Does your Project Trigger an Environmental Offset?

The Queensland Government’s Environmental Offset Act, Regulation and supporting material came into effect in July 2014, however it’s the release of important guidelines, changed calculator attributes and policy amendments which occurred in late December 2014 which will determine the success or impact of this legislation in 2015.

In its first 6 months of operation many of the flexible delivery options, benefits and improved outputs for offsets were lost to the alarming and unfeasible outputs of the online financial settlement calculator. It is difficult with a limited space to succinctly explain the new and recently amended Queensland Government’s Environmental Offset Framework, however if you have a project which involves an impact on a Matter of Local or State Environmental Significance then understanding your options under this legislation can make or break your proposal. Environmental matters include clearing of trees, or marine plants, works near coastal areas or wetlands, crossing or interfering with a drainage line or watercourse and almost any impact on scheduled flora and fauna species.

Saunders Havill Group’s Environmental Management department has been at the forefront of these changes and regularly completed exercises which involve testing and comparing the outcomes of the previous feature specific offset policies with this new legislation. A copy of presentations explaining the basics of this framework delivered to the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) and the Urban Development Institute of Australia are included to the side of this article.

In July 2014 the following legislative instruments came into force with support of the release of a number of polices and guides:

  • Environmental Offsets Act 2014 (EO Act)
  • Environmental Offsets Regulation 2014
  • Queensland Environmental Offset Policy 1.0
  • Online Financial Settlement Offset Calculator

In late December 2014 (effective 19th of December) the following changes and new material was released:

  • Queensland Environmental Offset Policy 2014 Version 1.1
  • Guide to Determining Terrestrial Habitat Quality Version 1.1 – December 2014
  • Habitat Scoring Template for land based offsets
  • Revised Offset Financial Calculator with minor attribute changes
  • A land-based offset multiplier calculator
  • A combined offset calculator for proposals involving both a land based and financial offset outcome
  • Significant Residual Impact Guideline for Activities assessable under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009
  • Significant Residual Impact Guideline for the Nature Conservation Act 1992, Environmental Protection Act 1994 and Marine Parks Act 2004

These new documents and tools now allow a proponent to seek an answer to the most asked question through 2014 – DOES MY PROJECT REQUIRE AN ENVIRONMENTAL OFFSET?

The most influential change to offsets delivered through the new framework is that the need for an environmental offset is triggered through a 3 tired assessment. The new EO Act specifically outlines that Environmental Offsets are required when a Prescribed Activity (1) will have a Significant Residual Impact (2) on a Prescribed Matter of Environmental Significance (3).

Since July 2014 there has been a fairly clear list of Prescribed Activities and at least Prescribed Matters of State Environmental Significance (MSES), however no guidance, definitions or interpretation was provided on what actions constitute a Significant Residual Impact versus a manageable or minimised impact?. The Significant Residual Impact question or test was a hot topic amongst Government Departments, industry bodies, experts and proponents over the back end of 2014. There are now two relatively different guidelines to measuring Significant Residual Impact generated by two separate Government Departments (DSDIP / DEHP – link to these guidelines above) based on head of power for the relevant legislation. The workability, feasibility and contestability of both of these Guidelines will be determined through practical application in 2015, however for now the documents at least provide the final piece in the jigsaw for determining if you project triggers an environmental offset.

Environmental Offset Assessment

Assessment against these guidelines can be complex and requires an understanding of other documents, acts, legislation, policies, SDAP modules and definitions. It is also noted that these documents are guidelines only and there will be many instances where a project fails the listed criteria for avoiding a Significant Residual Impact, yet can demonstrate through other means the project’s impacts are minor or manageable. This is a key consideration, as having success in demonstrating your proposal does not result in a Significant Residual Impact removes the ability of various levels of Government to seek an environmental offset.

What if my project does trigger an environmental offset?

If your project does trigger an environmental offset, a suite of options are available for how proponents can manage and deliver on this requirement, all of which will result in a different cost, time and impact on the project. Saunders Havill Group has number of experienced staff with an understanding of both the old offset policies and the new environmental offset framework. Using a combination of the disciplines within the group our services range from the initial ground survey and ranking of impacts, technical documentation, lodgement and negotiation of environmental offset approvals through to the securing, tendering, implementation and monitoring of various delivery methods.

Ten important questions we can assist you in answering include:

  1. Is my project a Prescribed Activity?
  2. Does my site include any features or areas defined as Matters of Environmental Significance?
  3. What are my options around removing, contesting or ground truthing mapped matters on my land holdings?
  4. Does my proposal result in a Significant Residual Impact and trigger and environmental offset?
  5. Can I alter my project or application to avoid a Significant Residual Impact and therefore avoid environmental offsets?
  6. How much will an Environmental Offset cost?
  7. Do I have to pay the financial settlement figure provided by the on-line calculator or are there more economical delivery options?
  8. How do I determine the habitat score for my impact area and offset area?
  9. When do I need to deliver the offset relative to the commencement and stages of my project?
  10. If your project retains or avoids environmental areas within the application allotment can these be nominated as an environmental offset?