By Peter Burnett
The Senate has just wrapped up its Budget Estimates hearings. Happily, there was plenty of substance to discuss — in fact, far too much to cover here. So, I’ve picked out some morsels that I hope will interest readers of this blog.
The good news is that most of the ‘substance’ relates to increased activity. The recent years of inactivity on the environment are clearly over.
The bad news is that it will take a long time to generate fresh momentum. With the possible exception of climate change policies, some of which might show up in reported emissions relatively quickly, it could be some years before we can tell whether any of the new policies and reforms discussed in Estimates are making a measurable difference on the ground.
As a sign of overall activity, the number of full-time equivalent staff in the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCCEEW) is increasing from 2896 to 3895. Allowing for 133 contractors becoming employees, this is an increase of nearly 30%.
Everything is ‘nature positive’
Before I get on to more meaty topics, I’ll start with an issue of atmospherics. Greens Senator Hanson Young made it clear through some of her questions that she was irritated at the extent to which the government is calling lots of things ‘nature positive’, including parts of DCCEEW itself, where the Environment Assessment Division is now the Nature Positive Regulation Division.
The Senator asked how the recent approval of the Isaac River coal mine by an officer of this division was ‘nature positive’.
I must say I have some sympathy with the Senator’s line — the government has gone a bit overboard with its use of what is, after all, a slogan.
Fossil fuel green lights
Continuing her line of attack on coal mining, Senator Hanson-Young asked how many coal and gas projects were awaiting approval (or not).
It seems there are 45, with five likely to be decided in the next six months. Each of these will give the Greens another chance to argue their case for the EPBC Act to be expanded to include a ‘climate trigger’ (more below).
EPBC reform, timeframe and cost
Several Senators wanted to know about the timing of reforms to the EPBC Act, to give effect to the Nature Positive Plan released by the government in December 2022.
Apart from repeating environment minister Tanya Plibersek’s statements about aiming to table legislation and some drafts of the new National Environmental Standards by Christmas, the response of officials boiled down to ‘it takes as long as it takes’.
We did learn however that there would probably be a package of bills, including one to establish the promised EPA (Environment Protection Australia).
We also learnt that the taskforce in DCCEEW that is doing the reforms will cost $34 million over two years. I think that’s a tidy sum. It suggests officials think the reform task will involve a great deal of work, including lots of consultation (the new bodies that the reforms will produce, the EPA and Environment Information Australia (EIA) come with their own buckets of new money).
Forests and the environment
Victoria’s decision to end native forest logging by the end of this year was announced on the morning of the Estimates hearings. This prompted Senators to ask officials what they knew about it and what it might mean for Commonwealth-State Regional Forestry Agreements (RFAs) in other states.
The gist of the answers was that Victoria had not revealed its intentions in advance and that it was too early to know the implications, including how much of Victoria’s 1.8 million hectare forest estate could now be counted towards the ’30 x 30’ target of having 30% of land in reserve by 3030.
Officials did however repeat the government’s commitment to apply the new National Environmental Standards to Regional Forestry Agreements (as did the minister in Question Time) but it seems we must wait until at least Christmas to find out whether this will put some teeth back into RFAs that have been ‘defanged’ over the last several decades.
Environment Protection Australia (EPA)
Labor Senator Payman quoted the Leader of the Opposition as claiming that Environment Protection Australia will make environmental approvals slower and more expensive. Was that true, she asked?
This gave officials the chance to repeat the government’s narrative that the Nature Positive Plan would be ‘better for business and better for the environment’. National environmental standards would set ‘a very clear outcome’, making it easier for the EPA to make decisions. Further, regional plans would provide upfront information to developers, allowing them to make a much earlier call about where to site their project for the quickest approval.
That’s the theory. In practice, with the amount of environmental degradation that’s occurred in many areas, the answer under this model may indeed be quick but if the standards and plans are done properly it might also be ‘no’.
New money for threatened species?
Independent ACT Senator David Pocock* was keen to explore whether the government was backing its commitment to no new extinctions, with new money. Had the department done any modelling on how much money was needed to deliver on that commitment?
One of the senior officials was in an expansive mood, replying that $4.8 billion in new money had been invested over the forward estimates, including through the National Heritage Trust (NHT), the source of most money for species recovery. ‘As for the private sector component’ he said, ‘it bears noting that the estimate of what the nature repair market can unlock is $137 billion.’ (More on that last figure below.)
Further questioning narrowed things down. Some $439.2 million had been allocated to the NHT over the next five years, of which $145m was allocated to species and landscapes; $5 million to the Bush Blitz program; $25 million to pilot initiatives for the 30 by 30 initiative (presumably acquisition of land for reserves); and $10.1 million to ‘national, emerging or multiregional priorities’.
