Environment reforms to lift 'handbrake on investment'

The West Australian government will give politicians more power to direct the state's independent environmental protection authority in a bid to "slash green tape".

The EPA's board will also be expanded to include more skills-based members in a major overhaul of WA's environmental protection laws designed to unlock billions of dollars of investment for major job-creating projects.

Premier Roger Cook says the current approvals system is strained and failing amid a significant increase in the number of projects applying for environmental approval.

“WA is on the cusp of an economic prosperity that we haven't seen since the gold rush, the iron ore boom or the LNG and as a result of that we need to make sure that if we're going to be a renewable energy powerhouse that we have the approval processes that fits the bill," he said on Tuesday.

“Delays and uncertainty are putting a handbrake on investment and jobs."

The proposed amendments will allow the environment minister to direct the EPA to assess a project of state significance within a specified time frame.

Other government approval processes will also be able to run concurrently with an EPA assessment and the environment minister will give the authority a "statement of intent" that takes in the government of the day's priorities and policies.

Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Action Reece Whitby said the EPA would continue "providing independent (advice) but it's not independent of government".

"It will be very aware what the state's priorities are and that it has to make sure it delivers a decision in a timely manner," he said.

A co-ordinator general will be appointed to resolve delays for projects of state significance and report to cabinet about their progress, along with opportunities for further regulatory reforms.  

The announcement follows a review of the system that found approvals processes had become costly, overly complex and time-consuming and were holding back economic development.

It made 39 recommendations all of which have been accepted or noted, with work already under way to deliver reform.

The Cook government will also investigate options to streamline appeals processes, including statutory time frames and parameters around consultation and the opportunities for appeal and public comment.

Bibra Lake in Perth
The Wilderness Society says the overhaul "to fast-track approval processes" in WA is "outrageous".

Further work will reduce duplication in EPA assessments, with a particular focus on assessments of emissions from projects already covered by the Commonwealth legislation and Aboriginal cultural heritage assessments.

In addition to the changes, $18 million has been allocated to speed up the assessment of some critical environmental approval applications to clear the current backlog.

Opposition spokesman for the environment Neil Thomson said the Cook government had failed to act quickly enough and there were approval delays for $390 billion worth of projects.

"This is going to take time... and I think there's real concern out there in industry about how long it will take to deliver to ensure that we actually get the result," he said.

The Wilderness Society said the overhaul "to fast-track approval processes" was "outrageous".

"Removing appeal rights offered to the public under the Environment Protection Act is a serious concern for access to justice for communities, and for nature," campaign manager Tim Clifford said.

The Conservation Council of WA said the "radical" changes were "a major threat" to the EPA's independence and the environment.

"There are much smarter ways to help facilitate better assessment processes for genuine renewables projects than a reform agenda that appears to be a Trojan Horse to enable the big end of town to wield even more influence," President Richard Yin said.

Lock the Gate Alliance WA said the reforms would "fast track pollution and environmental destruction, not projects".

"Premier Cook appears hell-bent on cementing WA’s trajectory into becoming little more than a petro-state," co-ordinator Claire McKinnon said.

Further consultation with industry and conservation groups will be undertaken as part of the reforms.

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