More than 20 years after the introduction of our national nature law, biodiversity continues to be destroyed at alarming rates in Australia.

Although there are several reasons why this has happened, a major factor is the use of offsets under the EPBC Act.

Under this law, projects that are likely to have a significant environmental impact on protected species and places must be assessed by the federal government. Where a project is approved, the federal government can place conditions on that approval that can require the business or government to undertake habitat protection at another location – known as an offset site.

Unfortunately, ACF’s new report ‘Set and Forget: How offsets under the national environmental law drive habitat destruction’ found these offsets sites aren’t being properly legally protected, meaning our wildlife and natural landscapes are paying the real price.

This first-of-its-kind report investigated the legal protections of offset sites tied to approvals granted under the EPBC Act. The current approach has meant the federal government ‘sets’ the offset conditions and then ‘forgets’ to ensure project owners (known as approval holders) are doing their job to protect nature.

We found:

  • More than two thirds of all offset sites investigated (218 total) are not tied to any legal obligation for the approval holder to adequately protect the offset site.
  • Of the 174 cases where the outcome is known, only 30% of the offset sites are in fact adequately protected. A further 48% are poorly protected because the protection is not permanent, is easily revoked, or is not for a conservation purpose.
  • 21% of the offset sites are not protected. The approval has expired in 27% of these cases, so the likelihood of the offset site ever being protected is very low.
  • It is unknown whether 42 cases are protected at all. Concerningly, it is state government agencies that are the approval holders in half of these ‘unknown’ cases.
  • 36% of cases did not require the approval holder to report publicly or to the environment department/minister on their progress in protecting their offset site.
  • The gas industry had the lowest adequately protected offset sites (21%), while offset sites relating to roads and rail projects had the highest percentage (54.5%).
  • Only approval holders with projects in Tasmania adequately protected 50% or more of their offset sites.
  • For projects in Queensland and Western Australia, fewer than 25% of offset sites were adequately protected.
  • While the federal government allowed on average about two and a half years for an offset site to be protected, approval holders took on average about five years to deliver some form of legal protection.
  • In 33% of cases, the federal government facilitated approval holders’ delay in protecting the offset sites.

These statistics highlight the failure of our federal government in protecting offsets sites, due to a flawed nature law.

But there are measures that can and must be put in place to minimise damage to nature. There needs to be a shift away from offsetting as a response to environmental impacts, with up-front habitat protection a priority, if we are to halt and reverse the decline of nature in Australia.

Where offsets are used, they should be a genuine last resort.

The government must commit to addressing the legacy of the failures exposed by this report - auditing current offsets, taking enforcement action and varying approvals to require adequately protected offsets to be delivered to compensate for harm already done.

Appendices for this report can be found here.

Australian Conservation Foundation