Labor’s proposed changes to water trigger laws could have ‘centuries-long consequences’, environment groups say

<span>The water trigger requires the environment minister to consider the impact of large coal mining and coal seam gas projects on water resources.</span><span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
The water trigger requires the environment minister to consider the impact of large coal mining and coal seam gas projects on water resources.Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Environment groups have criticised a proposed change by the Albanese government to national environmental laws, saying it puts “precious water resources at risk” and could have “centuries-long consequences”.

The proposal would allow states and territories to make decisions about coal mining and unconventional gas where water resources are affected. Currently the federal government has the final say on such projects under the so-called “water trigger”.

Related: Labor unveils watered-down fuel efficiency standard that eases emission rules for large SUVs

The move has angered conservation groups involved in the government’s consultation about its environmental reforms four months after the water trigger was expanded to include all forms of unconventional gas.

The Albanese government has been consulting select environment and business groups about its planned overhaul of national environmental laws, with the expectation it will introduce legislation to parliament later this year.

The water trigger requires the environment minister to consider the impact of large coal mining and coal seam gas projects on water resources. The trigger was expanded late last year to include all types of unconventional gas, such as the shale gas found in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo basin.

The current laws include an explicit protection that prevents the commonwealth from delegating its decision-making powers under the water trigger to state and territory governments.

But the draft new laws presented to environment and business groups remove this guarantee and would allow states and territories to be accredited to take on this responsibility.

Under the proposed laws, the government could also divest its decision-making powers over matters of national environmental significance such as world heritage, threatened species and Ramsar wetlands.

“Four months after expanding the water trigger, proposed environmental laws will allow it to be devolved,” said Georgina Woods, head of research and investigations at Lock the Gate.

“It is not in the national interest to allow state and territory governments free rein to put precious water resources at risk from coal mining and unconventional gas. We’re talking about the lifeblood of the continent and decisions with centuries-long consequences.”

Removing the restriction that prevents states and territories from being accredited to make decisions under the water trigger was a recommendation of the 2020 Samuel review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

While the draft reforms adopt this recommendation, the environment and water minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the government would still have “oversight” of any states it accredited.

“I was proud to legislate a water trigger last year so all unconventional gas projects are considered under national environment law for their impacts on water – this was the first phase of our plan to make sensible improvements to Australia’s environment laws,” she said.

“The commonwealth will retain oversight of this under our draft laws.”

Related: Labor and Coalition cut short debate on offshore gas bill labelled ‘window dressing’

But Woods said Labor had specifically told Northern Territory communities during the 2022 federal election campaign that an expanded water trigger would not be delegated to state and territory governments.

“The reality is that state and territory governments tend to become blindly enthusiastic about resource extraction. That is why Bob Hawke initiated the commonwealth’s role in environmental protection in the first place,” she said.

“To protect water resources in the national interest, the commonwealth has to be there with the power to say ‘no’.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s biodiversity policy adviser, Brendan Sydes, said the organisation had campaigned for years against proposals to hand federal environmental approval powers to state and territory governments, including the former Abbott government’s proposed “one-stop shop” process.

“We think the commonwealth needs to retain direct responsibility for protecting threatened species and other matters of national environmental significance like Ramsar wetlands, rather than entrusting that to the states and territories,” he said.

Sydes said the water trigger was introduced under the Gillard government with provisions that prevented it from being transferred because it was seen as “critically important” for the commonwealth to be able to step in and protect water resources and the communities and natural values that relied on them.

“In expanding the water trigger, as the government did late last year, they recognised the importance of that trigger,” he said.

“To now be proposing to create a mechanism to hand it over to the states and territories runs counter to that recognition.”

Plibersek said the government would “keep working closely with environment groups and business as we get our laws ready for introduction”.