What does the WA State Budget mean for the environment and climate?

Analysing the State Budget is a good way to see where the government’s environmental priorities lie. The budget papers contain important information on changes we can expect in environmental policy and clues about whether the government is delivering on its commitments to environmental programs.

This year’s state budget reveals some positive initiatives and some things we should be alarmed about.

Here is a summary of some of the main items, and why we think they are important.

Kimberley conservation plan moving ahead

The budget papers (p642) reveal that the Governments significant and ambitious plans for new conservation measures in the Kimberley are moving ahead.

Funding is identified for new Marine Parks to be established at Horizontal Falls and in the North Kimberley, along with an extension of the proposed North Kimberley Marine Reserve to the Northern Territory border. A new Horizontal Falls National Park will be established and a proposed additional national park, stretching over 2 Million hectares will be progressed in consultation with Traditional Owners.

This Kimberley conservation program is strongly supported by conservation groups and funding to deliver these commitments is welcome.

Coal power gets huge capital injection

One of the most revealing aspects of the budget is how much public money is spent on dirty power generation compared with renewable energy. Despite the oversupply of energy generation capacity on the SWIS grid the budget papers (p614-15) reveal that instead of retiring old and inefficient generators, nearly $170m will be spent on maintenance and refurbishment of our oldest and most polluting coal-fired power stations including Muja and Collie.  

With coal fired power stations rapidly becoming stranded assets it is hard to imagine a worse use of taxpayers money than pouring capital into extending the life of our oldest and most polluting coal fired power stations.

No sign of support for energy transition

Community and environmental groups have called for a transition fund which would assist Collie to move away from its dependence on coal-based industries and assist to develop new sustainable industries and employment opportunities. This would be a far better use of the $170 million that, according to the budget papers will be spent on extending the life of redundant coal fired power stations.

Changes flagged to environmental Laws

The budget papers confirm (p642) that a new Biodiversity Conservation Act is under development by the Department of Parks and Wildlife. This is a critically important and well overdue reform that Conservation groups have been advocating for well over a decade. There is no additional detail about what the Bill would deliver.

 The budget also reveals (p654) that changes to the Environmental Protection Act are underway to ‘streamline regulation’ for pollution and native vegetation clearing.  There has been no consultation by the State Government on these changes and there is a serious concern that they may be aimed at watering down environmental protection measures that are currently in place. CCWA will be seeking clarification on the scope and intent of the proposed changes.

Forest Products Commission to be split and sold

The State Government agency responsible for managing plantation industries, native forest logging and sandalwood harvesting (Forest Products Commission) has been included in a list of ‘assets’ that the government will seek to sell in order to reduce the budget deficit (budget speech p8). The proposal is to split off the profitable plantation side of the FPC’s operations and sell this to a private operator. Over the last few years there has been little to no investment into the plantation side of the FPC’s business, however private ownership could change this.

If plantation forestry operations were to be sold, the Government-run FPC would be left with the problematic sandalwood industry and the loss-making native forest logging operations. This would end to the hidden subsidies that currently flow to native forest logging from plantation forestry revenue - a positive outcome.  One way the sale price could be increased is if the government was to agree to cease subsidies to native forest logging. At present these subsidies distort the market, resulting in an oversupply of sawlogs and woodchips. This depresses the price that can be obtained by plantation industries which often compete in the same markets.

Unexplained increases in native forest logging

The budget papers (p644) show that an estimated 71,000m3 of Jarrah sawlogs, and 44,000m3 of Karri logs will be removed in 2014-15 from State Forests. This is significantly less than the annualised allowable cut under the Forest Management Plan (132,000 and 59,000 m3 respectively).  The budget papers explain that the estimated actual removals are lower than the pro-rata limit ‘reflecting market conditions’.

Without any explanation of why the market conditions might change, the budget estimates that logging operations in 2015/16 will remove 193,000m3 of Jarrah sawlogs and 74,000m3 of Karri (to make up for the reduced cut in  14/15). This is over twice the volume of Jarrah harvested this year and nearly twice the volume of Karri. Unless the State Government are proposing to establish a new industry burning native forest for energy, it is very difficult to see how these projections could be met by the logging industry.

New efficiency measures reveal agency priorities

 This year the budget documents contain some new ‘efficiency measures’ for environmental agencies which provide some interesting comparisons.

For example, the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPAW) will spend around $11m per year (or $11 per hectare of state forest) providing ‘services for commercial forestry’ (p646). This identifies just one of the areas where taxpayers are subsidising the state’s logging operations.

On the other hand, less than $2.80 per hectare of wildlife habitat is to be spent on ‘conserving habitats, species and ecological communities’ and less than $3 per hectare of parks is to be spent on the ‘provision of parks and visitor services’ (p 645).

Parks and Wildlife and Office of the EPA suffer significant losses in staff capacity

Overall there will be a significant net reduction in the number of staff providing vital science, management and policy roles in the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPAW) and the Office of the EPA (OEPA).

In DPAW, Compared with the 2013/14 financial year, in 2015/16 there will be:

  • 20 less Full Time Equivalents (FTE) in Parks and Visitor Services
  • 36 less FTE’s conserving habitats, species and ecological communities
  • 27 less FTE’s delivering conservation partnerships
  • 26 less FTE’s implementing the Forest Management Plan
  • 12 less FTE’s providing services for commercial forestry; and
  • 2 less FTE’s providing bushfire suppression

The only area where staff numbers increase is in Prescribed Burning and fire Management, where an extra 11 FTE’s will be employed.

Overall there will be a reduction of 110 staff across the agency in two years which represents a very significant loss in capacity.

In the OEPA (the service agency for the State’s independent environmental watchdog), total FTE numbers will reduce from 95 to 82 during the same period, representing a loss of 13 FTE’s or nearly 14% of the agency’s staff capacity.

Additional funding for prescribed burning, but not fire suppression

Prior to the release of the budget, Hon. Albert Jacob, Minister for the Environment announced $20million in additional funding for prescribed burning. Read the Minister’s press release here.

CCWA and other conservation groups including the Wilderness Society and WA Forest Alliance have consistently raised concerns about the environmental impact of prescribed burning and the risks it presents to communities. We believe a far better outcome would be delivered through investment in rapid bushfire detection and suppression, as well as improved planning for bushfire prone areas and other policy measures to complement a more targeted and environmentally sensitive approach to prescribed burning.