A Big Year for Environmental Policy

We are now more than halfway through 2018. It is a valuable time to evaluate where we are at and the trajectory we are on. Construction has commenced on some major projects; the fracking moratorium has been lifted and major pieces of legislation are being drafted. Departmental priorities are being set and political pressure continues to mount on the Government to stay true to their environmental commitments. There is a major shift in governance culture taking place and each sector is vying for their own space in the new order of things. 

Climate change action, mining, water policy and environmental regulatory reform remain our key strategic priorities.  The key reforms promised in these areas are still being developed but are due to be opened for public consultation over the coming months. It is important that Government and Industry are held to account for their environmental and societal obligations during this critical juncture. 

Climate Change

The Northern Territory Government is currently developing a climate change framework. This framework will outline a plan for improving the adaptive capacity for NT communities and mitigating emissions across all sectors. We understand no emissions reduction target is being contemplated. Without such a target this plan will not be ineffective in protecting the NT from the worse impacts of climate change and undermines collective action to transition to low carbon economies. 

The framework will be released for public consultation later in the year. It is imperative that there is strong public pressure for an emissions reduction target and a framework for adaptation that allows each sector or community to control the way they adapt and strengthen resilience in the face of change.  

Environmental law

During the second half of this year major pieces of environmental law will be up for public consultation. A new Environmental Protection Act is being drafted which will change the way activities or actions that have an environmental impact will be assessed, regulated and monitored. At the same time there will be changes to the Environmental Protection Authority Act, water laws, petroleum and pollution law. It is vital that these consultation processes facilitate broad public engagement so that policy is shaped by the public interest rather than industry and corporate interests. 

Water

The Western Davenport Water Allocation plan is being finalised prior to being referred for Ministerial approval. A revised sustainable groundwater extraction limit has been determined that does not permit mining of the resource. A large agricultural project is being planned and we anticipate there will be an application made for a significant water extraction licence once the plan is operational. 

The Mt Peake Titanium open cut mine, if approved, would be extracting water from a paleochannel in this water control district. This extraction threatens the existence of thousands of river red gums. Once the exemptions for mining and petroleum are removed from water law, the company will be compelled through a licence to ensure water use does not threaten the health of groundwater dependent ecosystems. 

The Alice Springs Water Allocation Committee has commenced the process of developing programs aimed at improving water efficiency and prolonging the life of our local aquifers. While work is underway to transition supply bores to the new field at Rocky Hill on Undoolya station, it is vital that a strategy is developed that encourages a cultural shift in our attitudes to water use in the desert. 

The Water Act will be up for review and consultation later in the year. The key reform here will be determining how sustainable water use by the mining industry will be regulated and monitored as well as improved transparency and accountability in the allocation of water licences.

Mining

The minerals and energy industry is hoping for a resurgence of activity in the NT following years of relative inaction and short-lived projects. Considerable resources are being spent to explore prospective regions across the NT to boost development, including federal resources. Within this context several projects are gaining final approvals and construction for some is commencing. 

The Northern Gas Pipeline is now complete, but gas is yet to flow. The owner, Jemena has been exposed for improper dealings with the NT Government. The company has openly admitted to successfully lobbying the NT for exemptions under national gas rules. This exemption was granted because of lobbying from the NT Government on behalf of Jemena. The exemptions allow Jemena to operate the pipeline with apparent impunity, free from the potential to be compelled into dispute resolution over pricing or tariffs. 

This is a key example of the power and influence of the petroleum lobby. Jemena is being investigated by the ATO and Environmental Justice Australia for this influence and potentially corrupt conduct.  

Central Petroleum has been granted approval to drill two more conventional gas exploration and appraisal wells in the Mereenie field in the Amadeus basin south west of Alice Springs. If they discover viable reserves the wells will become production sites. The actions were not assessed through an environmental impact statement by the EPA. While no hydraulic fracturing will be taking place, horizontal drilling will be utilised and potentially hazardous drilling muds will be produced. 

These approvals, as well as other mining approvals are being hurriedly pushed through by industry in a last-ditch effort to escape the more stringent obligations under a reformed system of environmental governance. 

Public policy

There is growing momentum for change as we become increasingly aware of the failure of environmental governance to provide for proper environmental protection. Extinction rates continue to soar, emissions keep rising, and land degradation continues relatively unabated. However, rather than talking about isolated issues or projects, there are conversations starting about the need for more substantial structural change.

Unions are talking of Changing the Rules to empower workers, large environmental NGOS are talking about a new generation of nature laws, a treaty process for the NT has been confirmed and corporate power vs the public interest has a become a key theme in political debates. This cultural conflict over power and influence is key to resolving the inherent flaws in environmental policy and how we care for the arid lands. 

The second half of 2018 will be an important opportunity to contribute to the development of many aspects of environmental policy in the NT. Water, planning policy, environmental assessment, mining and climate policy will all be open to public consultation. This consultation will take many forms through making formal submissions, commenting on specific Acts and public forums. Engaging in these processes is not easy and the Government would do well to proactively consider ways of facilitating broader engagement. 

The legitimacy of environmental policy rests on the extent to which it is designed and informed by the interests and concerns of the public as well as the non-human environmental interests such as threatened species. The onus is on the Government to prove that public engagement can determine the scope and content of environmental policy. This is especially important considering the growing influence of corporate and industrial interests on our political system. 

Stay Connected

Protecting the outback and catalysing the essential change needed to tackle climate change and create a sustainable future is a big task and we need your support to do it. Sign up here for more information on how you can support the work of the Arid Lands Environment Centre