Offsets are a problematic area for both planning and environmental decision makers and proponents. Offsets are actions that provide environmental benefits which counterbalance the significant residual environmental impacts or risks of a project or activity. Unlike mitigation actions which occur on-site as part of a project and reduce the direct impact of that project, offsets are undertaken outside of the project area and counterbalance significant residual impacts.
Vegetation offsets may be used where a proponent cannot avoid the removal of vegetation under a proposal. Instead, unavoidable environmental impacts are offset by conserving or rehabilitating another area of vegetation which is of better quality. Western Australia has an environmental offsets policy (Policy) works in this manner and is supported by the WA Environmental Offsets Guidelines (Guidelines).
Some criticisms which have been levelled at the Policy include:
- there is no generally agreed definition for measuring the effectiveness of offsets;
- the method of calculating the required offset contribution is contentious;
- even though offsets complied with their approval conditions, nothing is done to demonstrate or measure the ecological outcomes of the offset; and
- approval holders are no longer responsible for the management and monitoring of offsets once the approval conditions had been met and as a result offsets may not be managed in the longer term.
New and creative offset approaches have been developed which potentially address these concerns. Such approaches include the Pilbara Environmental Offsets Fund (Pilbara Fund) and the Great Victoria Desert Biodiversity Trust (Biodiversity Trust).
The Pilbara Fund is a state government operated conservation fund. It receives payments from proponents who are active in the Pilbara and who cannot otherwise mitigate the impacts of their operations on the environment. The payments from proponents are used for conservation work in the Pilbara, and where possible, are used to build on existing local conservation projects. This allows for long-term continuity in offset projects. The fund is also unique in that it allows for multiple offset payments to be combined in order to deliver larger scale projects.
The Biodiversity Trust was established by a private entity, as part of its offset strategy for a large scale gold mine in Western Australia. A range of parties had input into the structure and operation of the Biodiversity Trust that has resulted in the development of a Bioregional Management Plan for the Great Victoria Desert, which delivers on-ground environmental and conservation management.
In conclusion, whilst the WA Policy and Guidelines offer an option for environmental offsets, it is clear that it is not the only possibility. Other creative offset solutions, such as the Pilbara Fund, Biodiversity Trust show that alternative avenues for offsets can be pursued.