Numerous large Australian coal mines have had their environmental regulations relaxed, in changes the federal government hopes will make life easier for the struggling industry.
Certain coal mines owned by Glencore, BHP Billiton and Whitehaven Coal have received favourable changes to their approval conditions within the past month, which in some cases reduce the environment minister's ability to demand changes and reduce public oversight of miners' compliance with approval conditions.
The changes, many of which were initiated by the environment department rather than being requested by mining companies, come after a series of controversial coal approvals in recent years and after the federal government threatened to change environment laws in a bid to prevent green groups using the courts to challenge approvals.
Approvals for two Glencore coal mines in the Hunter Valley, Bulga and Liddell, have had environmental conditions revoked within the past month which appear to remove the environment minister's ability to request changes to environmental management plans.
The Caval Ridge coal mine that BHP operates had eight conditions on its approval altered last week, including one which means the company no longer has to wait for written approval from the minister if it wishes to change the way it manages offset areas or threatened species, so long as the companies believe their new plan will not have an increased impact.
Some miners were also told they can report on compliance with their environmental conditions less often, with BHP now allowed to report on Caval Ridge once every two years rather than annually.
The alterations also mean BHP no longer have to publish their compliance reports for Caval Ridge on their websites, and instead need only submit their documents to the environment department.
BHP's Mt Arthur coal mine in the Hunter Valley and the Tarrawonga and Werris Creek coal mines run by Whitehaven have also had their environmental approvals altered.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Environment Department said that some of the recent changes were initiated by the department, and were not specifically requested by the companies involved.
"In line with the Australian government's broader regulation reform agenda, some recent variations have been initiated by the department as a means of reducing unnecessary regulatory burden. These variations are designed to reduce the administrative burden associated with approval conditions while still maintaining high standards of environmental protection," she said.
Environment law is not red tape, it is a safeguard for Australia's clean water, air and good healthAustralian Conservation Foundation spokesman Paul Sinclair
The spokeswoman said that 34 project approvals had been changed over the past nine months, with the environmental conditions loosened in 21 of those cases.
The spokeswoman said the changes were being made to a range of project approvals, not just coal mines.
But coal mines appear to be very well represented, with Fairfax Media aware of at least seven coal approvals which have been changed in recent months.
Fairfax Media is aware of just one copper mine (BHP's Olympic Dam) and one iron ore mine (run by BC Iron) which have had conditions changed.
Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman Paul Sinclair said it was not appropriate for the government to be running from Australia's environmental law.
"Environment law is not red tape, it is a safeguard for Australia's clean water, air and good health," Dr Sinclair said.
"The Federal Government has a duty to ensure major resources companies comply with the law."
When asked if BHP was happy with the changes, a company spokesperson said; "BHP Billiton welcomes actions by all levels of Government which are directed towards reducing the regulatory and compliance burdens faced by the sector."
The Minerals Council said it did not believe the environment minister's powers had been reduced.
"We believe that regulation and compliance can be more efficient and effective while continuing to uphold high environmental standards," said a spokesman for the council.
"The MCA supports a risk-based approach to compliance, which account for a company's track record and the maturity of their environmental management systems among other things. This reduces unnecessary regulatory burden on the operator and allows regulators to target their compliance resources more effectively.
"Where appropriate, project conditions should focus on the achievement of environmental outcomes and not unnecessary prescription on how those outcomes are achieved. This flexibility allows for adaptive, innovative approaches to be used."