Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Explainer: one-stop-shop for environmental approvals

The new Federal Government has approved a broad framework for achieving a “one-stop-shop” that will delegate to state and territory governments the final decisions on projects assessed under Australia’s…

Australia’s environmental laws are there to protect places like the Great Barrier Reef. Flickr/eutrophication&hypoxia

The new Federal Government has approved a broad framework for achieving a “one-stop-shop” that will delegate to state and territory governments the final decisions on projects assessed under Australia’s main national environmental laws. Today at COAG the states agreed in principle to the proposed changes.

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt says that the “one-stop-shop will slash red tape and increase jobs and investment, whilst maintaining environmental standards.”

The Business Council of Australia claims rather breathlessly that the agreement at today’s COAG meeting “is a long overdue breakthrough, which will begin the process of securing Australia’s massive investment pipeline, without lowering environmental standards”.

Whether the claimed benefits are achievable is an open question and there are serious potential problems with the proposed system.

In 2012 the former Gillard Government proposed a similar system but ultimately placed it on hold due to concerns it would create uncertainty and a patchwork regime across Australia.

Possibly reflecting similar problems of creating a patchwork system, at this stage only Queensland and NSW have signed memorandums of understanding to work with the new Commonwealth Government for its “one-stop-shop”.

Few details have yet been released, but what do we know about how the new process will work and how much more efficient will it be than the current system?

How does the current system work?

One of the major obstacles to creating a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals is that Australia’s federal system of government is more like a scrambled egg than a neatly layered cake.

Within this scrambled egg relatively few day-to-day decisions about development that will affect the environment are made by the Commonwealth government. The vast bulk of decisions are made by local, state and territory governments.

Where does this guy stand under a one-stop shop? Carol Booth

For instance, there are around 250,000 applications a year under state and territory planning laws, most of which are decided by local governments.

In contrast, the main Commonwealth environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), deals with only around 400 referrals each year.

The EPBC Act mainly regulates actions affecting World Heritage properties, listed threatened species, and other “matters of national environmental significance”. The projects that it regulates closely tend to be big projects.

The EPBC Act approval process has three stages: referral, assessment and approval.

At the referral stage the Commonwealth decides whether a proposed action triggers the Act and requires approval under it. This has proved to be a very efficient process of screening out many projects and providing certainty to proponents that their projects do not trigger the Act. On very rare occasions, projects have been refused as “clearly unacceptable” at this first stage, thereby avoiding further costs and delay in carrying out an assessment.

Experience over the first decade of the Act’s operation showed that over 75% of projects referred under it were decided within weeks and dropped out under this first stage. This fact is normally omitted by individuals and organisations such as the Business Council of Australia, who rail against the costs and delays caused by EPBC Act.

Only around 22% of referrals are determined to be controlled actions that proceed through the assessment and approval stages. For these actions the EPBC Act has mechanisms to avoid duplication with state and territory assessments known as “bilateral agreements”. There are two types of bilateral agreements.

Assessment bilaterals allow state and territory assessment processes to be used under the EPBC Act but the final decision on whether to approve a project remains with the Federal Environment Minister. Assessment bilaterals have been in place with all states and territories for years and have proved to be effective in reducing unnecessary duplication and delay.

In contrast, approval bilaterals delegate the final decision on a project to the state and territory government. While this mechanism has existed in the Act from the outset, it has been virtually unused.

An example of how efficiently the existing assessment bilateral system works to avoid duplication or delay due to the EPBC Act is the Alpha Coal Mine. That project began its assessment under Queensland law in 2008 and has not yet been approved, despite claims to the contrary in 2012 by the Queensland Premier. The project was referred under the EPBC Act in 2009, assessed under the bilateral agreement and approved by the Commonwealth in 2012. The state approvals are unlikely to be granted before early to mid-2014. That is, state approval may come some 18 months after the Commonwealth approval.

