Pleasing progress on approvals

THE Environmental Protection Authority's review of environmental approvals should be applauded.

Improving the efficiency of mining and project approvals has been a high priority for industry in Western Australia for many years.

Last year's election of the Liberal-Nationals government provided added impetus to efforts to improve outcomes in this area.

A ministerial taskforce chaired by Premier Colin Barnett has been established.

And Mines and Petroleum Minister Norman Moore has established an industry working group, chaired by former Court government minister and experienced company director Peter Jones.

The working group is reviewing the full range of approvals - environmental, land tenure, planning, native title, and Aboriginal heritage.

The length of this list, and the fact that multiple agencies deal with each of these issues, indicates the complexity of the reform task facing government.

A leaked industry submission reported last month indicated that radical proposals are being put on the agenda. Specifically, it was suggested that the premier should take responsibility for approval of large projects from the environment minister.

Mr Moore quickly scotched the suggestion, stating the government has no plans to reduce the role or limit the power of the environment minister in the mining approvals process.

Hard-nosed observers suggest that a formal change would not make much difference, since Mr Barnett dominates the cabinet, especially when dealing with a young and inexperienced environment minister like Donna Faragher.

Meanwhile, Environmental Protection Authority chairman Paul Vogel has quietly spent the past year crafting a major reform of the environmental approvals process.

Dr Vogel has lived up to pledges he made in interviews with WA Business News in 2007, soon after returning to WA to take over the EPA role.

He highlighted the need for change, saying the EPA had been "drowning" in the large number of applications it was asked to process.

"I'm used to change and implementing change and 'business as usual' is not on; we need a new business model," Dr Vogel said at the time.

He also said that he wanted to engage in an open dialogue with industry, government and conservation groups to help deliver sustainable outcomes for all stakeholders.

The package of reforms Dr Vogel announced earlier this week represents a constructive and potentially profound change.

It may not be sexy, but it works.

He has advocated a risk-based approach, which essentially means that the environmental impact review will focus on the big issues and big risks.

The review also proposed a focus on environmental outcomes rather than getting into prescriptive details.

Transparent reporting against agreed timelines, parallel processing with other approval processes and sharing environmental data between government and industry are some of the other changes proposed.

One of the most impressive aspects of this reform process is that Dr Vogel has brought all stakeholders with him in unison, apart from the odd maverick who would never agree.

The review process has been open and transparent, has included public forums and has not involved any shocks along the way.

It seems to be universally agreed that the reforms should enhance the review process without eroding the integrity of environmental reviews or the independence of the EPA.

Ms Faragher noted that the EPA review raised several issues that are relevant to all approvals. Hence she plans to refer them to the premier's taskforce.

Its work is also highly relevant to Mr Moore's industry working group, which is looking to improve coordination across agencies and establish timelines for the approvals process.

The work done by Dr Vogel and others in the review represents the hard yards of reform. They are seeking to make the bureaucracy work more efficiently while also retaining public trust.

This contrasts with business critics who say that government should just get on with it and approve big projects, and environmental critics who are deeply distrustful (and in most cases deeply ignorant) of business.Well done to a quiet achiever.

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