Federal environmental powers that saved the Franklin River and the Great Barrier Reef need not be abandoned in a quest for faster development approvals, the respected Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists says, in a last ditch appeal to the Gillard government to rethink a deal with the states.
At the urging of the Business Council of Australia, the Prime Minister and premiers are due to sign the first stage of the controversial agreement at the Council of Australian Governments on Friday.
It will see the Commonwealth hand over environmental assessment and approval to state governments under specific ''standards'' in a bid to remove ''green tape''.
The federal minister, Tony Burke, will have the power to terminate the agreement if a state isn't sticking to the deal, but will not be able to override state decision-making on a particular project even as a last resort.
In a submission to the government obtained by Fairfax Media, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists - which played a critical role in highlighting the plight of the Murray Darling river system - says there is ''no justification'' for handing over commonwealth powers which ''puts at risk decades of environmental reforms''.
The scientists, including Peter Cosier, Tim Flannery, David Karoly and Hugh Possingham, set out a detailed alternative plan that would allow the government to do away with the duplication that was concerning BCA members without taking the drastic step of abandoning its ''last resort'' power to intervene if necessary.
But business council president, Tony Shepherd said ''Australia has come a long way from the Franklin Days''.
''The agreements the states will sign are pretty strict and pretty specific, so I don't see why you need another layer on top of that, why you still need big brother.''
The ''standards'' for state assessments are set to be agreed on Friday, with the final deals due to be signed by next March.
Environment groups are preparing a major campaign against the green tape changes over the summer, and the Greens have introduced a private member's bill to stop it - allowing a Senate inquiry to take evidence about the possible impacts of the move.
''You need to keep the Commonwealth's reserve powers as a last line of defence,'' said Wentworth Group spokesman Peter Crosier.
''If the Commonwealth had ceded its powers to the states there would be dam across the Franklin River and oil rigs on the Great Barrier Reef by now..and the crazy thing is the Commonwealth can achieve the same goals for quicker decision making without giving all its powers away.''
The federal government has said it will retain the power to make final decisions only about uranium mining, although Fairfax Media understands all categories of decision-making may not be included in the deal with every state.