Lendlease has come under fire for its biobank plan with critics saying they are not like-for-like.(Supplied: Pat Durman)
Biodiversity offsets have become a widely-accepted way to attempt to compensate for the destruction of endangered habitat and species in mining and other large scale development projects, but do they work?
Before a project gains approval under the NSW planning system, the extent of environmental damage – for instance, through vegetation clearing or damage to upland swamps by mine subsidence – is negotiated upfront.
Typically the proponent negotiates damage to a section of land by offsetting it with enhancements to another, usually larger parcels of similar land located nearby.
The process, known as biobanking, is regulated by both state and Federal governments.
Professor in environmental management at Edith Cowan University, Angus Morrison-Saunders, said a range of rules needed to be put into place to ensure an offset is genuine.
The first rule is “it’s only an offset if there is no net loss being delivered”.
“Individual trees are lost, individual animals are lost, but we say we are going to restore and rehabilitate areas elsewhere and have an equivalence,” Professor Morrison-Saunders said.
This may also involve relocating endangered species, like koalas.
Mt Gilead biobanking questioned
This is happening at Gilead, on the south-west outskirts of Sydney, which is home to a vibrant chlamydia-free colony of koalas.
When developer Lendlease revealed plans for tree clearing through koala corridors to build 1,700 new homes, effectively extending the Sydney urban fringe into historic farm and bushland, locals and conservationists saw red.
Offsets were a key part of the plan, enabling the company to argue it would increase, not decrease the number of local koalas overtime.
Lendlease says its offset will permanently protect and manage nearly 65 hectares of koala habitat.(Supplied: Pat Durman)
Lendlease CEO Steve McCann in a submission to last year’s federal parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis said that stage one would “balance minimal tree losses with enhanced bushland areas that are biobanks to protect, conserve, and link areas of koala habitat through the site”.
As part of the approval, Lendlease biobanked 21 hectares of koala habitat in the registered Appin West Offset area and land in the adjacent Noorumba Reserve Biobank site.
“The credits retired from these biobank sites will permanently protect and manage 64.65 hectares of koala habitat” at a cost of $857,800 over five years, the company’s Mount Gilead Koala Plan of Management said.
Saul Deane from the Total Environmental Centre said in a separate submission to the same inquiry there were real concerns about Lendlease relying on offsets and biobanking to provide most of the protection for threatened wildlife.
He said nominated biobanked areas were too far away, not correctly zoned, include areas already set aside for koala protection, and perhaps most concerning of all “aren’t connected to existing wildlife corridors”.
“The green avoidance areas are vegetation islands not connected to anything,” Mr Deane said.
“If offsets and biobanks are islands and determined by developer convenience, rather than a committed landscape structure, it results in an offset process that will not result in one extra tree being planted or one extra tree being preserved.
“Thus the biobanks for koalas of Macarthur-Onslow Mt Gilead, Noorumba-Mt Gilead, and Noorumba Bush Reserve are meaningless.”
Dendrobium proposal uses biobanking
Another site using offsets and biobanking to achieve biodiversity conservation outcomes is the Dendrobium Coal Mine Extension Project in the Illawarra.
The project promises to be a big money spinner for the region and is currently under review for approval by the Independent Planning Commission (IPC).
It appears mine owner South32 is making use of two biobanking sites generating credits that can then be retired, or “cashed in”, when land clearing and other underground mining work is approved.
The Dendrobium mine extension is expected to result in damage to 25 upland swamps feeding the Special Areas of Sydney’s drinking water catchment and result in the direct clearing of up to 28.5 hectares of native vegetation where threatened koalas, eastern pygmy-possums and Rosenberg’s goannas live.
Mining company South32 said it will offset impacts to upland swamps affected by its longwall mining.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)
However, it is not easy to find out how their offsets will work.
The 2016 South32 Illawarra Coal Strategic Biodiversity Offset plan says the company will transfer 598 hectares of a biobanking site at Maddens Plains into government ownership to compensate for biodiversity losses.
The land to be handed over includes 140 hectares of upland swamp “to compensate for potential subsidence-related impacts in the Dendrobium mining areas”.
A South32 biobanking presentation made to a community consultative committee in July 2018 includes details of work with Landcare Australia, with the company to manage bush regeneration.
It includes a video of children from Douglas Park Public School planting 250 seedlings “to cover a gap in the canopy”.
When asked specifically about offsets and biobanking for the Dendrobium mine extension, a South32 spokesman referred the ABC to websites belonging to the Independent Planning Commission and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.
The ABC also enquired about plans to clear 1.5 hectares of koala habitat at Mount Kembla to build a new carpark for mineworkers as part of the Dendrobium mine extension, and how the offsets for the clearing would work.
“Detailed planning for the carpark has not yet commenced, but South32 has begun engagement with local residents and the Dendrobium Community Consultative Committee,” the South32 spokesman replied.
This koala habitat at Mount Kembla is to be cleared for a carpark if the Dendrobium mine extension is approved.(ABC Illawarra: Nick McLaren)
Professor Morrison-Saunders said transparency is an important part of biodiversity offsets, with key stakeholders having a shared obligation to explain how the process works.
“The proponent or the developer is the person who is going to cause the impact, and they are expected to be responsible and pay for it,” he said.
“That means they are supposed to do appropriate studies to demonstrate how they are protecting the environment and how they have done their best to minimise impacts and avoid impacts.
“[It is up to the proponent or the developer] then to put in place an offsets package, where relevant, to demonstrate that yes, they will fully counterbalance the environmental loss if permitted to go ahead.”
Greens question offsets
Such assurances are not enough for NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who wants the whole offsets system overhauled.
“I think people would be extremely alarmed to know that we have a system that allows developers or other proponents of big projects to simply pay money to be allowed to clear threatened species habitat,” she said.
“That is essentially what the system is, and that is what I think most people would be extremely alarmed about.
“The whole notion of putting a price on threatened species I think is alarming. The whole notion that we can continue to clear if someone pays enough money is incredibly alarming.
“The system of biodiversity certification must change if we are to have any hope of reversing the alarming decline in threatened species in NSW.”
Both the NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes and the NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean were contacted for comment.