Mining regulation in Australia: an opinion piece by Mitch Hooke.

Twenty years ago mining was rightly or wrongly regarded as the neighbour from hell. We weren’t engaged with the community or appropriately aligned with many of the key principles of sustainable development.

But what a difference two decades have made. In the past 20 years there has been a fundamental change in the minerals resources industry’s approach to the way it operates and a top-to-bottom embrace of the triple bottom line.

Our environmental and social performance is every bit as important as our economic achievements.

This makes claims by Paul Cleary in his latest book more than a little hard to fathom. Cleary asserts that the minerals resources industry hides its environmental performance and operates in a “loose” regulatory regime. The is news to us.

As well as a fundamental change in the way we operate, the regulatory environment in Australia has been dramatically strengthened across all jurisdictions in recent years.

The minerals resources sector is now the most heavily regulated industry in Australia, with mining approvals typically requiring consent from all three levels of Government.

Added to that there are extensive periods of public consultation, comprehensive environmental and social impact assessments, lodgement of environmental bonds or securities with governments and ongoing reporting and assessment to ensure that the operation remains entirely consistent with the heavily conditioned approval.

And layered on top of that again, almost all the States and Territories further restrict this process for approvals with additional policies designed to shield certain regions.

Mining approvals in Australia now typically take between five to seven years to complete and comprise a complex array of licences and approvals from a range of different government agencies. This includes mines departments, environmental protection agencies, heritage and native title/land rights authorities, wildlife conservation administrators, water licencing bodies and even departments of consumer and employee protection.

Further, if a project has the potential to impact on a matter of national environmental significance or Indigenous heritage, it is has to be assessed and approved by the Commonwealth.

All of this is undertaken separately to State and Federal Treasury’s considerations of their current and future receipt of taxes and royalties from the minerals sector. If Governments were only interested in revenue, no project would ever be rejected or so heavily environmentally conditioned.

Similarly, approvals are never taken in isolation of the other activities impacting on the environment or communities.

A case in point is the recent Namoi Catchment Water Study initiated by the independent member for New England Tony Windsor. This study found that even with the highest growth scenario for resource development within the catchment, the collective impacts of coal mining and coal seam gas extraction can be effectively managed without negatively affecting agricultural water use across the region.

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