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by Senator the Hon Robert Hill
Federal Minister for the Environment
Leader of the Government in the Senate
It is a pleasure to address this Seminar in my capacity as the new Environment Minister for Australia.
As the Prime Minister said last night, the environment is very much a mainstream issue. The whole community expects sound environmental practice and it is very much a cornerstone of our policy program.
We are a pro - development government, we are pro wealth creation and we want to operate on a "can do" basis - but this requires those with whom we deal recognise and respect the environmental standards we are committed to maintain.
As was said last night by Mr Ellis, Australia is blessed with enormous mineral resources.
Australia already has more than 25 per cent of the world's recoverable resources of zinc, lead, mineral sands, uranium and diamonds. We are the world's largest producer of bauxite, diamonds, lead and zircon and the largest exporter of coal, alumina, mineral sands and diamonds. We export 80 per cent of our mine production.
But we recognise that the task of turning mineral resources into wealth, which can then benefit the whole community, depends in part on Government policy and practice.
We also recognise that in this dynamic industry there is always a need to increase efficiency, improve commercial advantage and generally stay ahead of the game. For domestic and international reasons this now extends to constantly improving environmental management performance.
It is encouraging to see this drive "to be the best" extend to environmental management responsibilities.
Last year the mining industry spent $183 million on rehabilitation, an increase of 16 per cent on the previous year, in the process becoming the largest consumer of native plant seed in the country.
Australia's better-performing mining companies are now achieving levels of environmental protection in Australia that are the equal of any in the world with a level of expertise that has also become a marketable commodity.
Through this push for continuous improvement many of those mining companies are setting themselves standards that exceed those set for them by regulators. Managers are aware that moving 'beyond compliance' in their company's environmental performance is part of good business.
It follows that our Government intends to pursue a policy of environmental excellence in co-operation with mining and industry. We are committed to the integration of economic and environmental objectives in development to provide wealth for the benefit of all Australians.
The way to achieve this is through partnership.
In my talk today I will focus on a few areas which build on this notion of partnership. While I will cover a range of issues from uranium mining, marine protection to climate change, all are relevant to the mining industry - all are important for the protection of the environment and all require a partnership approach to achieve any measurable success.
Uranium MiningThe issue of uranium mining is one that commonly has a divergent and emotive range of response. It remains a sensitive issue made more so in many instances by where deposits are located.
Canada currently provides one third of the world's uranium from 17 per cent of global reserves; Australia supplies 7 per cent from 40 per cent of the world's reserves. Our Government accepts the legitimacy of Australia as a miner and a supplier of uranium but we intend that this be done while maintaining the strictest control terms for environmental protection.
The approvals process will be based on a demonstration of the ability to meet the highest environmental standards. The economics of any proposal is then an issue for companies not government to determine.
ERA has submitted a proposal to mine uranium at Jabiluka which has been designated by my colleague the Minister for Resources, Senator Warwick Parer. I am currently considering and will soon decide upon the level and scope of the environmental impact assessment required. Whatever the ultimate outcome, the process will be rigorous and transparent and involve extensive public consultation.
In addressing the issue of uranium mining, I am comforted by the way uranium has been mined at Ranger for more than fifteen years. It has demonstrated:
The experience of Ranger has occurred under the intense scrutiny of Commonwealth agencies such as the Office of the Supervising Scientist (OSS), and the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist (ERISS), and the Northern Territory supervising authorities. A range of stakeholders including representatives from the Northern Land Council, traditional owners and several peak environment groups are involved in decisions and there is a policy of transparency and openness with all monitoring data publicly accessible.
These co-operative working arrangements between Government agencies, the mining company and members of the interested public have resulted in a standard of environmental performance at Ranger that has been very high, often exceeding required standards.
This partnership helps us to set out EIS requirements for future applicants in a way in which the community can have confidence. To keep things balanced I have to say I was also most impressed by the rehabilitation work of the former mine at Nabalek by Qld mines and we appreciate that level of co-operation as well.
ANCA agreement on Marine Protected Areas
In another area where partnerships are being fostered, the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA) and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) have recently exchanged letters of co-operation.
Both organisations recognise that an important focus for increased co-operation is in the area of management of Commonwealth waters.
The agreement between ANCA and APPEA outlines the common objective of effective management and protection of marine environments and marine wildlife.
For representatives of the petroleum industry to commit formally to an agreement like this with a government conservation agency is a positive sign for all those who seek practical, long-term solutions through co-operation.
Our Government is committed to enhancing conservation management in closer co-operation with industry. In particular one of the issues which we want to further develop is the concept of multiple-use management regimes.
Historically, the establishment of protected areas has involved selecting small areas and providing specific site protection for particularly valuable features. More recently larger scale multiple-use protected areas, backed by integrated systems of management, have been established by the States and the Commonwealth. Examples include the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Ningaloo, the South Australian Bookmark Biosphere reserve in the Riverland and the regional reserve in the north east of South Australia.
These models provide for varying levels of resource use and extraction as well as different levels of protection. Characteristically each management area contains a, so-called, core 'no take' area.
The strength of the integrated multiple-use protected area is that it enables effective management of a wide range of different human activities – including extraction, harvesting and agriculture. This is because the responsibility for policy, planning and management is accepted by all stakeholders working together within a common framework.
