Conservation groups have reacted angrily after Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged a major review of Australia's environmental laws with a pledge to slash approval times.
Mr Morrison revealed a new "single touch approval" process for major projects in a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia's State of the Nation forum on Monday.
It came ahead of the release of the interim findings of a once-in-a-decade review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act by professor Graeme Samuel later this month.
Mr Morrison said delays associated with environmental approvals cost the industry $300 million last year alone.
"That is not good," Mr Morrison said.
Mr Morrison said the Commonwealth had already slashed approval times from an average of 90 days to 40.
"Our goal is to cut these times by a further 25 per cent by the end of this year," he said.
"Ultimately our objective is the streamlining of Commonwealth and state processes to appoint of single touch approvals. National cabinet has had already early discussions on how we can achieve this objective and there is already, I can assure you, a high level of interest and engagement and indeed even agreement."
Treasury's deregulation taskforce would also be moved to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to drive a "whole-of-government" approach to red tape cuts, Mr Morrison said.
Australian Conservation Foundation's nature program manager Basha Stasak warned "deregulation is not a panacea".
"Environmental regulation exists to protect nature from avoidable destruction. The independent review of the EPBC led by professor Graeme Samuel must be allowed to do its job without being pre-empted by government," Ms Stasak said.
She said Australia's natural environment would be key to the country's long-term recovery from COVID-19.
"Our health, safety, and resilience depend on a thriving natural world to support food production and agriculture, tourism and the wellbeing of communities," Ms Stasak said.
"We face an extinction crisis. Unprecedented bushfires over summer killed more than 1 billion animals. Australia's national environment laws must be strengthened to protect the natural life support systems on which we all rely. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise."
Conservation Council ACT executive director Helen Oakey said talk of a one-stop-shop for approvals was "dangerous".
"The last thing that we need is a state or territory government signing off the environmental approvals for their own developments, or developments in which they have a financial stake," Ms Oakey said.
"In the ACT, where the government is a major land developer, national laws have delivered some protection of significant habitats in Molonglo and Gungahlin, but it's unclear if that would happen without federal oversight."
Ms Oakey said while reform of the EPBC Act was required, it should not include "weakening or fast-tracking environmental approvals processes".
"Indeed, we should be strengthening environmental approvals to include independent decision-making at arm's length from the government, and better opportunities for community representation," Ms Oakey said.
"The Prime Minister should wait for the review of national environmental laws that is currently underway to be finalised before foreshadowing changes, because it's very likely that the EPBC review will reach the same conclusion of past reviews - that Australia's national environment laws are not delivering the protection our environment deserves."
Western Sydney University lecturer in environmental science Dr Ian Wright said the bid to cut approval times was concerning, given the Samuels review was weeks away from release.
Dr Wright said the laws were "broken", with environmental impact statements often running to 600 pages with undue emphasis on data provided by project proponents. However speeding up approvals was not the right answer, he said.
"If what we have been going through for the last 20 years ... has been excessive regulation,God help us if we have that cut," Dr Wright said.
"Look at something like Mount Isa and the brain damage to children from lead. The same is happening at Port Pirie in South Australia. The same happened at Broken Hill in Western NSW. We're doing that now. Imagine if we speed these things up.
"The process is broken. The way we manage our natural resources is clearly broken but [blaming] excessive green tape ... yes it's good for industry if we speed [approvals] up but we could see so many unforeseen problems if we do speed it up without really understanding what those problems are."
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