The trouble with offsets – delusional at best.

Reproduced in full with the gracious permission of Background Briefing: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2014-03-16/5320906#transcript

Sunday 16 March 2014 8:05AM

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IMAGE: IN JANUARY 2014 OVER 100 PEOPLE SHUT DOWN CONSTRUCTION AT THE MAULES CREEK MINE. THE PROTESTERS USED TRIPOD STRUCTURES TO BLOCK ENTRY TO THE MINE. (FLICKR/LEARD STATE FOREST ALLIANCE)

Environmental offsets are supposed to compensate for ecosystems and biodiversity that are bulldozed to make way for development. But there’s mounting evidence the policy is being subverted, as governments approve controversial offsets across Australia. Di Martin investigates.

A Senate inquiry has just been launched into claims a key environmental policy, offsetting, is falling over.

Under offsetting, developers have to compensate for what they’re bulldozing. They need to protect other properties that contain the same sort of vegetation and habitat as what’s being cleared.

To me it is akin to some guy going into that art gallery and pointing at the Mona Lisa on the wall and ‘saying sorry mate we need that bit … so the Mona Lisa has to go. But we will paint you another one’.

PROFESSOR RICHARD HOBBS, ECOLOGIST

The promise of offsetting is that development can happen and biodiversity will be no worse off.

However offsets have always been controversial and an increasing number of scientists, ecologists and conservationists say there are many loopholes and the policy is being manipulated by governments who won’t say no to developers.

Federal Greens Senator Larissa Waters pushed for the Senate inquiry, listing five developments for investigation.

They include the Abbot Point Coal Terminal and Waratah Coal’s Galilee Coal Project in Queensland, the Jandakot Airport in Perth, and the Maules Creek coal mine in northern NSW.

Clearing has already begun on the Maules Creek mine site, destroying critically endangered white box gum grassy woodland which is down to 0.1 per cent of its original range.

The mining company, Whitehaven Coal, says it’s protecting large areas of critically endangered box gum woodland on its offset properties.

This article represents part of a larger Background Briefing investigation. Listen to Di Martin’s full report on Sunday at 8.05 am or use the podcast links above after broadcast.

But local ecologist Phil Spark says Whitehaven’s claims are wrong. He took Background Briefing to the two largest offset properties in an area marked as white box grassy woodland.

‘We are looking around us and we see the dominance of stringy bark, probably 80 per cent stringybark. And it’s not white box at all,’ Mr Spark said.

There are now four local ecologists who’ve looked at Whitehaven Coal’s offsets and found serious problems.

Dr John Hunter is a botanist who specialises in critically endangered communities and has helped develop offset plans for other mines. He has prepared a preliminary report on 1600 hectares of Whitehaven’s offsets, and says that 95 per cent of their mapping is wrong.

‘I think there’s at maximum, five per cent of what they are saying is box gum woodland there,’ he said. ‘All of the dominance that we found there, are actually trees that they haven’t listed as occurring.’

Instead, the dominant trees that Hunter found were stringybark, New England blackbutt, orange gum and Bendemeer white gum, which weren’t represented in the mapping.

‘The maps are patently wrong. They are just completely wrong,’ he said.

Another local ecologist, Wendy Hawes, sat on an expert panel that wrote the condition criteria used to identify box gum grassy woodlands. She has looked at four areas mapped as box gum grassy woodland, and found hardly any at all.

‘It is not the community they claim it is,’ she said. ‘There are within their offset areas … small patches that could potentially meet the [criteria], but they are very small areas, so they are a couple of hectares. Nothing like the hectarage they are claiming.’

‘So the majority of the stuff that they are protecting its stringy bark communities. Not white box,’ Hawes said.

Neither the state nor the federal government did on the ground surveys of the offset sites before approving the Maules Creek mine.

Whitehaven Coal’s CEO Paul Flynn was not available for interview, but the company said in a statement that it is committed to meeting its offset obligations. It also claimed that reports critical of its offsets are incomplete and deliberately distorted, and the company is protecting an area far larger than what is being cleared on the mine site.

The dissenting ecologists agree that Whitehaven’s offset area is larger, but maintain the vegetation it contains is not the same as what is being bulldozed.

When the Maules Creek mine was approved, Whitehaven Coal was required to complete an independent review of the offset sites. That report has been handed to the Federal government, but has not been released.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement saying he’s aware of the issue, and his department is now considering the independent review.

The department recently told a Senate estimates hearing that it’s investigating what it calls a criminal matter regarding the Maules Creek offsets. It is a crime to be reckless or negligent in providing false or misleading information about offsets.

The Environment Department said it could be some months before its investigation is complete.

The ANU’s Phil Gibbons, who helped develop offset policy for the federal and NSW governments, says the theory behind offsetting is very attractive.

‘A fair-minded person would agree that if a developer destroys some of Australia’s natural capital in making a buck, then they should really offset that impact elsewhere,’ he said.

‘But the devil is in the detail.’

Gibbons said he sees an increasing number of examples where governments are cutting corners. Some offsets are not like for like and others are not being properly managed or restored. Some sites have been approved that weren’t in danger of being cleared or lost in the future.

‘Anything that you do in terms of an offset must be a genuine gain, must be something that would not have happened anyway as under business as usual,’ Gibbons said.

‘I think what people are doing is getting very creative in finding biodiversity gains when really they are things that would have happened anyway.’

With less and less good quality bush to be found, developers are putting up old cattle paddocks and mine sites as offsets, land which they say will be restored to its original state.

However, according to restoration ecologist Professor Richard Hobbs, those sites can take decades to develop, and there’s no guarantee they will be the same as what was cleared.

He scoffed at the idea that Australia’s biodiversity will be no worse off under offsetting, and called the practice ‘a Faustian pact’.

‘I’ll say it’s a furphy. To me it is akin to some guy going into that art gallery and pointing at the Mona Lisa on the wall and saying sorry mate we need that bit … so the Mona Lisa has to go. But we will paint you another one.’

‘We run the risk of trading something irreplaceable for the short term development gains with the mirage of having a good conservation outcome in the future through the activities of the offset.’