Queensland environmental offset laws are set to be simplified. This will cut red tape and reduce costs for developers and resource proponents, while delivering better environmental outcomes.
Environmental offsets have become a key measure to manage unavoidable environmental impacts and are now commonly used in property developments and infrastructure and resource projects. However, the use of environmental offsets is currently plagued by complex, inconsistent and overlapping policies applied at national, state and local levels. This imposes unnecessary costs and delays on proponents and hinders the effective delivery of good environmental outcomes.
Environmental Offsets Bill 2014
The Environmental Offsets Bill 2014 has been introduced into Queensland Parliament to streamline the use of environmental offsets. The Bill seeks to achieve the following policy outcomes:
- a single coordinated environmental offsets framework
- reduce red tape
- remove inconsistency between specific issue offset policies
- remove duplication of environmental assessment
- stronger environmental outcomes through strategic offset delivery, including the option of financial settlements.
The Bill aims to introduce a uniform system, which will provide a single ‘whole of government’ process for imposing and enforcing environmental offset conditions and the management of offset areas.
The new framework will be based on a single state environmental offset policy which will replace the existing five separate environmental offset policies administered by different agencies in Queensland. These existing offset policies are the:
- Queensland Government Environmental Offset Policy
- Marine Fish Habitat Offsets Policy
- Policy for Vegetation Management Offsets
- Queensland Biodiversity Offset Policy
- Offsets for Net Gain of Koala Habitat in South East Queensland Policy.
Financial settlement offsets
In addition to simplifying the system for providing environmental offsets, the Bill also makes provision for the use of ‘financial settlement offsets’ which allow proponents to make financial contributions that will be used by state or local government to provide the required environmental offsets.
Proponents will have the option of providing environmental offsets or financial settlement offsets (or a combination of both). A key potential benefit for proponents in using financial settlements is that they will not have to bear the burden of on-going administration and management of offset.
Key concepts and processes
The Bill proposes a comprehensive system for dealing with environmental offsets. In general terms, this involves a statutory scheme under which environmental offset conditions will be imposed on approvals.
The Bill does not establish any new approval processes and offset conditions will be imposed on relevant approvals under other Acts. However, the Bill will establish a common process for offsets regardless of the legislation under which the offset is imposed.
The operation of the new offset system is based on a number of key concepts and definitions created by the Bill. These include:
- an offset condition, which is a condition imposed under an act for a prescribed activity for a prescribed environmental matter
- an environmental offset, which is an activity undertaken to counterbalance a significant residual impact of a prescribed activity on a prescribed environmental matter
- a significant residual impact, which is a significant adverse impact, whether direct or indirect, of a prescribed activity on all or part of a prescribed environmental matter that will remain despite on-site mitigation measures
- a prescribed activity, which is an activity directed by an authority under an Act for which an offset condition may be imposed and that is prescribed under a regulation
- a prescribed environmental matter, which is a matter prescribed under a regulation and may be a matter of either national, state or local environmental significance.
A key feature of the Bill is that prescribed activities and environmental matters need to be prescribed by regulation, which means that the detailed operation of the new system will be dependent upon a regulation that is still to be prepared.
Environmental offsets policy
The Bill provides that an environmental offsets policy may be made by the chief executive or local government, but does not become an environmental offsets policy until the document is prescribed under regulation. This will allow the State to control what constitutes an environmental offsets policy and avoid the creation of multiple overlapping offset policies.
An environmental offsets policy may:
- set out the circumstances in which an environmental offset may or may not be required
- set out characteristics of an area that is suitable for undertaking an environmental offset
- provide for the ongoing management and monitoring of, and reporting about, an environmental offset
- provide for deciding the size and scale of an environmental offset.
The State has not yet released the environmental offsets policy proposed to be adopted to replace the existing offset policies.
Imposing offset conditions
An offset condition can only imposed if the administering agency is satisfied that:
- the prescribed activity will have a significant residual impact on the prescribed environmental matter
- all cost-effective on-site mitigation measures for the prescribed environmental activity have been, or will be, undertaken.
Also, restrictions are imposed on duplicating conditions imposed by higher levels of government (e.g. the State cannot impose a condition that duplicates a Commonwealth condition, and a local government cannot impose a condition that duplicates a State condition).
The Bill is a significant milestone towards the delivery of a more simplified and streamlined system for environmental offsets in Queensland.
However, further action is required in relation to the supporting regulation and proposed environmental offset policy to implement the proposed reforms and the full impact of the reforms will not be known until these other documents are available.