17 March 2016
by Peter Hannam

Very poor': Environment office opposed miners using rehabilitation work as biodiversity offset

A hunter coal mine: the environment office argued against using mine rehabilitation as a biodiversity offset.

Coal firms won the right to claim the planting of grass or trees on old mine sites as conservation offsets for future woodland destruction despite strong opposition from environment department staff, new documents reveal.

The reports detail the 2013-14 internal debate between the Department of Trade & Industry and the Office of the Environment and Heritage (OEH) over a plan that broadened the scope of what miners could count as compensation for habitats wiped out by new mines.

OEH argued in one note, secured by the Nature Conservation Council (NCC) under freedom of information laws, that "there is no certainty that functioning ecosystems can be restored to their original value through rehabilitation" after a mine closed.

"[M]any animal species require resources that are found only in mature forest," it said.

It noted in another document that OEH "believes that the record of success in biodiversity restoration from the rehabilitation of degraded land (specifically mine sites) is very poor", with impacts lasting "multiple decades".

"OEH questions whether restoration of biodiversity on a degraded site is even possible," it said.

Despite OEH's concerns, the new Baird cabinet sided with Trade & Industry, issuing its offsets policy in September 2014 that set new rules for how miners could compensate for the destruction of habitat.

The "practical and achievable" scheme allowed rehabilitation of mine sites in the calculation of conservation offsets "where they are good prospects of biodiversity being restored".

Coal mines won the day in the debate over offsets.

Just how those prospects would be assessed, however, was placed in question by OEH during the internal debate.

"OEH staff will be asked to comment on mine rehabilitation proposals," a January 2014 briefing document stated. "Staff do not feel they have adequate scientific support and expertise on rehabilitation to undertake this role."

Rehabilitation at Glencore's Mount Owen coal mine in the Hunter.

Kate Smolski, chief executive of the NCC, said mine rehabilitation would feature in the new Biodiversity Conservation Act, and should be dropped as a provision.

"It is only reasonable that mining companies be made to clean up their messes and do everything they can to restore the landscape as close as possible to the condition that existed before mining started," Ms Smolski said.

"Only a developer-friendly government would think swapping healthy forests for an old mine site planted with saplings was a good idea."

A spokesman for Environment Minister Mark Speakman said revegetation was permitted to make "a limited contribution as an offset".

"The mine site rehabilitation must be to a high ecological standard, creating a recognisable vegetation community that will sustain itself," he said, adding it must be "beyond what a mining company would normally be required to do".

A spokesman for Resources Minister Anthony Roberts said the department "ensures that mine sites post-closure are both safe and rehabilitated back to same state or better" condition.

"The offset policy both enables and incentivises companies to deliver ecological communities at a better condition than pre mining," he said.
'Whole system is a scam'
Penny Sharpe, the opposition's environment spokeswoman, said Labor's ongoing opposition to the Baird government's "watered down biodiversity offset policy" had been vindicated by the documents now made public.

"Labor will only support biodiversity offsetting built on the principles of 'like-for-like' offsetting within a reasonable geographic proximity." Ms Sharpe said.

That included no "net loss" biodiversity outcomes and ideally "net-positive" outcomes, as well as recognition that some high-conservation value lands must be off-limits entirely to offsetting, she said.

NSW Greens mining spokesman Jeremy Buckingham said the documents showed "the whole system is a scam and biodiversity offsets are 'greenwash' designed to hide the damage really done by mines".

"[T]he value of the original, natural ecology should be the primary consideration in planning assessment, and that no system of offsets and rehabilitation can replace ecologies destroyed by modern mining techniques," Mr Buckingham said.