plan.”

French understood the recent changes to Queensland’s EIS as severely hindering the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) part of the process, which according to him, looks at the impact of the project on communities — the human impact.

“A lot of companies say it’s just a social science, all soft and mushy,” French said. “But if done properly it can help determine the potential displacement of people, or where itinerant workers are going to be housed, or the capacity constraints of transport systems.”

From an economic viewpoint, French sees SIAs as quantifying the externalities, or unintended consequences, of a project.

He attributes the recent drastic changes to the EIS to the manner in which the Queensland government functions overall. “It’s because the Queensland government had a landslide towards the conservatives and there’s no house of review, there’s no Senate,” French said. “There’s never a change in government until the population’s so angry that they want a massive change, which creates absolute power for the group that comes in. In Queensland you never have a happy medium.”

French, who admittedly had not closely scrutinized the changes to the EIS, which had only been released a few days before, said he believes that the updated version will make it easier for projects to get approved because there will be less need for public consultation on social impact issues.

I contacted the Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning and asked if they could clarify the changes made to the EIS, specifically the Social Impact Assessment. In response, I got links to the information already available on the website, which is far from fully explanatory and uses vague regulatory language, along with the comment that they may not be able to put anyone up for interview.

The impacts of the streamlining can be seen throughout the new SIA. For example, where the previous SIA said under Mitigation Strategies that they, “Be developed in collaboration with relevant parties, enabling improved interaction between key stakeholders in resource communities.” And, “Support, strengthen or link to existing local, regional and state government plans, strategies and programs, especially at the local and regional level in order to ensure greater certainty of outcomes and to increase the level of awareness and collaboration between all parties wherever possible.”

The new one simply states that Mitigation Strategies must include, “significant stakeholders,” and “outcomes, performance indicators and targets.”

Is Anyone Listening?

Several people living in the greater Gladstone region of Queensland — a hotbed of coal and natural gas development with four new export facilities, including three large liquid natural gas plants coming online by 2015 — expressed similar concerns about being left out of the review process.

Even if the EIS gets thoroughly completed, with the proper protocols taken and all stakeholders included, it’s unclear to some involved in the process if it even matters. Who reads these massive 1,000 page documents and what difference does it make?

“I naively thought that putting a lot of effort into factual side of things, like EIS statements, would get somewhere,” Jan Arens, Queensland-based geologist said. “I spent a lot of time, a lot of my life, trying to do that.”

After years of attempting to go through conventional bureaucratic channels, Arens decided that there was no one listening on the other side. The few people that could understand the finer points of what his EIS contributions said were overburdened with an impossible workload.

“So they’ve taken someone like me — who is really interested in the environment, wants to understand, and wants to protect — and basically excluded them from the system,” Arens said.

Aside from Arens, this a retired school teacher Peter Brady and other members of the Gladstone Conservation Council and local author Alex Lucke have concerns about the system.

At a launch event in Gladstone for his book Road to Exploitation: Political Capture by Mining in Queensland, Lucke said all this rush for development was polarizing communities in a debate over private rights vs. public good. He worries that the Queensland government no longer represents the public-at-large but acts more as a corporate liaison to economic growth and development in which both industry and government stand to gain economically, often at the expense of existing communities.

In an interview he says, “Our problems in Queensland and these processes not working — and being slanted towards large-scale development by multinational companies — all this is a process of not being able to deliver government in an accountable way. We have executive government with no checks and balances at all.”

Adding another missing layer to the checks and balances process, in Queensland the Coordinator-General can declare any project to be a “project of state significance” under the State Development Act. Arens and French both told me that once a project is declared significant there is little to no chance it will be denied approval.

In a paper titled State Significant Projects In Queensland, by Gary Owen Gardner at Queensland University of Technology, it states:

“There are no formal thresholds used to define “projects of state significance” in Queensland. However, it may be surmised that projects of “State Significance” are ones of unusually large size or scope with an ability to make a significant economic contribution or impact to the State’s development. This is typically accompanied by considerable capital investment of at least $50 million.”

The paper also states that the EIS process often becomes more streamlined for state significant projects. So in a state where the EIS has just been streamlined for the benefit of natural resource development, the Coordinator-General, in this case Barry Broe, can further streamline the streamline by declaring a project significant.

Who’s Benefiting?

On August 9, Coordinator-General Broe, after evaluating the EIS, approved a $6.4 billion coalmine and rail in the Galilee Basin of central Queensland. The Galilee Basin is a vast geological basin covering about 97,000 square miles with 27,750 million tons of coal already identified. According to the Green Institute, if mining goes ahead in the Basin, the destruction of its carbon stocks will account for more than 5 percent of the world’s carbon budget.

12-072-CLM-Galillee-Map

CREDIT: Greenpeace

The project also involves clearing thousands of hectares of vegetation on the Bimblebox nature refuge that is the habitat of the endangered black-throated finch. Two botanists who conducted a flora survey there last year found more than 220 different types of plants in two days.

In this case Broe doesn’t quite have the last word because the project is also being assessed at the federal level under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Deputy Premier Seeney’s reaction to Broe’s approval of the Galilee Basin mine reflects his party’s commitment to industrialization, no matter the cost.

“This decision is in stark contrast to the Commonwealth delays and procrastination on project approvals. The current Coordinator-General has now made 175 statutory decisions since he was appointed, a rate of decision-making almost three times higher than the previous government … You could not get a better indicator that we are delivering economic development and growth for Queensland.”

The indicators are there. But who’s checking anyways?

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