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A speech to the Australian Minerals Council's "2000 Minerals Industry Seminar"


by the
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill
June 7, 2000
Canberra

This week we celebrated World Environment Day and I was reminded that ten years ago an Australian mining operation stepped up to receive one of the world's highest environmental accolades - inclusion on UNEP Global 500 Roll of Honour.

Alcoa Australia received this recognition for its work over a period of 30 years on bauxite mine rehabilitation practices in the unique Jarrah forest of south west Western Australian. The company - the world's biggest alumina producer - continues to mine in the region and continues to restore a viable and valuable forest eco-system. It clears and rehabilitates about 500 hectares of this forest each year. Other mining companies have learned from the Alcoa experience of integrating environmental protection with industrial development.

Alcoa remains the only mining company in the world to have won a Global 500 award and Australia can be proud of Alcoa's unique position in this regard. It is an international acknowledgment of the levels of environmental excellence that Australian mining companies can achieve.

But given the "Changing Expectations" theme of your conference, perhaps we could also wonder why after ten years Alcoa has not been joined by other Australian mining operations on this list of honour.

Those changing expectations are continually raising the environmental high jump bar for Australia's mining industry. When it comes to environmental protection, that situation is not peculiar to the mining industry.

Whether it be government or any industry or individual company, no matter how much we achieve in terms of better environmental performance, it appears there is always room for further improvement and a community demand for that improvement.

For example, I could point to the enormous advances in motor vehicle engine technology over the past two decades - they are more powerful, more fuel efficient, and create less emissions.

But the public still rates urban air pollution as its number one environmental concern. So -we continually send our car manufacturers back to the drawing board to design new engines to deliver even better environmental performance.

I would note that our car manufacturers have responded to that challenge and just last month we saw the unveiling of Holden's prototype car, the ECOmmodore. Based on advanced CSIRO electric hybrid engine technology, the ECOmmodore is a family size car with half the fuel consumption and only ten per cent of the emissions of a normal Commodore.

This constant pressure to improve ensures we don't rest on our laurels and helps move our industry and our economy toward a more sustainable basis.

And of course, the demands for better performance are good for the environment and good for the economy.

But at the same time we should not lose sight of the significant steps forward that we have already taken. We should not be reticent in acknowledging an industry or an individual company which has brought about change for the better. To the contrary, we should actively seek out opportunities to publicly endorse such actions.

And to give credit where it's due, this week Greenpeace put out a media release congratulating construction company Bovis Lend Lease for its work on the Sydney Olympics site - work for which it has received one of the inaugural Prime Minister's Environment Awards.

However, the general lack of recognition of environmental achievements in the mining industry is regrettable. Australia has been at the forefront of developing world's best practice.

And, as has been noted by people such as Dr Michael Archer, head of the Australian Museum, the mining industry leaves a significantly smaller "footprint" on the environment than, for example, the agriculture industry.

The Howard Government has recognised the willingness of the mining industry to lift its environmental standards and we have sought to work with the industry, both domestically and internationally, to achieve this goal.

Our government has promoted the concept of "eco-efficiency" to Australian industry - the concept of producing more while reducing resource use and waste. As I alluded to earlier, many Australian companies have found that better environmental practice translates to better economic performance.

MIM, for example, has implemented a range of programs to reduce energy consumption. The company has been able to open a new mine and add new electricity-using activities while cutting total annual electricity use and carbon dioxide emissions. They deserve acknowledgment.

The simple concept of reducing costs by using less resources to achieve the same output has led to the growth of environmental accounting as a business discipline.

This, in turn, has led to the growing use of public environment reports as an effective way to provide greater transparency and accountability to a company's activities.

This reporting process also acts as an internal check on the eco-efficiency of a company's operations and helps to identify opportunities to further reduce waste and input costs.

It also gives the community greater confidence in the company's operations.

Again, a member of the mining industry has been a leading light in this regard. Western Mining Corporation is set to release its fifth annual environmental report. Through developing this process they have consulted broadly with the community and other stakeholders and have their reports independently verified. It also provides the company with a chance to let the public know about the good environmental work it is doing and also to thank and acknowledge their workers for their environmental efforts.

The Commonwealth has sought to build on the example provided by companies such as Western Mining and has now released an appropriate framework for voluntary public environmental reports across Australia.

The Commonwealth has also sought to work with the industry to document best practice mining procedures and promote these procedures both domestically and internationally.

The Best Practice Environmental Management in mining program was commenced in response to requests from international agencies for Australia to assist them with a range of environmental issues in mining.

There is no doubt that this program - using booklets, videos and internet databases - has been a successful partnership between the Australian Government and the Australian mining industry.

The series already covers best practice principles on 20 mining topics supported by examples of case studies of their successful application at mine sites. Many of those case studies would have been provided by companies involved in this conference and I acknowledge their cooperation and contributions.

The program has been translated into several languages to help share our knowledge with other nations, particularly those of our region.

Recently, the Minerals Council of Australia has contributed funding to the Australian Minerals and Energy Environmental Foundation for the production of two new titles on Energy Efficiency, and Mine Closure and Decommissioning. This is good to see.

The program's success can be measured by its high standing in the international community. That standing is best summed up in a letter from a British academic to my department which stated, "I was recently at a roundtable organised by the World Bank where your booklets received special mention as the current benchmark for the industry."

