Biobanking has many critics according to inquiry

The $250M State Government rail fleet maintenance facility

An inquiry into the integrity of the NSW Biodiversity Offsets Scheme will hold two days of public hearings on December 9 and 10.

The State Government inquiry is examining a range of issues including the effectiveness of the scheme to halt or reverse the loss of biodiversity, and the use of offsets for major projects.

Central Coast Council has about six agreements listed with the Biodiversity Conservation Trust which administers the Biodiversity Offsets scheme.

Projects such as the train maintenance facility at Kangy Angy and the upgrade of the Pacific Highway at Lisarow resulted in biodiversity offsets that needed to be bought.

Developers wanting to clear land have the option to buy diversity offsets.

But it seems none of the groups affected by the scheme are happy with it.

The inquiry received about 100 submissions including from the Central Coast’s Darkinjung Aboriginal Land Council (DALC) and from the Urban Development Institute of Australia and from dozens of councils, although not from Central Coast Council.

DALC said in its submission that the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 (BCA) has had the effect of dispossessing NSW’s Aboriginal people of their land a second time for less than fair value.

“NSW’s Aboriginal people have already contributed to all land developed in the State, and now they are being asked to pay again for the benefit of the public and other developers by locking away land (which was) returned as compensation,” the DALC submission said.

The Local Government NSW said the scheme was problematic in practice and required changes to improve guidelines and outcomes.

Councils had expressed a general concern that the offsets were not leading to net improvements in biodiversity.

Urban Taskforce Australia said that critical to the delivery of increased housing supply would be the recognition that the cost of biodiversity conservation should not be borne entirely by the new homebuyer.

“The benefits of additional green space and species protection are wide reaching and not just limited to the new homes supplied via a particular rezoning,” Urban Taskforce said.

“In many cases the cost of biodiversity offsets is simply prohibitive of developing the land at all.

“Urban Taskforce members report buying or owning land that has been cleared and has been rezoned for urban development and then during the (usually long and drawn out) development approval process a species emerges on the site that requires offsetting.

“In this scenario the cost of biodiversity offsetting was not factored into the land and/or development costs for the site.

“The outcome being that the late emergence of biodiversity values is cost prohibitive, makes the zoning irrelevant and the land is unable to be feasibly developed.”

The Better Planning Network (BPN), a statewide, not-for-profit, volunteer-based organisation said the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO) had been extremely critical of the use of biobanking and cash contributions to the Biodiversity Conservation Trust as alternatives for securing “like for like” biodiversity offsets.

“Rachel Walmsley, Policy & Law Reform Director EDO NSW, coined the phrase “the political endorsement of extinction” to describe the federal government’s accreditation of the NSW Government’s biodiversity offsets policy for major projects,” BPN said.

It failed to meet national environmental standards, BPN said.

Ecological Consultants Association of NSW said much of the land clearing observed across the state in the last five years fell outside of the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme.

It also said some legislative instruments leave the assessment of biodiversity value in the hands of those with no qualification to assess it.

“If the State of NSW truly seeks to stem biodiversity loss, we need to leave assessment of impacts on threatened biodiversity to those with knowledge of how these impacts can be avoided or minimised such as appropriately qualified and experienced ecological consultants.”

The State Government’s submission to the inquiry explains the system.

There are three main options to satisfy offset obligations for impacts on biodiversity values from proposed developments or other projects.

One is to establish a new offset site through a Biodiversity Stewardship Agreement.

A second option is to purchase biodiversity credits on the open market (generally from landholders who have established a Biodiversity Stewardship Agreement).

The third option is to pay into the Biodiversity Conservation Fund (BCF), which transfers the obligation to the Biodiversity Conservation Trust.

For option 3, the Biodiversity Offsets Payment Calculator (BOPC) is used to determine the amount a developer would be required to pay into the BCF to discharge an offset obligation.

The committee –  made up of two liberals; two Labor; an independent; a Green, an Animal Justice Party and a National – is due to report to the State Government by March 1, 2022.

Merilyn Vale