One step forward, one step back?

The push for better mining laws in Victoria took a step forward this week; but there’s still a long way to go before Victorians can be sure that their health and their environment are being protected.

On Tuesday the Victorian Parliament released its long-awaited report on Greenfields Minerals Exploration and Project Development (translation: ‘new mines’).  You can read it here.

The report comes just a few weeks after the release of the EDO report on reforming mining law in Victoria.

There’s some pretty good stuff in the Parliamentary Committee’s report — a testament to the hard work of so many who have pushed to protect communities and the environment from coal and coal seam gas mining.

But there’s also some fairly worrying recommendations looming in its pages.

To save you the trouble of reading and summarising the 324 page report (and probably scratching out your eyes in the process) here’s one I prepared earlier!

Inquiry into Coal Seam Gas

In a big step forward for those concerned about coal seam gas in Victoria, the report recommended:

“That the Victorian Government establishes an appropriate process to enable open consultation with stakeholders, including local communities, for issues regarding future coal seam gas exploration and development.”

That looks a lot like a public inquiry into coal seam gas!  Although, the way it’s worded at the moment, it’s not exactly easy to tell what shape that ‘inquiry’ will take, who will conduct it, and who will be allowed to participate. Let’s hope more light is shed on this in the coming days.

For those concerned about coal seam gas in Victoria, this recommendation is an opportunity.  It’s an opportunity to improve our knowledge about coal seam gas, but also to keep the issues alive and keep pushing for more research into and more safeguards against its well-publicised dangers.

Better consultation for affected communities

Another big step forward was the call for communities to be better notified and consulted about minerals exploration in their community.  Specifically, the report recommended:

  • A review of the system for notifying landholders of licence applications over their land, to ensure that they receive timely (and where appropriate, direct written) notification.
  • An overhaul of the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) website, to make all exploration licence applications available in an “interactive, searchable, user-friendly interface”.
  • Local councils to be notified of licence applications within their LGAs.

These recommendations directly pick up recommendations made by the EDO, by other environment groups, and by affected landholders in evidence to the Committee.  They are an important step towards smoothing out one of the worst parts of the current regime: the fact that communities are too often left ‘in the dark’ about proposals that affect them.

Yet they fall short of what is needed to give the community a real say in whether and how mining proposals go ahead.  The EDO recommended that any person have the right to appeal environment or mining approvals on the merits to VCAT.  This is the only way to give people a real voice in mining decisions that affect them.

Strategic land use policy

Recognising the potential for conflict between mining and other land uses, the report called for “a state-wide integrated, strategic land use policy framework to better manage competing land uses in Victoria.”  This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how it is implemented.

The recommendations in the report seem to place a lot of emphasis on identifying areas with valuable mineral deposits, and protecting them through land use policy and planning schemes.  Despite the range of submissions received about different types of land and why they are valuable, the report seems preoccupied with protecting land for mining, and not for anything else.

It would be a shame if the Victorian strategic land use policies were to follow the footsteps of their New South Wales counterparts, which were roundly criticised by farmers, environmentalists and community groups alike for failing to give enough protection to the environment and agriculture.

It is important that any strategic land use policies in Victoria:

  • protect the environment, agricultural land and water resources – not just mining;
  • provide strong protection to key areas, including through ‘no go’ zones where appropriate;
  • be prepared in an open and transparent way, based on science (not politics); and
  • recognise the ongoing need for assessment of mining in areas prima facie appropriate for it.

If it is done properly, this strategic land use policy framework could be a very valuable thing.

A ‘one-stop-shop’ approvals process

The report made three recommendations designed to ‘streamline’ the environmental approvals process for minerals projects.

First, it called for work plans (the main regulatory tool used to impose environmental and other conditions on exploration and mining) to be redirected “towards outcomes and away from prescriptive conditions, in order to better manage risk”.

This taps into an existing debate about whether resources laws should be ‘outcomes-based’ or ‘prescriptive’, which recently arose in the context of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Montara Oil Spill.  The Inquiry found that outcomes-based regulation can be useful in providing flexibility, but that they have their limits, and that some prescriptive conditions need to be retained in the interests of safety.  It’s a recommendation that we’ll be treating with caution, and watching closely.

Second, it called for a review of the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission (VCEC) 2009 review of the Environment Effects Statement (EES) process in Victoria.  It then noted that the Government has already examined the EES regime and committed to reform it, through the Environment and Natural Resource Committee (ENRC) of the Victorian Parliament.  It is unclear what, if anything, this recommendation adds to that reform process.

Third, the report called on the government to “develop a ‘one-stop-shop’ framework to provide a single point of entry into Victoria’s regulatory system” for minerals project proponents.  This is potentially quite concerning.

On the one hand, having a single ‘case-worker’ in DPI through whom the mining company deals with the various laws and agencies who require approval is a sensible idea.  On the other hand, it would be a mistake to roll all the various approvals together and have them decided by a single decision-maker.  That’s especially so if that decision-maker is a DPI employee whose role is defined in the report as to be a ‘project champion’ and promote the project, creating a crippling conflict of interest.

More mining ads?

The report also called on the Government to “work with industry to develop and support a comprehensive community education program that promotes the value of the resources sector to the state.”  This was in response to a number of mining groups who complained about negative perceptions of their industry, and called on government to lead a change in community opinion.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Didn’t we have a mining industry advertising campaign just a little while ago?  It’s not clear why Government should have a role in promoting a sector that has ample resources to promote itself.  In a tight fiscal environment, why should taxpayers pay for an advertising campaign designed to convince them that they’re wrong about the dangers of mining?

What’s next

The Government has six months to respond to the recommendations of the report.

However, there is a good chance that they will respond before then.  DPI has been conducting its own review of Victoria’s mining laws (see their website here), and so the Minister for Energy and Resources Michael O’Brien is likely to have looked at these issues before.

The EDO will continue to work in this space in the coming months, both by pushing for better mining laws that protect our environment and communities, and by working directly with regional communities who want information about coal and coal seam gas proposals on their land.

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