But again I remind you of the theme of your conference - "changing expectations".

The Australian mining industry must guard the good standing it has gained in the international community through projects such as the Best Practice series.

The Global Mining Initiative launched here today provides a real opportunity for the mining industry to further build upon the confidence of the community and ensure the industry operates on a sustainable basis.

The Initiative must ensure that an industry which is essential to the well-being of a changing world is responsive to global needs and challenges.

The support of major Australian companies such as BHP Minerals, MIM Holdings, North Limited and WMC resources and other international companies with significant operations in Australia such as Alcoa, Billiton, Placer Dome and Rio Tinto is a good start.

Recent experience dictates that it will not be sufficient for the initiative to only address how the mining industry will operate sustainably in an advanced nation with strong environmental codes such as Australia.

It must also address how the industry expects to extend such standards to companies which operate in developing nations where much needed economic considerations can outweigh environmental concerns.

The Howard Government supported the launch in 1996 of the Australian Minerals Industry Code for Environmental Management, recognising it as a demonstration of your industry's commitment to continual improvement in environmental management.

We also look forward to working with your industry in developing the Global Mining Initiative.

While projects such as this reflect our government's cooperative approach to working with the domestic mining industry, we also recognise our responsibilities to provide an adequate, modern and comprehensive range of legislative protection for the environment.

As you would be aware, the Howard Government has undertaken the most significant overhaul of Australian environmental legislation since the early 1970s.

The result is the new Commonwealth Environment protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act which will come into force next month.

The new Act will enhance protection for our environment in a manner that also promotes greater certainty for proponents and provides a more efficient and timely assessment process. An important outcome will be a reduction in intergovernmental duplication.

The Act has been hailed by independent international experts as being among the most innovative of its kind in the world.

The Act contains some key features which will provide substantial benefits for mining industry:

Commonwealth involvement is no longer triggered by indirect and ad hoc criteria such as Foreign Investment Review Board approvals, export controls and Commonwealth funding. Instead, the Act adopts a more logical and efficient framework based on environmental criteria - the Act is triggered by an action that has a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance.

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Since the Act was passed in June 1999, we have been busy taking the necessary steps to ensure a smooth transition to the new regime.

Administrative guidelines to provide greater certainty on when an action is likely to trigger the Act have been released for public comment and have been subsequently revised. Specific examples have been developed for mineral exploration activity and provided to the Minerals Council for comment. These guidelines and examples will assist mining companies in determining whether an action needs to be referred. For any proposals that are 'borderline', the Act provides a mechanism that ensures that, within 20 days of a referral, proponents receive a decision on whether the Act is triggered. This ensures certainty, and a timely process.

Bilateral agreements will be an important part of the new regime and we are close to finalising draft assessment bilateral agreements for most jurisdictions. These draft bilateral agreements will be out for public comment shortly. Under an assessment bilateral, the Commonwealth will accredit a State assessment process that meets relevant criteria.

An assessment bilateral will deliver significant benefits for proponents in that State, including reliance on a streamlined State approval process that meets the Commonwealth's requirements under the Act.

The Act specifically incorporates the principles of ecologically sustainable development - in particular the need to integrate economic, environmental and social considerations. Accordingly, in deciding whether to give approval, the Minister is required to take into account economic and social factors as well as impacts on matters of national environmental significance.

This means that factors such as employment and international competitiveness are relevant considerations, and are to be considered alongside ecological matters in an integrated manner. The Act is therefore faithful to the well established notions of ecologically sustainable development.

You would also be aware that the Government has been undertaking consultations with stakeholders on the introduction of a greenhouse trigger under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in relation to new projects that would be major emitters of greenhouse gases.

Under the trigger design provided to the States, the Act would apply to new projects that result in greenhouse gas emissions of over 0.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in any twelve month period.

The trigger simply means that these projects would be subject to an assessment and approval process. It would deliver an open and transparent process that takes into account our national environmental, social and economic interests.

Through bilateral agreements, the assessment process would almost certainly be conducted by a State government on behalf of the Commonwealth. Therefore the trigger would clearly not result in duplication or delay.

The Act requires the Minister to consider matters such as regional development, investment, international competitiveness and employment.

If the project will effectively be replacing older and 'dirtier' technology (and so improving the level of overall emissions), then that would also need to be taken into account.

Australia has made a significant commitment to the international community to reduce the growth in our greenhouse gas emissions. A trigger under the Act would appear to be a thoroughly logical and reasonable step for any responsible government to take in ensuring that obligation is met.

Finally today I would like to launch a new publication which showcases Australian environmental excellence in mining.

Australian Environmental Technologies in Mining presents information on more than sixty Australian developed environmental technologies in mining and eleven case studies on the application of environmental technologies. Hatch Associates (formerly BHP Engineering) produced the report for Environment Australia.

As I said earlier, Australian mining technology providers and practitioners are recognised by the world mining industry for delivering best practice and practical solutions.

Among the reasons for this recognition and acceptance are the breadth and range of technologies available, the specialist training and research institutions, and the continual research commitment to improving existing and developing new technologies.

This publication further confirms and promotes the expertise of the Australian mining industry and is another significant step to ensuring the sustainability of mining practices.

Commonwealth of Australia