It’s time to break the coal industry stranglehold on our clean air laws

Last year Commonwealth Environment Minister Greg Hunt declared that air pollution ‘is a critical national issue and I would like it to be a signature objective of my watch’.

Yesterday’s meeting of environment ministers from around the country was Mr Hunt’s chance to deliver on that commitment. He failed, with the meeting agreeing to a New South Wales-led proposal to set standards for particulate at levels in excess of that recommended by health experts and the World Health Organisation.

The reason? The influence that mining interests, and particularly the coal industry, have been able to exert on a broken system of rule making.

National pollution standards, such as the air quality standards, are developed and set under a system of so called ‘cooperative federalism’ dating back to the 1990s. The system requires states to reach an agreement on any new standard – effectively leaving any progress hostage to the most recalcitrant of the states around the table. The Commonwealth, meanwhile, remains one government amongst many in the process, effectively impotent when it comes to exercising any leadership in the public interest.

The big ticket item yesterday was a new standard for annual average concentration of PM10 – coarse particulate pollution from sources such as coal mining, diesel transport, and wood smoke that costs our communities billions in health bills. The need for such a standard has been acknowledged for decades. The fact that it has taken so long for any decision to be made is a good indication that something is seriously wrong with the system.

A detailed consultation process this year modelled three levels of PM10 particles per cubic metre of air: 12, 16 and 20. The lower the level, the safer the air is to breathe, so it is perverse in the extreme that we actually ended up with a level of 25 after NSW, backed by Queensland and some other states, refused to back even the top of the modelled range at 20.

This weakened approach reflects the influence of the Minerals Council and coal mining interests on the process and key governments in coal mining states of NSW and Queensland.

NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman contests this view, arguing that the position is not a complete capitulation to the Minerals Council because ‘...the Minerals Council didn't want any annual standard for PM10’ – little comfort there.

He also claims that the new standard is on par with the standards in other jurisdictions. This is flat out wrong. Victoria, the ACT and probably South Australia have all indicated they would be prepared to accept the standard suggested by the World Health Organisation and health experts; that is, an immediate adoption of 20 rather than 25. Other comparable jurisdictions have already set the standard at 20, including New Zealand, Singapore and California.

To understand why the coal industry is so keen to have Minister Speakman do their bidding you need to appreciate the real and immediate consequences for the coal industry in NSW of any attempt to set regulations at a level that will indisputably save lives and reduce health bills. As the coal industry in NSW and Queensland tries to extract every last dollar from their mines, the level of the new air pollution standard represents the difference between mine expansions getting the go ahead or not.

Coal pollution is not the only source of particulate pollution of course, and in urban areas and certain parts of the country other sources such as wood smoke from wood heaters or particulates from diesel engines and other motor vehicles are significant problems.

The weak standards set yesterday mean these pollution sources won't be actively regulated either.

A system of rule making that produces a result like the standard set yesterday is clearly a broken system. The fix lies in not only finding politicians of principle who are prepared to stand up to a coal industry fighting for every last dollar, but also a system redesign.

What we need is to move from the current system, that sees any progress held hostage to the most recalcitrant and compromised state government at the table, to one where the Commonwealth government exercises real leadership in the national interest, setting standards based on the best available evidence under national legislation designed for this purpose.

If Greg Hunt really is serious about making clean air a ‘signature objective’ of his tenure, this is where he should direct his attention.

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