Community Cabinet Briefing Paper - Biodiversity Impacts from Changes to Vegetation Management Act, Environmental Offsets & CSG Mining-23/3/2014

1. Minister/Agency Department of Environment and Heritage Protection
2. Topic title Offsets and Biodiversity
3. Background In 2013 the VMFA Bill was passed with such major changes that the consequences will have far reaching economic, environmental and social negative impacts. At its time of its writing this Bill did not given sufficient consideration to the negative impacts and was only viewing it through a narrow prism of short term economic gain for one sector of society. Further the changes are not based on sound science, but rather an aspiration based on economic considerations only. The natural environment and its vegetation is the foundation of our society and economy and provides eco-system services which cannot be quantified, but are essential if our land is not to be degraded to the point of being unproductive. Sustaining natural vegetation is not just about saving our wildlife, though that is very important given the rate of extinction in Australia; it is about sustaining the land’s ability to support us. Queensland’s biodiversity is currently facing accelerating impacts of climate change, loss of habitat from increased land clearing, renewed forestry effort, urbanisation,  coal mining, a proliferation of coal seam gas mining and now a proposed Environmental Offsets  Bill which will effectively allow developers to buy their way out of their environmental responsibilities. The cumulative impacts of this array of environmental legislation/policies will deliver a loss of biodiversity and localised extinctions of flora and fauna that may only become identifiable after some years. Change can be steady and insidious and we question the ability of current environmental practice to adequately protect biodiversity in the long term.
4. Issue Summary

1.     Environmental Offsets were originally intended as a last-resort tool to replace environmental values unavoidably lost through development activities. The progressive easing of restrictions have created a climate in which an offset option, however divorced from the impact in question can be taken up despite a very real serious impact to a particular species or ecosystem.

2.     There may well be environmental gains from direct application of offset funds to identified corridors or targeted restoration projects, however this will not remedy direct impacts on species resilience in the direct or closely adjacent development area.

3.     Biodiversity has been declining across Australia over many years and successive federal and Queensland Governments have recognised the need to halt and reverse this decline. There will be no net increase of biodiversity if the multitude of potential impacts which are not considered significant will be allowed to proceed.

4.     Coal seam gas exploration and mining result in enormous loss of vegetation for on ground works, clearing for access roads and pipelines as well as recorded and potential threats to groundwater and the ecosystems reliant upon this groundwater. Other serious potential threats include accidents, explosions, contamination of waterways and pollution of air and soil. Despite insufficient information about these impacts, this industry is expanding at an alarming rate.

5.     As each CSG operation has a relatively small site footprint and narrow pipeline corridors the totality of smaller impacts, not considered ‘significant’ mean an ongoing loss of biodiversity.

6.     As a consequence of the removal of red tape, cuts to departmental staff and a reduction in effective consultation with all stakeholders, especially with academics and scientific experts, oversight into environmental impacts has been reduced.

7.     The regulatory measures that should accompany the draft Offsets Bills are still being drawn up and according to the public briefing held on 19th March, they will be released when the Bill is passed but there will be no further consultation into these highly important measures that will determine the effectiveness of the offsets legislation.

8.     Extreme weather events such as extended drought and record breaking heat associated with a rapidly changing climate take their toll on all ecosystem components and reduce the resilience of biota to recover from the additional impacts of development.

9.     Specialist feeders and vegetation found in strictly limited ranges are unable to simply migrate away from habitat loss.

10.   Offset planting occurs offsite and takes years to develop into functioning ecosystems. Biodiversity is not transportable as it involves a large number of living organisms that have co-evolved. Living organisms simply have to flee, if possible, into neighbouring areas, if possible but otherwise simply die.

5. Key Points / Issues 1.     The suite of legislative change that has taken place over the past year and a half requires urgent re-assessment in the light of increased vegetation clearing impacts from additional sectors. 2.     Accelerating climate change impacts have not been factored into these legislative changes 3.     Under the proposed new offsets framework, smaller impacts are simply viewed as a nuisance factor and do not require consideration or trigger the requirement for an offset. This is death by a thousand cuts. 4.     Current Environmental Policy need to be revised to ensure biodiversity impacts are progressively reduced not increased. The primacy of economic gain is driving this downward spiral.
6. Requests

1.     All of the legislation referred to in this Briefing Paper has been in force for some time and we request that the impacts of these be assessed prior to the passing of the Environmental Offsets Bill.

2.     That public consultation is undertaken of the regulatory framework prior to the passing of the Environmental Offsets Bill.

3.     That the Bill is not passed until the completion of the Senate Enquiry into Environmental Offsets.

4.     That existing protected areas, especially National Parks, should not be allowed as offsets.

Submitted by Rose Adams, Secretary Lois Levy , Campaign Coordinator, Rose Adams, Secretary Rochelle James Campaign Team Member