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The federal government has softened controversial changes that opponents fear could lead to fast-tracked gas approvals, as it tries to negotiate new ministerial powers through the parliament.

Federal parliament is this week considering a bill that seeks to make a tweak which would allow the resources minister to make changes to the rules under which new offshore gas projects are considered.

The government argues the change is technical and is required to respond to concerns from the gas industry and others about consultation rules in approving new projects.

While it has been tentatively supported by the Coalition, the legislation has prompted a furious response from the Greens and some crossbenchers, who have labelled it a “sneaky” attempt to fast-track new gas approvals.

The new amendments appear to try to address some of those concerns, but critics remain unconvinced.

A greater role for the environment minister, and a new sunset clause

The amendments primarily aim to do two things.

The first is to create a new role for the environment minister in the process of setting regulations for gas project approvals.

Previously the power to set those rules would have rested with the resources minister alone, but the new amendments give the environment minister a separate sign-off.

The change comes after some crossbenchers, such as independent senator David Pocock, raised concerns that the initial proposal would “unequivocally grant the resources minister precedence over the environment minister” when it came to gas approvals.

The Greens remain concerned that a separate part of the new amendment could effectively act as an override power, allowing the resources minister to change the rules as she sees fit anyway.

But the government argues it’s a necessary legal clause that, if exercised, would dismantle the existing streamlined approvals process, and as such would never be exercised.

The second major change is the insertion of a ”sunset clause”, which would mean the new powers handed to the resources minister and environment minister would only be valid for a year.

That change appears aimed at addressing “blank cheque” concerns, where instead of ministers being able to rewrite the rules for gas approvals as they see fit into the future, the powers would only last for 12 months — which is enough time to make the changes the government argues are needed.

Resources Minister Madeleine King said there was a very apparent need for change when it came to gas approvals, describing the current system as a ‘”lawyers’ picnic” holding up projects from being approved or rejected.

“Environmental organisations, First Nations groups, industry, and resources companies have all told us that our system of consultation is not working,” she said.

“In addition to much-needed offshore safety reforms, the bill enables the government to make much-needed regulatory changes in future to clarify and improve our offshore consultation system.

“There will be no change to rigorous environmental assessments. No environmental standards will be watered down. And there will be no fast-track for offshore projects.”

Greens and other critics unsatisfied

The Greens and some others in the parliament remain resolutely opposed to the changes and want to see them dumped altogether.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said they could not be improved.

“The proposed amendments have loopholes so big you could drive a coal truck through them,” he said.

“Under the proposed amendments, First Nations communities can still have their voices taken away.”

Others point to broader reforms of Australia’s environment laws looming later this year, and argue these changes should be both delayed and wrapped into that wider process.

The government’s “nature-positive” overhaul of environment laws was initially expected to land in parliament late last year.

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Annika Reynolds from the Australian Conservation Foundation said the changes still appeared to lead to weaker rules around gas approvals.

“We fear that this increases the risk that environmental standards will be watered down, and we’re particularly concerned that this provision will be used to diminish First Nations’ consultation rights,” she said.

But the opposition from the Greens and others may not change the bill’s political trajectory.

The Coalition had earlier indicated it would likely support the changes, and the amendments may not shift that outcome — meaning the government could pass the bill with its support.

Shadow Resources Minister Susan McDonald expressed the Coalition’s frustration the new powers had been weakened, but the Opposition will still support the bill in the lower house.

“Despite finally securing bipartisan support for offshore gas reform that the Coalition has been demanding for 18 months, Labor has slapped away the hand of bipartisanship at the last minute, crumbling to Greens pressure and moving amendments that watered down these urgent reforms to secure Australia’s energy future,” Senator McDonald said.

“It is disappointing to see the environment minister empire-building by seizing control of the resources minister’s decisions, standing ready to block gas projects in order to secure Greens votes in her Sydney electorate.”

The bill is before the House of Representatives today and will land in the Senate later this week.


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