That looks to me like an average of less than $40 million per year for nature conservation through the extension of an existing program — essentially nothing new. It turned out that the real answer to Senator Pocock’s question was buried in the Budget papers
The Government will consider future funding for the Nature Positive Plan when initial establishment work has been completed and ongoing administrative and operational requirements are better understood.
Will the private sector really invest in nature conservation?
In my last blog I expressed skepticism about a figure from a PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) report that the private sector would potentially invest $137 billion by 2050 in a ‘nature repair market’, a figure which the government is attempting to leverage with its Nature Repair Market Bill 2023.
Quizzed on this by Senator Pocock, officials advised that, while they hadn’t done their own modelling, ‘we are in conversation with corporates—significant corporates—about their demand for the market. It is strong.’ And later: ‘Currently there is a strong market for ACCUs with a biodiversity co-benefit. People pay a premium for that.’
Even the DCCEEW Secretary chipped in:
Mr Fredericks: You are looking for indicators for demand for biodiversity certificates under the nature repair market: the fact that there is demand now for ACCUs with a biodiversity outcome would suggest that demand does exist.
Interestingly, the PWC report, which I suggested in my earlier blog was self-promoting because it was not commissioned by a client, turns out to have been prepared following a conversation with one of DCCEEW’s Deputy Secretaries:
Ms O’Connell: No, we did not commission or pay for that report. It came out of a conversation I had with a principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers in terms of, ‘Here’s something that would be useful for us to know’. It was not paid for or commissioned by the department.
Especially given current revelations about PWC lack of integrity, this is an interesting insight into how consultants look to cultivate new business.
As to how much demand there is for private sector investment in biodiversity, we’ll have to wait and see. But as Senator Pocock noted, the government may have to give things a kick-start: ‘We saw with the carbon market the Commonwealth put in $2.5 billion to establish projects; to get a pipeline of projects and to create [carbon credits]’.
Natural capital accounting
Environment Information Australia, a new division of DCCEEW but headed by a statutory office (like the Director of National Parks) will get $51.9 million over four years, with $4.5 million ongoing.
That’s on top of some existing funding for environmental information, but there was nothing said that would tell us just how much new information will be gathered, or how accessible it will be to us all.
The closest we came was in response to questions from Greens Senator Rice, who wanted to confirm that this new organisation would be responsible for delivering natural capital accounting in partnership with the Australian Bureau of Statistics and in conformity with SEEA, the international system of environmental and economic accounting. ‘Yes’ said the official.
But Senator Rice wanted to know how EIA would work with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, because she had heard of ‘considerable concern about how SEEA is being implemented, including that there is no coordinated approach, with tenders put out and then withdrawn, with no strategic framework guiding the implementation’. Would there be a review?
The official assured the Senator that all was sweetness and light, but revealed nothing of substance.
In my view this is one to watch. The current national strategy on natural capital accounting is about to expire and was always tepid. With a policy commitment, a new organisation and a real budget, there’s never been a better opportunity for the government to gets its skates on in realising the enormous potential of natural capital accounting.
‘Mega-frackers’ and frustration
I’ll finish with an item that illustrates that the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction under the EPBC Act remains lopsided without a ‘climate trigger’
Former Greens Senator Thorpe raised concerns about fracking in the controversial Beetaloo Basin development in the NT, which is said to create a “carbon bomb” of 1.4bn tonnes of total emissions globally.
Apparently the developer is in the process of bringing five ‘mega-frackers’, that can drill four kilometres down, to the Beetaloo project, with one such machine currently docked in Darwin Harbour.
Senator Thorpe said these machines had been responsible for five deaths and that Traditional Owners had written to the minister about their concerns over Beetaloo.
Officials responsible for the EPBC Act played these questions with an absolutely flat bat. No, they were not aware of ‘mega-frackers’; in fact they were not involved in the Beetaloo project because it had not been referred to them under the EPBC Act.
Presumably, in the absence of a ‘climate trigger’ in the EPBC Act, the developer had concluded that the project was not likely to have a significant impact on ‘matters of national environmental significance’ such as threatened species.
When Plibersek’s EPBC reform package reaches the Senate next year, I expect the lack of a climate trigger will top the wish list for the cross-bench.
Interesting debates ahead!
*All references here are to Senator David Pocock; Greens Senator Barbara Pocock was not on this Estimates Committee
Banner image: The environment sector is finally getting extra attention (and funding). What these green shoots produce is uncertain. (Image by David Salt)