Laws boost for environment at coal and gas projects

FEDERAL Parliament has approved new laws to put large coal projects and coal seam gas developments under greater environmental scrutiny.

Under laws passed yesterday, coal and gas projects can be ‘‘called in’’ under a ‘‘water trigger’’ added to the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

While the mining lobby has complained about the changes, green groups are worried that another aspect of the laws could weaken existing protections.

In a series of documents on display with the NSW Department of Planning until July 15, the state and federal governments are proposing changes to environmental ‘‘offset’’ processes and to studies done to earmark biodiversity.

As things stand, each coal project that triggers the federal environmental act must do its own biodiversity study.

But under the plan on display, the federal government is proposing to do a single biodiversity study for a 260,000-hectare area based around Singleton, Muswellbrook and Denman.

‘‘Once the plan is approved, mining companies will no longer need separate project-by-project approvals for actions covered by the plan,’’ a state government fact sheet said.

Mining projects will still need individual approvals from the NSW government.

Federal environment minister Tony Burke said the proposed strategic assessment would ‘‘help provide a big-picture study of the area to ensure we can protect the environment while allowing sustainable development’’.

‘‘It will assess the cumulative impacts on biodiversity from new coalmining over the next 20 years,’’ Mr Burke said.

‘‘Mining companies with coal leases in the district have agreed to participate in the strategic assessment and are funding the necessary flora and fauna studies.’’

Nature Conservation Council campaigns director Kate Smolski said ‘‘much of the damage has already been done’’ in the assessment area.

‘‘We would prefer they look at areas likely to be affected by new mines, west of the study area and around Gloucester,’’ she said.

Ms Smolski said it was good that mining companies were funding some of the costs but ‘‘the strategic assessment is too narrow in its focus and should also assess the cumulative impacts of these projects on the region’s biodiversity’’.

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A CSG drill rig.