Coal Rocks On, Features

Amidst the pandemic, koalas are quietly sold out for coal

By Jonathan Moylan, Greenpeace Australia Pacific

Over the weekend of April 4-5, the federal government quietly announced a significant change to the way that decisions around major coal and gas projects get made, with big implications for Australia’s threatened species and ecological communities, including our iconic koala.

During the Covid-19 crisis, Greenpeace will be keeping an eye on ongoing corporate lobbying by fossil fuel companies that puts our climate and environment at risk while people are physically distancing.

Fossil fuel co’s exploiting crisis to push extreme anti-environment agenda

While most people have put public health first and are staying at home, corporate lobbying has not only continued, but fossil fuel companies appear to be exploiting the crisis to push an extreme anti-environment agenda. And koalas are in the firing line.

Koalas are adorable creatures – they sleep during the day and can travel vast distances at night, searching for leaves to forage on. However, many of their favourite feed trees are now in critically endangered ecosystems that have been put at risk of extinction by bulldozers, a drying climate and increasingly severe bushfires.

The longer the distance between habitat areas, the further these furry creatures have to travel, and this can cause koalas to become exhausted or dehydrate. Recent research by WWF Australia has suggested that koala numbers in NSW have dropped by between a third and two-thirds over the past twenty years.

Coal miners bulldoze habitat

One of the koala’s favourite ecosystems is a critically endangered ecological community called White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grassland, which has suffered heavy losses as coal mining companies have bulldozed some of the last parts of this ecosystem in recent years.

In years gone by, mining used to involve sending people down a hole with a pick-axe, but as mining companies dig to deeper and more expensive coal seams, more destructive open cut coal mining, which involves mass bulldozing and open-air blasting with explosives, has become the new norm as companies seek to cut costs.

In 1999, the Howard Government introduced a federal law called the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in recognition of the need to reverse the huge losses of Australia’s incredible biodiversity and the ongoing march of species and ecosystems towards extinction. The Act makes it illegal to do anything that is likely to have significant impacts on threatened species and ecosystems, with penalties of up to seven years’ jail.

Predictably, the Act has always been unpopular with mining companies, who see biodiversity protection as a barrier to profit. When the law was first written, mining companies and developers managed to secure an escape clause that allows the Minister to allow destruction of threatened species habitat under exceptional conditions, subject to strict environmental conditions. Unfortunately, instead of being used sparingly, that clause has been used thousands of times to justify environmental damage. For over a decade, mining companies have been pushing for environmental decisions to be handed over to state governments, who depend more heavily on royalty revenue.

Over that weekend, while most people were nervously checking the spread of the coronavirus, the federal government gave the coal industry part of what they wanted, by announcing a change to a bilateral agreement between the Federal and NSW Government about environmental assessment.

The most significant part of the announcement involved the most controversial part of the mine assessment process, which is a practice called offsetting.

Miners required to offset destruction

In theory, if a mining company wants the government to agree to a mine that would lead to significant destruction of threatened habitat, they need to prove they have done everything possible to avoid, mitigate and offset the damage – in that order. Avoid means that if the company doesn’t “need” to destroy part of an ecosystem, they shouldn’t. Mitigate means that if they are causing damage, they should reduce their impact as far as possible.

Offsetting is meant to be used as a last resort, but in practice, the use of offsetting is widespread. In 2014, a Senate inquiry unearthed huge scandals in biodiversity offsetting, including misleading claims by companies, phantom offsets, and even companies mining areas that were already set aside as offsetting by another project.

The inquiry found that critically endangered ecological communities can’t sustain any further loss, and recommended that they should never be available for offsets. Unfortunately, the federal government has still not implemented the recommendations of that inquiry.

So, what is an offset anyway? The basic idea is that if a company is destroying threatened ecosystems, they need to buy replacement habitat for the animals that depend on it, like the koala. The aim is to encourage those animals to move to a new area, but the reason it’s a last resort option is that the habitat has to already exist.

The principles of offsetting are that the replacement habitat has to be the same ecosystem, in as good as or better condition as the ecosystem under threat, immediately available, and the purchase of the offset needs to give it better protection than it otherwise would have had.

No legal consequences for sending in the bulldozers

Under this weekend agreement, mining companies will now be able to use a system where instead of being required to look for and buy replacement habitat, they will be able to pay the NSW government to do the job for them. In practice, if the government can’t immediately find replacement habitat, there won’t be legal consequences for mining companies who send in the bulldozers, as long as they’ve paid the fund.

Unfortunately, nobody told the koalas that they might have to wait around a few years before the government finds a new home and food source for them. In situations where an ecosystem has been so heavily cleared that it’s impossible to find enough replacement habitat, like with White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grassland, which you’ll remember is a favourite koala home, the process can become absurd.

The mining industry doesn’t like the federal environmental law, and we agree, but for a completely different reason. The fact is that the federal law is just not strong enough to prevent extinction, and that’s why we need a new generation of environmental laws. While this weekend’s announcement was about environmental assessment, the fossil fuel industry wants the government to go further and also hand final decision-making power to the states. It’s critical that we don’t let that happen. We’ll keep fighting for environmental laws that work, and watching out for threats to koalas, but it will take all of us together to demand the Government put our precious ecosystems ahead of corporate greed. Let your friends and family know what our government are trying to get away with in a time of crisis.

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