A rarely used but important safety net for the environment

Under the existing system the EPBC Act has rarely stopped or significantly delayed a project. Yet some important decisions have been made under it, stopping highly damaging activities such as mass killing of flying foxes adjacent to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

One example where the EPBC Act has stopped a major project was the Traveston Crossing Dam in Queensland. This project also illustrates the most important role of the EPBC Act in practice – to provide an appropriate level of oversight on state government-sponsored projects.

The Queensland Government proposed the dam in 2006 at the height of a major drought gripping the state. It assessed the project under state laws and concluded that the environmental impacts were acceptable.

The old system worked well when Traveston was being considered. Patrick McCully

The Federal Environment Minister at the time, Peter Garrett, requested independent experts to review the state assessment and they found major deficiencies in it regarding impacts on threatened species. His subsequent decision to refuse the dam based on that independent expert advice was an example of good decision-making under the EPBC Act, which prevented a project that would have caused serious damage to several threatened species.

Had an approval bilateral been in place at the time when the dam was proposed, delegating the final EPBC Act decision on it to the state government, it is certain that the state would have approved the dam being built and severe impacts on threatened species would have occurred.

What changes are proposed?

The “one-stop-shop” policy proposes to enter approval bilateral agreements under the EPBC Act with all state and territory governments, thereby delegating final approval powers over projects to them.

While the framework so far released to the public reads like a complete handover of all Commonwealth decisions to the states, the Federal Environment Minister qualified the Coalition’s policy before the election when he was the Coalition’s environment spokesperson. He said in an interview reported in the Weekend Australian in May 2013 that: “some matters would be reserved where the Commonwealth would be the one-stop-shop but overwhelmingly it would be the states."

The Minister confirmed in a radio interview after the election that the Commonwealth will retain control over decisions involving offshore Commonwealth waters, nuclear actions, and projects for which state governments are “likely to have a significant conflict of interest” as the proponent.

Assuming these promises are fulfilled, they alleviate the most significant concern about the one-stop-shop policy: where the state is the proponent they’ll have difficulty making an independent assessment.

The Saraji coal mine in Queensland Lock the Gate Alliance/Flickr

What are the likely savings in time and money?

Peering behind the political rhetoric, it is difficult to see how the “one-stop-shop” policy will “slash red tape and increase jobs and investment, whilst maintaining environmental standards”.

Under the policy there is no intention to repeal the EPBC Act or reduce the range of projects to which it applies. Only the final decision-maker will change.

For proponents, most of the costs and delay comes in the environmental impact stage. There are already assessment bilaterals avoiding duplication of state and federal governments this stage. Given this, it is difficult to see where significant time and costs savings will be achieved by the policy.

Another reality check for the “one-stop-shop” slogan is that it will only apply to projects that require both federal and state approval. There is no intention to apply federal laws to all projects.

This means that even after the policy is implemented there will still be at least two “shops”: one for the relatively few projects assessed at federal and state levels, and another for the vast bulk of projects assessed only at a state or local government level.

The claims made of the benefits of the “one-stop-shop” therefore appear to be largely political hyperbole.

Join the conversation

37 Comments sorted by

    1. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      Robert, you don't think that if you wanted to make changes to your business that you need to know what you can do within a reasonable time and also not have to spend a fortune before you get an answer and which can be for nought?

      They are not necessarily cutting green tape, just red tape.

      report
    2. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      As one wiley observer noted from the Liberals election to approval of the Abbot Pt coal terminal was 3 months. It takes the rest of us longer to get a permit for a new pergola.

      The Napthine govt is overseeing the logging the habitat of the critically endangered leadbeaters possum, at a financial loss for the state. Obviously not a matter of "national environmental significance". And they want to get rid of green tape?!

      report
    3. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Chris Owens

      Chris, I think you'll find they have been extending the Abbot Point terminal for the last 25 years or more.

      More recently I think there were 6 terminals approved but only 2 built because of contraction in the industry.

