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A National Environment Protection Authority Deserves The Green Light

Clearly a new approach to environmental planning, protection and decision making is needed.

07/06/2016 3:57 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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Greens Leader Senator Richard Di Natale: “We need an independent statutory National Environment Protection Authority, which enforces our environment laws, free from the influence of politicians and the big business lobby."

The case for a national Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is compelling.

An independent watchdog for nature and communities is long overdue, and this is why the Australian Greens' policy to establish an EPA should be given support across the political spectrum.

In the same way the Reserve Bank safeguards the national economic interest, a stand-alone national EPA would protect our shared national environmental interest and our fundamental need for clean air, clean water and the facilitation of genuinely sustainable development.

These fundamental needs are critically important in an era where the natural world is under increasing stress from the impacts of climate change and from the accumulated stresses and strains of 200 years of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.

The business-as-usual approach, in which a weak national environment minister and under-resourced environment department fights a (usually losing) battle against the more powerful 'economic' portfolios and ministers whilst contenting with often narrow-minded state governments and vocal and powerful business groups has delivered nothing but chronic policy failure.

It is no surprise that we are all fighting a life-and-death action to 'save' the reef because the simple reality is that the protection of the reef runs a poor second to the interests of State Governments wanting desperately to generate revenue and jobs through coal exports and intensive agriculture and within the Australian Government where the mantra of 'balance' leaves the reef in intensive care and the interests of business actors paramount.

A strong and independent EPA would provide transparent information to all Australians about the costs of inaction and the true environmental costs of big developments, rather than sugar coating the facts through bureaucratic nonsense as is the case today.

Significantly, an independent EPA would be the body that undertakes environmental impact assessments, not, as is now the case, the developer -- a conflict of interest of the worst kind. And a national EPA would oversee one national environment assessment and approval system, rather than the chaos of eight separate state-and-territory-based systems.

A strong and independent EPA would have the power to enforce the laws of the land, not to rely on community groups to constantly have to go to the courts to force complacent and captured ministers to do their jobs to enforce and implement the existing laws.

Backed by new national environment laws, the national EPA would be responsible for the development and oversight of a national environment and conservation plan that coordinates the actions of the states and territories to protect the environment and put in place real strategies for adapting to an environment changed by the rapidly changing climate.

Rather than issuing meaningless and unenforceable 'action plans' to rescue species that are on the brink, an EPA would have the real power to make change.

The need for a national EPA has been recently highlighted by the tragi-comedy of the LINC Energy underground coal gasification project in central Queensland.

Over more than a decade, the Linc Energy proposal, using unproven technology to ignite underground coal deposits to create gas, managed to dodge any real environmental scrutiny as trial after trial was waved through with no environmental assessment, despite a constant stream of complaints and concerns about the project from day one.

The developer is now in the courts where it is claimed by the Queensland Government that Linc energy has released toxic chemicals into the region and which the Queensland environment minister has called "the biggest pollution event probably in Queensland's history".

The concern by the Queensland Government is welcome but a little late given the Government's long previous history as cheerleader-in-chief for the project.

The Linc project highlights the folly of the existing approach to environmental regulation which often involves the State Government being both the advocate for and environmental regulator of new economic development proposals.

The simple fact is cash-strapped state governments, particularly in resource-rich states, have a proven track record of not managing to protect the wider public interest when the prospect of jobs, growth and royalties beckon.

The Linc development is just the tip of the iceberg. Clearly a new approach to environmental planning, protection and decision making is needed.

An Independent national EPA would avert the Linc misadventure happening again. A new and unproven proposal such as Linc would be heavily and transparently scrutinised from the outset. The highest standards would be applied and the conflict of interest that bedevils state and local governments would be averted.

The simple reality is that existing national environment laws have done little to stem the ongoing decline of the environment across the country. The existing system of environmental assessments and approvals is hated by both business and the environment movement alike and unloved and under resourced by Governments.

It is time for a bold new approach with clear leadership by the national government and the creation of a new, independent institution one step removed from the cut and thrust of national politics.

It is time for a national EPA.

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