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‘Cynical and grotesque’: NSW coalmine allowed to use future pit rehabilitation as offset for habitat destruction

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Habitat destruction caused by a new coalmine development in the New South Wales Hunter region will be offset through rehabilitation of the coal pit more than a decade after endangered ecosystems are cleared.

Environment groups have labelled the plan to allow future rehabilitation of the mine site to be claimed as part of Glencore’s offsets for its Mangoola mine expansion near Muswellbrook as “cynical and grotesque”.

Related: How the environmental offsets scheme is failing the Australian wildlife it is meant to protect

The case, and other examples, will be raised before a NSW parliamentary inquiry into biodiversity offsetting, triggered by a Guardian Australia investigation, which gets under way on Friday.

Glencore’s Mangoola expansion was approved in early October by the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley. It is the third coal project the minister has approved in a month. In May, the federal court ruled, in a decision that is currently under appeal, that she had a duty to protect people from the harm caused by the climate crisis in considering mine approvals.

Under Glencore’s conditions of approval, replanting and regeneration of the actual mine site years after its operations have finished will count towards offsets the company is required to deliver to compensate for the loss of some of the endangered habitat its project will cause.

‘Rapid decline’ in biodiversity

The development is one example of what conservationists say is the increased use in NSW of mine rehabilitation – which essentially looks to start an ecosystem from scratch – to compensate for the loss of mature bushland.

“New South Wales law allows open-cut mine pits to be used as offsets by the companies who have dug those very pits,” said Georgina Woods, the NSW coordinator of the anti-mining group Lock the Gate.

Woods, who will appear at the inquiry on Friday, said the practice was contributing to a “rapid decline” in biodiversity in NSW.

“Allowing coalmines to clear vanishing wildlife habitat and claim imaginary future offset for this loss 20 or more years into the future is not just ineffective: it is cynical and grotesque,” she said.

“It’s a disgrace and environment minister Matt Kean will have extinction as his legacy if he doesn’t step in to stop it.”

In some instances, such as Glencore and Peabody’s United Wambo project, the state and federal governments have given miners permission to claim rehabilitation as a portion of the offset for clearing habitat that is on the brink of extinction.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Environmental Defenders Office highlighted the United Wambo mine near Singleton, which is in the process of clearing 246.8 ha of Central Hunter Valley eucalypt woodland, an ecosystem considered critically endangered.

The state and federal governments granted permission for up to 20% of the offset requirement for that ecological community to be met through future rehabilitation.

‘Losing scientific credibility’

Rachel Walmsley, the EDO’s policy and law reform director, said development approvals had increasingly permitted the use of mine rehabilitation to provide biodiversity offsets despite the fact the NSW government still had not finalised rules that defined how mining rehabilitation should work under the state’s offset scheme.

Related: ‘Overlooked’: 14,000 invertebrate species lost habitat in Black Summer bushfires, study finds

“The idea that in 40 years time a void could be rehabilitated to a functioning ecosystem that is somehow an offset for habitat destruction that is happening now is farcical,” Walmsley said.

“Offsetting is a tool that is facilitating decline and extinction and that’s why it needs to be critically reviewed because it is losing its scientific credibility.”

Steve Douglas is an ecologist who has consulted to all tiers of government. Earlier this year he blew the whistle on the NSW government’s failure to deliver an offset for Sydney’s M7 motorway, 15 years after it opened for traffic.

He said in instances where mine rehabilitation occurred in areas that had already been extensively cleared prior to mining, or which had simple remnant vegetation, it could be relatively easy to restore a site to its pre-mining condition.

But this was not the case for sites where more intact woodland and grassland communities were cleared.

“In situations where more intact vegetation communities are present when mining commenced, it is very rare to encounter post-mining rehabilitation that has reinstated what was lost,” Douglas said.

Until recent years, the federal environment department was critical of mine rehabilitation as a biodiversity offset.

In 2015, when Glencore’s Mount Owen Continued Operations project was under assessment, it wrote to the state department expressing concern about the time lag for delivering environmental benefits for offsets from rehabilitation and that it did not consider such an offset an equal replacement for mature woodland.

The federal government did not permit any rehabilitation offsets for that project, however the NSW government allowed up to 518ha of rehabilitation to be included in Glencore’s offset requirements for Central Hunter Valley eucalypt forest.

In response to questions, the federal environment department said: “Ecological mine site rehabilitation can be considered as an offset for matters of national environmental significance.”

“Mine site ecological rehabilitation goes beyond standard rehabilitation and must create the same or similar biodiversity to that impacted by the development.”

In a statement, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said, in the case of the Mount Owen project, the total offset package including rehabilitation and securing of other sites for protection would represent “around eight times the area being impacted – much greater than would typically be required under the NSW offsets policy at the time.”

A spokesman said mine rehabilitation could help reconnect landscapes and deliver important local biodiversity outcomes and the department was considering rules that would set minimum ecological standards for such work under the offsets scheme.

“The standard of ecological rehabilitation applied to offsetting policy … focuses on rehabilitating ecologically functional native ecosystems and biodiversity values,” he said.

“This is a higher standard than rehabilitation as defined under the Mining Act 1992, which refers to the making of a stable and safe site.”

A spokesman for Glencore said approvals for the United Wambo and Mt Owen projects included offset packages that were “developed in consultation with the relevant agencies in accordance with state and commonwealth policy and guidelines, using best available scientific knowledge”.

A spokesman for Ley said the government’s assessment of the Mangoola project found the application complied with the NSW government’s biodiversity offsets scheme, which had been endorsed by the commonwealth.

“The minister’s approval included a number of additional conditions to safeguard the environment,” he said.

Comment was also sought from the NSW environment minister, Matt Kean.

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