      But it has been work-in-progress for a long time.

      report
    4. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim, the uproar is about the dredging of 3,000,000 m3 of material from within the GBR reserve and the damage to the reef from the dumping of this spoil. We are putting in danger arguably our greatest natural asset. But for you because its more of the same its OK. The Guardian noted "the World Heritage committee gathering in Cambodia, warned that the Great Barrier Reef would be listed as 'in danger' next year unless Australia met targets to not build new ports and to minimise expansion of existing ports".
      Face it, in Oz what business wants, business gets, irrespective of the cost to the natural world.

      report
    5. Jim Inglis

      retired

      In reply to Chris Owens

      "But for you because its more of the same its OK."

      Where did I say that, Chris?

      Why don't the majority of commenters on this site face reality?

      You are academics who are mostly on the public payroll who want to regulate us back into the trees where there was never any regulation.

      There are better solutions.

      report
    6. Chris Owens

      Professional

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Jim, by your justification of the Port Abbot expansion. And little chance of regulating us "back into the trees", when we have the illusion of choice of the two major political parties who both have the same basic policies, which have to have the approval of big business and mainstream media to get up.

      The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but it loss is no barrier to our governments who fight to sell off our natural resources and contribute to overheating the planet with the resulting co2, within the span of a few generations.

      report
    7. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      The article concludes that the benefits of the one stop shop approach are fairly minimal. You clearly disagree and that is fine but perhaps you are able to detail actually what "savings" are achievable?

      report
    8. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      the sad thing is that the legislation is already heavily weighted to the benefit of resources companies, ask any farmer currently dealing with CSG or expanding coal mines. THERE MUST BE A BALANCE.

      My own experience with an aspiring coal miner is that they lie, obfiscate, don't do their own work, want access to everyone elses information and rely on motherhood statements and not supporting their own assertions with facts/studies upon which a proposal can be assessed.

      When your mucking around…

      Read more
    9. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Chris Owens

      You will find some of the facts about Abbot Point @ http://www.nqbp.com.au/abbot-point/ Chris and even linked to that site much information about your concerns.
      You could always lobby your local council and state member about council regulations for your pergola and there are likely many more amateur DIYs that council regulations are to protect.
      Meanwhile, selected dumping of fill in areas away from reef is hardly likely to cause damage that storm activity could whip up.
      Even without storms, I…

      Read more
    10. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      " An example of how efficiently the existing assessment bilateral system works to avoid duplication or delay due to the EPBC Act is the Alpha Coal Mine. That project began its assessment under Queensland law in 2008 and has not yet been approved, despite claims to the contrary in 2012 by the Queensland Premier. The project was referred under the EPBC Act in 2009, assessed under the bilateral agreement and approved by the Commonwealth in 2012. The state approvals are unlikely to be granted before early to mid-2014. That is, state approval may come some 18 months after the Commonwealth approval. "
      Henry, if it reduces six years to about two say, that would represent a great saving, not just in bureaucrats time but also for the costs involved with projects that will benefit Australia.
      Ask yourself if you as an investor would appreciate putting an investment on hold for six years or even two for that matter, there likely to be all sorts of implications if you think about it a tad.

      report
    11. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      Not just farmers are seeing this imbalance. Fishermen are witnessing the same environmental double standards over marine park activities and uses checklists. Even recreational fishers get banned while deviation mining, seismic exploration, invasive species from ballast release and mass dredging all get approved.

      These areas are far from 'protected' as claimed and hence the reason why most recreational fishers take exception to groups like Exxon mobil greenwashing marine parks alongside environmental groups like PEW who fund Exxon Mobil through the PEW Charitable Trust.

      report
    12. Chris McGrath

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Greg North

      Dear Greg,

      The six years of assessment for the Alpha Coal Mine has been for the state level assessment. The EPBC Act did not add any delay so the point I was making is that the "one-stop-shop" won't change this.

      Incidentally, I acted for one of the objectors to the mine in a hearing in the Queensland Land Court. The impacts on groundwater are very, very complex and that has been one of the major difficulties in assessing the mine. Simply speeding up the assessment timelines will make it a lot harder to get it right.

      Kind regards

      Chris

      report
  1. Mike Jubow

    Forestry nurseryman at Nunyara Wholesale , Forestry consultants, seedling suppliers.