On the central topic of working together, I am currently co-operating with my colleague the Resources Minister Senator Parer and the States to examine the application of framework models which accommodate multiple use. These include the Biosphere reserve concept - which incorporates a series of zones with differing management intensities - and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's six categories of protection, use and management of large scale terrestrial and marine areas.
The range of stakeholder involvement in such multiple-use arrangements can be broad. In the marine environment this can include the community, marine industries, tourism, fishing, minerals and petroleum.
In advancing the multiple-use concept further, particularly as it relates to Commonwealth responsibilities for marine protected areas, I would like to see the Australian Nature Conservation Agency explore with the mining industry, the fishing and seafood industry and possibly the tourism industry the possibility of establishing consultative arrangements similar to that agreed with APPEA.
The Prime Minister in his address last night to the Minerals Council stated that "climate change is a critical global challenge". Clearly, climate change is a major priority for the environment portfolio but, equally, is important for several other government portfolios. For this reason, I am working closely with my colleagues in the Ministry in addressing both the international and national dimensions of climate change.
The InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently has completed its second assessment of the state of knowledge of climate change.
Governments world wide, including in Australia, must take stock of the implications of its latest findings. For example, the IPCC states for the first time that already the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate. I know there are some who argue the science - but as the consequences of global warming will be difficult to reverse, it is obviously wise to be cautious.
The second Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention in July will address the IPCC report and focus on the course of the negotiations on a new Protocol. You are no doubt aware that these Protocol negotiations are due to be finalised in the latter part of 1997 and that emissions targets for developed countries in the post-2000 period are a key focus in the negotiations.
Whilst Australia is a part of the international community, wrestling with a global issue, we will be arguing that commitments under the Climate Change Convention provide for an equitable sharing between countries of the task of reducing emissions so that differences in the circumstances of countries are factored in. Australia will be active in ensuring that Australia's economic and trade interests are safeguarded and its specific national circumstances are respected. Furthermore we will continue to argue that to achieve an effective long term response to climate change, all countries which contribute to global emissions levels will need to be involved in contributing to solutions which includes developing countries.
It is essential that Australia is able to present in these negotiations a credible domestic performance in addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
The National Greenhouse Response Strategy is Australia's principal vehicle for focussing our greenhouse response. A major review of the Strategy is under way and it will be important that it leads to the most cost-effective greenhouse response effort that Australia can marshal. We need to address emissions but we also need to maintain and improve our economic competitiveness. In passing, but in response to some press speculation, let me make it clear that the Governments promise of no new taxes includes carbon and other so called greenhouse taxes.
Clearly, the minerals industry has an important stake in working with government to advance development of these agendas. In this connection, I very much welcome that the first agreements between industry and government under the Greenhouse Challenge Program are due to be signed in a few days time.
Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste
The Basel Convention was criticised last night. However, Australia is a Party to the Convention and this Government does not propose to allow us to be a Party to this Convention on the one hand, but to ignore its obligations on the other. We appreciate the fact that the mining industry worked with the Government and other stakeholders in recent times to upgrade Australia’s domestic law in implementation of the convention.
It does however raise two relevant issues. The first is the capacity of environmental controls to interfere with free trade, or to be inconsistent with GATT rules. This concern goes to the heart of the evolving trade and environment debate.
In some cases it is legitimate for international environmental restraints on trade, for example in the trade in hazardous waste, but it is important that environmental restraints don't become the latest form of non tariff barrier - and we will work to ensure this does not occur.
It is vital that we strive instead to ensure that trade and environmental policies remain mutually supportive.
The second relates to the quality of international conventions and the extent to which Australia should agree to be bound. We have introduced a new transparency into Australian treaty making processes. Proposed new treaties and changes such as the Ban Amendment under the Hazardous wastes convention will be subjected to community and public scrutiny before any decision to ratify.
Best Practice Mining Modules
I wanted to cover one other area of cooperation between the Government and the mining industry which we want to build upon.
This relates to the Best Practice Environmental Management in Mining publications which have been developed between my Department and industry.
In producing these booklets on topics from tailings containment to planning and environmental awareness programs, the objective was to integrate environmental issues and community concerns through all phases of mining from exploration through construction, operation and closure. The long term aim is to
These modules and others to be produced were actively supported by the mining industry and the Minerals Council of Australia and present the basic principles of applying best practice in environmental protection. Certainly it is the States which have the immediate regulatory responsibility but I find with national industries, there is increasing demand for national benchmarking - in this instance in good environmental practice.
This project has been another example of the benefits which can be gained when government, industry and community organisations work together as partners in protecting our environment for present and future generations.
In conclusion we believe we have accurately read community expectations. The environment is important to Australians but they also want development, jobs and higher living standards.
They want us to provide a framework within which both objectives can be achieved.
In meeting this challenge, it is imperative that Government, industry and the community, work together. Through setting common objectives we are more able to move towards a vision of sustainable development, a move which is increasingly being demanded from society.
The wise use of natural resources is at the heart of the principal environmental value; that the world should be a good place to live in and to make a living, for all of us, our children and theirs.
I therefore thank you for inviting me to speak at your seminar.