- A new offsets policy establishes a framework for using environmental offsets in Queensland.
The Queensland Government Environmental Offsets Policy (QGEOP) came into effect on 1 July 2008.
The policy establishes a framework for using environmental offsets in Queensland and aims to give government, industry and the community an integrated, consistent and transparent approach to environmental offsets in Queensland
What are offsets?
The QGEOP provides that an environmental offset is an action taken to counterbalance unavoidable, negative environmental impacts that result from an activity or a development. Environmental offsets are only applicable when the impacts cannot be avoided or minimised. The policy states that offsets will not replace or undermine existing environmental standards or regulatory requirements, or be used to allow development in areas otherwise prohibited through legislation or policy. Offsets may be located within or outside the area affected by the detrimental impact.
The QGEOP explains how an offset differs from mitigation, in that it addresses remaining impacts, after attempts to reduce (or mitigate) the impact have been undertaken. Importantly, an environmental offset should be considered a last resort and must be above and beyond any other environmental measures that are already required.
The QGEOP recognises two types of offsets - direct and indirect.
Direct offsets are those actions that provide environmental values (eg. conducting restoration measures that improve environmental values by increasing vegetation cover), while indirect offsets complement the intended environmental outcome in other ways (providing infrastructure that will help protect the environmental values being impacted such as the provision of an assisted crossing to aid the movement of fauna through their habitat). To determine which offset is best to achieve the required environmental outcome will depend on the site and the impact. The QGEOP encourages the use of direct offsets, with indirect offsets being used where deemed acceptable.
Issue-specific Offset Policies
The Queensland Government has used offsets for some time, and has established specific-issue offsets policies, providing direction for offsets that address specific environmental issues. The current specific offsets policies in effect are for:
- Vegetation Management;
- Marine Fish Habitat; and
- Koala Habitat.
Additional specific policies are currently in development to address impacts on waste water quality and biodiversity. Any new specific offsets policy will need to be consistent with the QGEOP.
When and how does the QGEOP apply?
The QGEOP is intended to continue to apply to the specific-issues offsets, but importantly from now, will also apply in an overarching manner to increase the scope of when offsets may be appropriate. For instance, the Coordinator-General acting as a decision-maker assessing projects under the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act, may require offsets for impacts that are not currently picked up by specific-issue offsets. In this case, the principles and guidelines of the QGEOP are to be followed in setting offset conditions.
The policy can be applied broadly and can trigger a requirement for an environmental offset under the Queensland Integrated Development Assessment System (IDAS) of the Integrated Planning Act or by one or more concurrence agencies.
The QGEOP is intended to be capable of being applied to approvals and conditions under the following:
- Environment Protection Act 1994 (eg. environmental authority for mining activities);
- Integrated Planning Act 1997 (eg. development applications);
- State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (eg. Coordinator-General's assessment right for significant projects); and
- Main Roads administration processes.
The policy promotes a co-operative approach and makes provision for:
- Offset Agreements - a formal document between the regulator and the proponent that describes arrangements for providing an environmental offset;
- Packaging Offsets - this includes one or more offset actions and may include direct or indirect offsets. However, an offset package must meet the requirements of each applicable specific-issue offsets policy.
Offset packages can be developed to meet offsets requirements under the Australian Government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and any Queensland Government specific-issue offsets policies that are triggered by a development proposal. The QGEOP does not preclude carbon offsets (offsets for greenhouse gas emissions) as part of a multiple offsets package. However, the treatment of these offsets will be reviewed once the rules for the National Emissions Trading Scheme are developed.
The policy provides that a land-based offset (including voluntary offsets) should be legally secured and centrally registered with Government.
Environmental offsets can be used to counterbalance environmental impacts of development that cannot be avoided or adequately mitigated. Proponents when applying for approvals of development proposals should take into account the QGEOP, and attempt to incorporate it into their applications by including considerations of the offsets policy in environmental assessment. Regulators and assessors also need to consider the policy as part of their decision-making processes.
Thanks to Peter Snedden for his help in writing this article.
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