    Whenever I hear a government, either state or federal, talk about a "One stop Shop", I find that inevitably any project that brings dollars into the treasury will get approval regardless of the environmental, social or economic downsides. OK, I can't back that up with verified surveys, etc, but it is blatant that the winner is always the big money end of town, not the environment, not the local society, and not the economy that is not directly related to the project.

    In previous posts, I called…

    Read more
    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      Mike, our children and likely grand children too are going to certainly have a different time on earth than we have enjoyed, not because of nature changing but merely because there is every chance that as well as astromonical power charges increases, they could well face power shortages, rationing and black outs because of many governments inaction in developing new base load power stations.
      Renewables are just technically not the answer and even if you could develop the capacity and maintain reliability…

      Read more
  2. Peter Walford

    Practical Theoretician

    Thank you for this analysis: forewarned is forearmed.

    report
  3. Chris McGrath

    Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

    Updating the statement in the article that only Queensland and NSW have signed memorandums of understanding, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that all of the remaining states and territories signed similar memoranda at today's COAG meeting: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/environmental-approval-onestop-shops-get-coag-green-light-20131213-2zc1k.html

    The Guardian also has a good report: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2013/dec/13/coag-one-stop-shop-environmental-approval-deal-alarms-conservationists

    report
  4. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    Thanks for a very thorough article, Chris. There still appears to be a raised potential for governments whose interests align with project proponents to stifle reasonable review, but at least the most contentious projects should be captured by federal review.

    report
  5. mike flanagan

    retired

    Let us call a spade a shovel Macca. It amounts to a sell out of our children's heritage, that enables a spineless Prime Minister to escape having to face up to the rent seekers , rapists and pillagers of the little we have left .
    There will come a day, in the not too distant future, when a lot of these people will be locked in the stocks for our throwing practise with ripe beetroot.,
    And the sooner the better, do I hear the town crier call?

    report
    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Megan Evans

      Hi Megan, does it really cut through the hyperbole of defenders of the current system?

      I do think the author makes a very convincing argument. But it is an argument. I'm not sure why it's called an 'explainer', which you might assume would present the case for both sides.

      report
    2. Chris McGrath

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Hi James,

      The Conversation asked me to write a brief explainer on the "one-stop-shop" policy. I felt that needed to be set in the context of how the EPBC Act is only a part of a much larger system of approvals, most of which are at the state level. While I did present the claims made in support of the new system by the Minister and BCA, you are right the I did not try to support their points because I think the better view is they are political hyperbole. Happy to discuss any contrary views you may have.

      Kind regards

      Chris

      report
    3. David Kershaw

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Chris McGrath

      The concept of a "one stop shop" is problematic. Would you get your brain surgery at the same shop as your fruit and veg?

      report
  6. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Writer

    The key sentence for me in your overview, Chris is:

    "Assuming these promises are fulfilled, they alleviate the most significant concern about the one-stop-shop policy: where the state is the proponent they’ll have difficulty making an independent assessment."

    If your analysis is sound, Chris, the Coalition have thrown decision-making to the States so a/ they can't be blamed and b/ business is virtually always guaranteed to be given the nod before the environment.

    Seeing the Coalition appear to loathe anything deemed 'green', like action on climate change or protecting fish stocks or saving old growth forest, it's a safe bet to assume the Australian environment is in for a major bashing. Very sad.

    report
    1. Chris McGrath

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      Dear Ben,

      Those are fair points you make but it is important not to have rose coloured glasses about the situation under Labor, which was bad for environmental issues to.

      Kind regards

      Chris

      report
    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      So greening Australia through planting millions of trees is not considered green Ben?

      report
    3. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Chris McGrath

      Agreed. Labour, for me, was often criticised by the Coalition as 'policy on the run' and I often agreed with that. Reasonable initiatives in 'green' policy were rushed and flawed. I'm still dreaming of genuine leadership on these issues, one that brings the country together in combating the significant environmental problems that all, as far as I'm aware, have solutions. Cheers.

      report
    4. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Greg North

      Good point, Greg - all the independent commentators I read or hear referring to the Coalition's Direct Action plan have either nothing against this aspirational goal, or are very positive about it.

