Miners lose edge as NSW government balances profits against damage before approvals

The NSW government has put mining back to a level planning field. Photo: Glenn Hunt Centennial Mine’s operations in the Blue Mountains. Photo: supplied

The Baird government has amended its mining policy process to give equal billing to a project’s economic, environmental and social impacts when determining approval in a move likely to anger the mining industry.

The plan to change the mining State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) to end the priority being given to economic factors is understood to have won “broad support” when it went to cabinet on Friday.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes said in a statement on Monday that the community had been overwhelmingly in favour of the change.

“Mining plays an important role in the NSW economy, however, we must ensure that our policies reflect the importance of balance in assessing the likely impacts of mining developments,” Mr Stokes said.

“A crucial pillar of our planning system is that decision makers consider environmental impacts on both the natural and built environments, and social and economic impacts in their assessment of development applications,” he said.

The impact of the amended policy, which comes into force on Wednesday, may be on show within days. The Planning Assessment Commission will hold additional public hearings triggered by the revised SEPP for the Springvale coal mine near Lithgow on Thursday and next Monday for Rio Tinto’s Mt Thorley Warkworth mine near Bulga in the Hunter Valley.

The mining sector has previously complained that the removal of economic priority being given to new mines – introduced two years ago – would damage an industry already struggling with poor commodity prices and large-scale job losses.

The government received more than 2400 submissions, 98 per cent of which supported the proposal to remove a provision that had made the significance of the mineral resource “the principal consideration” when determining projects.

‘Real test’

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW welcomed the move to change the elements of the mining SEPP that were introduced by former Resources Minister Chris Hartcher in 2013.

“Premier Mike Baird and Planning Minister Rob Stokes deserve credit for acknowledging that the Hartcher amendments were unacceptable because they put industry interests ahead of local communities and the environment,” Kate Smolksi, the council’s chief executive, said.

Ms Smolski said the SEPP change had been introduced by the O’Farrell government to allow mining giant Rio Tinto to make another application to expand its open-cut coal mine after its plan had been rejected by the Land and Environment Court.

“While we welcome today’s decision, it only takes us back to where we were two years ago, when the community was expressing many substantial concerns about the approval and assessment process for mining projects,” she said.

“The real test will be whether or not the Planning Assessment Commission [PAC] takes this change into account when determining the Warkworth Mt Thorley mine and other mining projects.”

Miners, Greens

Stephen Galilee, chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, said his organisation had always backed a balanced approach to the assessment of new mining projects.

“Our concern with the proposed changes was that state and regional economic factors would no longer be mandatory factors for consideration in the assessment process,” Mr Galilee said, adding that Mr Stokes has said he will ensure such issues will be examined in PAC determinations.

A spokesman for Rio Tinto echoed such concerns.

“Our applications to continue mining at Mount Thorley Warkworth have been assessed against contemporary environmental, social and economic policies and requirements,” the spokesman said. “These assessments indicate the benefits of the proposals, including continued employment for 1300 people, significantly outweigh the impacts.”

“This is supported by the Department of Planning and Environment which has written to the [PAC] and advised they are satisfied that the benefits outweigh the impacts, after the change to the Mining SEPP, and recommend that the project is in the public interest and should be approved,” he said.

Jeremy Buckingham, the Greens mining spokesman, said the SEPP should never have been altered in the first place.

“We’d like the merits appeals brought back and teeth be given to the Strategic Regional Land-use Policy,” Mr Buckingham said, adding battles over major projects will continue until appropriate areas are designated as “no go zones” for coal and coal seam gas operations.

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