How the environmental offsets scheme is failing the Australian wildlife it is meant to protect

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Problems that have long flown under the public radar will finally be aired in the New South Wales parliament when an inquiry into the integrity of the state’s environmental offsets scheme begins.

It is a significant inquiry that follows an investigation by Guardian Australia.

Earlier this year, we broke a series of stories exposing multiple, serious failures in a system that is supposed to compensate for the environmental destruction that occurs as a result of development.

It is a system that is employed all around the country under various state and federal environmental and planning laws but its flaws have not got the necessary attention for the same reasons any environment reporter would tell you they are used to hearing: it’s complex, it’s technical, it’s a hard story to tell. Will people actually be interested in this?

Related: ‘Too many loopholes’: NSW inquiry to scrutinise use of environmental offsets

Environmental offsetting, in its crudest sense, is a kind of trade.

In theory, if you knock something down – say a critically endangered woodland – you make up for that loss by permanently protecting the same type of critically endangered woodland elsewhere, saving it from development that might otherwise have resulted in it also being bulldozed.

When these policies were first designed, they were said to be tools of last resort.

The first priority for Australia’s unique, irreplaceable natural and cultural heritage was to avoid any damage to it whatsoever or, failing that, to minimise or mitigate that damage.

But if you’ve given Australia’s environmental politics even passing attention over the past decade, you would not be surprised to learn that this is not what has occurred.

Instead, as the former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel highlighted in his review of national environmental laws last year, offsetting has become the default position and something some developers seek to negotiate from the outset.

Where delivery of an offset is set as a condition of a development – and it almost always is – compliance is often poor and rarely enforced by governments.

Samuel found that far from protecting Australia’s wildlife, offsets were actually resulting in environmental losses. He called for reforms that would set standards in the law for how offsetting should occur to make sure schemes are accountable and scientifically credible.

As with much of the Samuel review, the Morrison government has not responded to that recommendation.

Which brings me to NSW.

The trigger for this state’s inquiry was a Guardian Australia investigation focused on the location of some of the most intensive urban development in the country: western Sydney.

In the examples our reporting looked at, the developers, in several instances, were the state and federal governments themselves.

What we found were promised offsets for highways that, 20 years on, have not been delivered.

We found that the main offset for the western Sydney airport, a project that has cleared more than 100 hectares of critically endangered woodland in Sydney, is government-owned bushland that already had heritage protections – a practice that is known in offsetting as “double dipping”.

And we found that consultants from a company that advised governments on major developments in NSW made windfall gains of tens of millions of dollars by selling offsets to the government for those same developments.

The revelations are not just the subject of this inquiry. Some have been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, others are the subject of departmental investigations, and both the state and federal auditors general have proposed reviews.

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In a parliamentary hearing on Friday, community, environmental and legal groups will present more examples of failure.

They will tell MPs that at a time of biodiversity and climate crisis, a system meant to protect Australia’s wildlife is actually enabling its decline, driving plants, animals and habitats closer to extinction.

In coming weeks, the government and bureaucrats will be called to explain how that system is being managed and how it got to this point.

The question of course is what happens when it and other inquiries are over.

Will we see recommendations that simply join the long line of environmental reports largely ignored by governments until the next inquiry? Or will someone finally acknowledge that something needs to change?

NSW has an environment minister who has publicly expressed his willingness to address environmental challenges.

This inquiry will give him that opportunity.

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