Photographs shows the clear felling of the Leard Forest and construction of Whitehavens’ ?? Maules Creek coal mine near Boggabri. Greenpeace activists opposed to the mines’ construction have an established tree sit in place to stop the felling of the endangered forest and?? are surrounded by?? mine security and police rescue units.Photographs by Dean Sewell. S.M.H. News.Taken Sunday 1st June 2014.?? das140601.001.001.send.jpg Photo: Dean SewellDespite almost 60 per cent of NSW’s mammal species and a third of the birds on the endangered list, the Berejiklian government is persisting with conservation schemes that amount to a “bad joke”, critics say.
A report, titled Paradise Lost has found biodiversity offset schemes between 2005 and 2016have failed to deliver outcomes promised by developers of mines and other major projects.
Of eight case studies where the destruction of habitat was permitted in exchange for protection elsewhere, the results of two studies were found to be “adequate”, and five others “poor”, according to the Nature Conservation Council, which compiled the report. For the Boggabri/Maules Creek area, which has two huge open-cut coal mines, the outcome was found to be “disastrous”.
In the latter case, miners will clear about 4000 hectares – more than half of the Leard State Forest, which is home to 36 threatened species including the diamond firetail and the masked owl – the report said. More than a quarter of this area is made up of critically endangered box-gum woodland.
Not only are the offsets of uncertain permanence, they are outside the Brigalow Belt South bioregion and are not of equivalent vegetation condition, the report said. And while the proponents have done surveys in the offset areas, they have not made that information available.
“It’s a crude mechanism for letting developers kill threatened species while claiming they are good environmental stewards,” council chief executive Kate Smolski said. “It’s a bad joke.”
The failings include the absence of “no-go zones” for areas with high conservation values, the dilution of “like-for-like” protections, and allowing miners to generate “credits” for rehabilitation. The Environment Minister also has discretionary power to “discount” obligations.
The survey noted the government had engaged Martine Maron, a University of Queensland offsets specialist, to review its program but her “scathing” assessment could only be obtained under freedom of information laws. (See summary of her review here.)
“The reliance on protecting habitat that is already there in exchange for habitat loss is worrying and, of course, the net outcome in that case is just less habitat,” Professor Maron told Fairfax Media. “It risks normalising ongoing biodiversity decline.”
In a 2015 paper, Professor Maron found offset baselines being used across Australia assumed an annual loss of vegetation of 4.2 per cent, or more than five times the recent loss rate.
NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the government was still consulting on its draft Biodiversity Assessment Method, adding that the scheme would set a standard of no net loss of biodiversity.
“It has been peer-reviewed and it draws on the latest science,” Ms Upton said. “It requires proposals to be designed to first avoid and minimise impacts on biodiversity.”
But Mehreen Faruqi Greens environment spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi said offsets had become “one of the biggest scams in NSW”.
“Even if we accept the flawed concept that serious ecological damage can be offset, the NSW government has massively lowered the bar for mining companies and big developers,” Dr Faruqi said. “It’s now an attitude of: ‘No offset? No worries, just pay it into a fund’.”
Labor’s environment spokeswoman Penny Sharpe said the “watered down” policy was “disregarding environmental standards and destroying biodiversity”.
For its part, Maules Creek mine developer Whitehaven rejected the report’s assessment.
“We stand by our offsets package and, more importantly, so do the independent state and federal government authorities that approved it,” a spokesman for the miner said.
Stephen Galilee, chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, said offsets had “increasingly strengthened in recent years, particularly with the introduction of the Biodiversity Conservation Act in 2016”.
“Increasingly complicated offsets schemes have significantly narrowed the impacts that can be offset and increased the costs of offsetting,” he said. ‘Horse-trading’
David Paull, a former Office of Environment and Heritage project manager, said the setting of offsets was “a horse-trading affair” in which the proponent emerges “with as few concessions as possible”.
For instance, in the plan to expand Peabody Energy’s Wilpinjong mine, which was examined by Mr Paull, the developer wants several “get out of jail” cards for destroying 354 hectares of native woodland.
More than half of the land is home to the endangered regent honeyeater bird.
The cards include paying $660,000 to Taronga Zoo for a targeted release of captive honeyeaters into the wild, and the use of “credits” earned for mine rehabilitation with no indication the work was additional, he said.
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