Fight back needed for a stronger federal environment law

April 16, 2024
Protesting for a just transition for fossil fuel workers and a safe climate in Gadigal/Sydney, December 2023. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Climate, environment and water campaigners are fighting what they see as Labor’s walk back on its promised reforms to the main environmental law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

They are concerned it is moving to speed up the approvals process for large-scale gas developments and disarming water trigger laws, which only passed late last year.

Environmentalists and Greens and independent MPs won a major victory, late last year, when Labor agreed to extend the water trigger in the EPBC to cover coal and gas projects.

However, industry and business seem to have since persuaded Labor to water down its environment-friendly reforms in its “nature-positive reform” package and speed up approvals of new gas projects.

An independent review of the EPBC Act concluded in October 2020 that many changes were needed, including new national environmental standards, within two years. Labor in opposition criticised the Coalition for only introducing piecemeal reforms.

The review also concluded that the current EPBC “does not clearly outline its intended outcomes” and that “the environment has suffered from 2 decades of failing to continuously improve the law and its implementation”.

It noted that the EPBC is “complex and cumbersome” and it “results in duplication with State and Territory development approval processes”.


Labor announced on April 16 it would establish two new agencies — Environment Protection Australia (EPA) and Environment Information Australia — to make decisions on developments and enforce regulations — thereby separating the decision-making from the EPBC.

A coalition of environment groups responded the same day saying they were concerned the new proposed agencies were about fast-tracking fossil-fuel projects.

Kirsty Howey, Executive Director of Environment Centre NT said “pushback from self-interested and well-resourced mining and gas magnates” had led to Labor’s “capitulation”.

Dave Copeman, Director of Queensland Conservation Council, said environment minister Tanya Plibersek’s delay in the long-awaited fundamental reform means that Australia will have an EPA “without all the tools it needs to protect nature”. 

“Australia does need a Federal EPA,” said James Overington, Executive Officer of Environment Tasmania, but “in the absence of underpinning legislation, and when the Minister can override its decisions, we are struggling to see how there will be any reliable benefits to nature”. 

David Bacon, President of the Conservation Council of South Australia, said Plibersek must “how and when the plan to ‘turn the tide from nature destruction to nature repair’ that she announced in December 2022 will be delivered”. 

Glenn Walker, Head of Nature at Greenpeace Australia Pacific asked how the new agencies would relate to the EPBC to deliver improved nature laws.

“The EPA will not have the teeth it needs until a strong national nature law also comes into place.” He said it is “essential” the “EPA is given powers to assess and reject large coal and gas projects where the climate impacts on nature are assessed as significant”.

“Following the hottest year on record, it’s completely untenable that the existing nature law fails to allow this — another reason why it’s critical that the government gets on with the job of introducing the new nature law into parliament as soon as possible.”

Water assessments

Plibersek has also said she wants to establish an “accredited approval” scheme for States and Territories to take control of assessing environmental and water resource impacts and the power to approve their own massive coal and oil projects.

But environment organisations fear that devolving federal environmental approval powers to the States and Territories in separate legislation would render it toothless. said the proposed change would be a “betrayal” and that the States and Territories cannot be trusted to properly assess environmental and water resource impacts on fossil fuel projects.

Currently, such assessments have to be made federally.

Kelly Albion for said: “Four months after we won our campaign to expand the water trigger to unconventional gas projects in NT [Northern Territory] and WA [West Australia], the government’s proposed changes would put precious water at risk everywhere.

“The states and territories simply cannot be trusted with water protection.

“Offshore oil and gas have huge environmental impacts and the potential to unleash a climate bomb.

“Massive gas projects like North West Shelf in WA, Barossa in the NT and drilling off the Surf Coast in Victoria will have a massive impact on our already warming climate,” Albion said.

The government’s proposed changes to the environmental approvals process for large gas projects were rejected in March by Greens, Teals and Independent MPs.

Albion said changes to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) regulations on oil and gas project approvals would hand power to resources minister Madeleine King and weaken environmental protections and the consultation process. 

“King is a big supporter of the industry, repeating the lie that gas is an incredibly important part of efforts to reach net zero”, Albion said. 

King has rejected suggestions that changes to the EPBC are about bypassing environmental laws and fast-tracking new gas projects.  Plibersek has also rejected environment groups’ concerns.

Georgina Woods, who heads Lock the Gate Alliance’s  research and investigations team, said Labor only expanded water trigger protections on gas and coal assessments last December under pressure.

If Labor goes ahead with “a mechanism to hand those powers back to states and territories … it will breach a very clear election commitment.”

Woods likened Labor’s Streamlining Environmental Approvals Bill, which did not pass, to former Coalition PM Scott Morrison’s “one-stop shop” mining approvals system in 2020. It would have created a “one-touch regime” for assessments of major projects, she said.

It would have handed responsibility to states to approve and manage major project development impacts on threatened species, habitat and biodiversity, as well as World Heritage areas.

“State and territory governments have proven time and again that they can’t be trusted with our water,” Woods said. A federal approval role on water is needed “to prevent coal and gas projects draining our groundwater and polluting our creeks and rivers”.

First Nations' input

First Nations peoples have long called for the EPBC to be strengthened and for a greater say in heritage and environmental management on their lands. 

National Native Title Council CEO Jamie Lowe said in 2021 that the Morrison government’s bid to delegate environmental approvals to states and territories raised “red flags”.

“Anytime you think of someone trying to streamline the process, alarm bells can go off,” Lowe told NITV.

“The ‘red tape’ is there for a reason, to make people follow process, follow procedure and, in this case, making sure the environment is protected, as much as you can when you’re mining.”

Environment, climate, heritage and water defenders are organising a week of protest - #WeRise — from April 29 to May 10. 

They are calling for an end to new coal and gas projects and for federal laws to enshrining climate, environmental and heritage protections.

The national week of action, #WeRise — like the flood waters and flames, is organising under the slogan: “Labor: keep us safe — No more coal and gas!”

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.