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Coal port decision a case-in-point for federal check on state powers

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Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media

View more articles from Andrew Darby

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke finally approved the Abbot Point Coal Terminal after saying the Queensland government environmental  assessment of the project was "shambolic".

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke finally approved the Abbot Point Coal Terminal after saying the Queensland government environmental assessment of the project was "shambolic". Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

A good environment-versus-development stoush seems so much part of Australian politics, it's hard to imagine life without it.

Take away all that shouting and there would always be the nagging feeling that the other side had somehow managed to pull the wool over one's eyes.

That's why the federal-state environmental reforms are worth a look as they bubble towards conclusion.

These Council of Australian Governments (COAG) reforms devolve federal environmental assessments to the states, making business happier, and appalling green groups.

We've just seen a practice run with the Queensland Alpha Coal port decision. In short, the outcome was good for seagrass – not so good for the reforms.

The federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, unveiled plans for the shift, moved by the business complaint that too often a project had to leap duplicate federal and state environmental hurdles.

"I have no joy in there being a cost through delay," Burke said. "Where we can allow business to have a one-stop shop, we want to."

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, if Canberra decides a project is of national significance, a developer must satisfy the Commonwealth regarding any environmental impact before it is ticked off.

Instead, Burke proposes – and COAG agrees – that there should be a single set of national standards for state-based approvals.

Once Canberra decides that the act is triggered, a project (say, GVK/Hancock's Alpha Coal port facility at Abbot Point) would go to the state for assessment. It would not come back to Canberra for final approval.

Green groups are marshalling forces against this. Humane Society International, which helped form the act as it stands, accuses Burke and the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, of setting out on a course of environmental vandalism.

“In practice,” said the Humane Society campaign director, Michael Kennedy, “this means that over 1600 animals and plants, some 4.6 million hectares of threatened ecological communities, 8 million hectares of wetlands of international importance, 261 listed migratory species and some 20 million hectares of national heritage sites will be left entirely to the mercy of the voraciously pro-development states and territories.”

Burke tried to calm anxieties when he first announced the plan.

"I want it to be clear that I'm not saying as an automatic measure, states now will be in charge of federal approvals," he said. "I don't believe we will ever have a situation where that, as a broad-brush statement, is true."

He is relying on the toughness of the national standards and says some states might never be able to measure up enough to take over the job.

This was certainly the case with Abbot Point.

Burke called the Queensland government assessment "shambolic" when it was completed this year. Last week he finally signed off on it, after imposing 60 extra conditions, including an eight-for-one offset of seagrass beds.

This experience underlines the pivotal importance of the new national standards. We are yet to see these, and the government is showing a worrying reluctance to unveil them. The Humane Society's attempt to get a draft of the standards under freedom of information laws was refused.

"Disclosure would interrupt or create difficulty in negotiations and consultations with the states and territories that are under way and are currently at a sensitive stage," the Environment Department said.

Green groups expect that a draft of the COAG changes will be publicly released later this year, before going before a council meeting early next year.

Meanwhile, there is a useful reminder for the federal government that the public expects it will do its duty on the environment.

In a poll conducted for the environmental group WWF, 85 per cent of respondents agreed with this proposition: "Our federal government should be able to block or require changes to major projects that could damage the environment."

Woe betide the government that tries to pull the wool over our eyes.

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