A first-of-its kind investigation by the Australian Conservation Foundation has shown multiple catastrophic failures of the national nature law’s biodiversity offsets scheme.

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), the federal environment minister routinely approves projects that will forever destroy threatened species and habitat on the basis that the developer will compensate for the destruction by conserving a similar place elsewhere – an offset site.

This practice has allowed nature-wrecking industries to continue with business as usual across Australia, while Australia’s unique wildlife and landscapes pay the price.

ACF’s investigation, which looked into the legal protections for EPBC projects approved between 2008 and 2012 where an offset was required, found more than two thirds of approvals granted (7 out of 10) did not require adequate legal protection of the offset site.

In other words, in 70% of cases, destruction of the original habitat was approved and the offset sites – which were meant to compensate for the destruction – were not adequately protected themselves, because the protection was not permanent, or it could be easily revoked, or it didn’t deliver conservation outcomes.

ACF’s investigative report, Set and forget: How offsets under national environmental law drive habitat destruction, documents several instances of offset failure. For example:

  • Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) gained approval to destroy habitat for the northern quoll and the Pilbara leaf-nosed bat on the condition it protected habitat for these species elsewhere. The mining project commenced. FMG then successfully lobbying the government to remove legal protection of the site from its approval conditions and replace it with a funding requirement. A decade on, no payments have been made into that fund.
  • In NSW, coal giant Glencore gained approval to destroy habitat for swift parrots, regent honeyeaters and large-eared pied bats. The mine went ahead. Glencore then lobbied for weaker protections for the offset site. The department approved multiple delays to facilitate this process. Glencore ended up with even weaker conditions than it first asked for.
  • A gas project in WA was granted approval to cause irreversible impacts to foraging and breeding habitat of Carnaby’s black cockatoo. The offset site that was supposed to make up for this destruction fell within the project area itself. The company is now exploring for gas in the offset site.

“The biodiversity offsetting system under our national environment law is fundamentally flawed and allows for unique ecological communities to be continually chipped away at until there is nothing left,” said ACF’s biodiversity policy adviser Brendan Sydes.

“Offsetting – even when it is implemented by the book – facilitates the killing of native animals, the bulldozing of their habitat and the destruction of irreplaceable ecological communities.

“This investigation shows offsetting is not being implemented by the book, with multiple examples of environmental needs being disregarded in favour of commercial interests.

“It reveals a disturbing culture of regulatory capture with every single approval variation being made for the benefit of the approval holder, not the environment.

“Australia’s system of biodiversity offsets is a disgrace and needs a root-and-branch overhaul.

“ACF urges Minister Plibersek to give this problem serious attention in her reform of the national nature law.”

Header pic by Bette Devine

Appendices for this report can be found here.

ACF Media Enquiries

Journalists with enquiries may contact Josh Meadows on 0439 342 992. For all other enquiries please call 1800 223 669 or email [email protected]