      I offered a comment recently about the possibility of planting copses in all available coastal areas - alongside motorways, disused or unusable land, or any other crown or council land that could reasonably take a few more trees. The reason: coastal forests push the rain shadow further inland…

      Read more
    5. Neville Mattick
      Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      You maybe 'up for more trees' how will that be implemented?

      A forest is a complex ecosystem, just planting one species for example is a disaster - a monoculture will be a likely candidate for insect or disease attack hence and become an environmental health hazard in some other way if it isn't implemented correctly.

      One disappearing landscape - very under-represented in Australia is the Native Grassland, powerhouse of protein to countless dependent species (eg: birds) I am concerned that worthless banks of LNP trees will further erode the Native Grasslands.

      Thick, regenerated forest in this area for example is devoid of life with the exception to the fringes where it meets a Native Grassland, reason being is that a solid canopy cover is unnatural for White Box, Yellow Box Blakelys Red Gum EEC.

      Key words in the writers' essay are "massive investment pipeline" so methinks the COALition will not let the environment get in the way of short term profit.

      report
    6. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      I'm also intrigued by the Business Council's reference to a "massive investment pipeline", since elsewhere we read that the mining onvestment boom is nearing its end.

      Is the Business Council referring to a "massive investment pipeline" in some sector other than mining? Manufacturing?

      report
    7. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      Really good points, Neville.

      I see some really inept and poorly planned and implemented mass tree plantings ahead, I'm afraid. I know from experience on two properties, and having planted everything from woodlot to most varieties of natives, that trees are site-specific in their likely success or failure. They also, for the most part, can't just be planted and left to fate.

      Monoculture is, as you suggest, a fragile system at risk from a pests and diseases POV and also effectively sterile…

      Read more
    8. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      I think Ben that if you look at the amount of space in Australia that could benefit from tree plantings and still leaving plenty of grasslands, there are an awful lot of trees that can be planted and of course there should be consideration of different species and having a mixture, there being as I have said, trees that will be suitable for timber and also varieties that can provide fodder.
      Then there are the enormous number of varities that provide food and shelter for wildlife.
      I was just watching…

      Read more
  7. David Rennie

    IT Contractor

    The problem with this policy would seem to be that the financial beneficiaries are deciding whether the projects should be approved. Local government gets rates and jobs, state government gets royalties. Under a one stop shop no one is truly considering the environmental impact.
    It's the old story of bad government, who polices the police. State govt's should oversee local govt, federal govt should oversee state govt and the UN should oversee national governments to avoid decisions based on personal gain rather than social benefit.

    report
  8. Steve Burgess

    logged in via Facebook

    The major problem with the one-stop-shop approach is when it is applied to large politically motivated projects for which a State is the effective proponent.

    Under these circumstances - the typical model would be,
    1:State(proponent) develops project idea and negotiates financial and political partners,
    2:State(proponent) announces and commits to project as part of political/media/financial strategy
    3 State(proponent) determines terms of reference for EIS
    4 State(proponent) conducts EIS…

    Read more
  9. John Pickard

    Eclectic naturalist

    Good analysis Chris, except for your final sentence.

    "The claims made of the benefits of the “one-stop-shop” therefore appear to be largely political hyperbole."

    I think that you can replace the polysyllabic "largely political hyperbole" with the very simple, monosyllabic word we all understand: LIES.

    report
    1. Chris McGrath

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to John Pickard

      Dear John,

      "Lie" is a very loaded word and I think goes too far in this case. At least, I don't have evidence to support such a claim and I suspect the reality is more nuanced.

      One of the contributing factors to the focus on the one-stop-shop for the EPBC Act is that many commentators blow its role out of proportion and fail to recognise the complexity and resources involved in satisfying state and local government regulations such as planning approvals.

      While Greg Hunt is the Federal Environment…

      Read more