There is no denying that the current pandemic is going to have a massive effect on the global economy and the world population. While many people are trying to romanticize the return of nature during such a pandemic, we cannot deny that we are looking at a bleak future. However, now is the time to come together as human beings, and face this disease as well as we can so that we can finally breathe easy.
But while the world is busy dealing with this pandemic, fuel companies are trying to use these stressful times to push their anti-environment agenda. It’s happening in Australia and sadly, Koalas are going to be the fall guy.
Koalas are a precious symbol of Australia. They are endemic to the land and are really cute. Koalas have a specific way of living. They sleep in the morning, the whole day, and at night, they travel across long expanses of land to find food. Koalas also have some specific trees which they feed on. Koalas are an endangered species. Due to bulldozers razing forests to the ground, the drying climate and severe bushfires have lowered the Koala population significantly. The lack of trees causes these adorable creatures to travel longer than usual, exhausting them and dehydrating them. As per the World Wildlife Fund Australia, the number of koalas in NSW has fallen between a third and two-third in the past twenty years.
A critically endangered ecological community and a favorite of koalas, the White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grassland have been affected by fuel companies, especially coal mining corporations that have run their merciless bulldozers over large expanses of this land, even in recent years. A long time ago, coal mines operated by sending in people down the hole with a pickaxe, digging deeper. These were expensive methods. Now, coal mining companies adopt destructive means like bulldozing or blasting areas with explosives. Fuel companies are using such alternative measures to cut their costs.
The Howard Government brought forward a federal law in 1999 which was referred to as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The act was passed to correct the huge loss of the Australian biodiversity, which was causing the extinction of many endemic species. It made it illegal to do anything that can adversely impact the ecosystem or threaten it in any way. Any such act could lead to seven years of jail time. As can be understood, the fuel companies felt quite threatened by this act and it was seen in a negative light. Biodiversity has always posed as a barrier for them. As a result, fuel companies, that is, mostly mining companies were able to get an escape clause which said that the Minister could allow wildlife destruction during exceptional conditions, though there will be strict monitoring.
The clause, ideally, was placed as something that fuel companies could use rarely (under extreme conditions) but it has often been abused to justify any kind of environmental damage. Plus, it has been more than 10 years that mining companies keep pushing for the power of making environmental laws and decisions to be entirely handed over to state governments, who may get some form of royalty revenues.
But with the pandemic, it seems the fuel companies have hit gold. As the Federal government tries to control the spread of the pandemic, the coal companies have been given free rein after a change has been announced of the bilateral agreement between the NSW Government and the Federal Government regarding the assessment of environmental issues. They agreed to ‘offsetting’.
What is offsetting? It is simply that if fuel companies, specifically mining companies, wish the government to agree on any contract for mining a specific area, they must do it responsibly and ensure that they do everything to avoid, mitigate, and offset the environmental damage respectively. Avoid means the company should not damage any part of the environment or ecology if they do not need to. Mitigate is that if they do cause damage, they need to lower the impact as much as possible. Offset is the last resort where they have to set up or buy a replacement habitat for the animal species, like koalas in this case, so that they can be rehabilitated into the new area. The replacing habitat must have the same kind of ecosystem, maybe even better, since it won’t be put under threat and it should be available immediately so that there is no delay in the rehabilitation.
Offsetting has been used before. A Senate inquiry back in 2014 however uncovered scandals regarding offsetting of biodiversity, where companies have made misleading claims or phantom offsets. The inquiry was of the opinion that offset is riddled with corruption and so, it should not be made available to such mining companies, though the Federal government had not implemented these suggestions in the law yet.
As per the current agreement, mining companies can use the aid of the system to seek out and buy such replacement habitats by paying the NSW government who will do the job for them. Now, if the NSW Government fails to find any, no legal consequence for environmental damage will be faced by the mining companies if they have paid the required fund.
While the legality of all this seems grim, koalas are not, of course, part of this legal turmoil. If the Government fails to find a new habitat or must wait for a few years for it, the Koala population will face even further problems when the mining activity begins. Plus, finding a replacement habit like the Koala’s favorite White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grassland is almost an impossible task.
It is clear that Federal environmental laws are not strong enough to tackle mining companies and their anti-environmental demands. There has to be new environmental laws put in place. As long as these lax laws remain, it is just a matter of time before fuel companies pressurize the Federal Government to hand over the power of making laws and environmental decisions to the State Governments.
Greenpeace is trying its best to work with the government and the entire system to ensure that this does not happen. However, we can also demand the right thing from our Government to save the biodiversity of our world, as per Greenpeace.