Rio Tinto wrote to the Morrison government last year urging it to act quickly to transfer environmental approval powers to the Western Australia government, before a major review of national environment laws was complete.
The move came 10 months before the Coalition announced it planned to change the laws to set up “one-stop shops” at state level for environmental approvals, starting with Western Australia. The legislation was introduced in August when the review of the laws, by former competition watchdog Graeme Samuel, was still under way.
Rio urged the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, to consider a bilateral approval agreement between the two governments “as a matter of priority”, according to a letter obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws.
The mining giant also had meetings with government officials on at least four occasions dating back to August 2019 at which reform of Australia’s environmental laws was discussed.
The letter was written by Rio’s then-iron ore chief, Chris Salisbury, one of the executives who stepped down after the company blew up a 46,000-year-old Indigenous heritage site in Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. The letter refers to iron ore operations in that same region.
In the 21 November 2019 letter, Salisbury said “duplicative” state and federal processes were causing delays and increased costs for the resources sector.
He welcomed a speech by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, a day before, signalling the government’s desire to further streamline environmental approvals.
“For the reasons set out below, I would respectfully ask that the commonwealth consider as a matter of priority an approval bilateral agreement between the commonwealth and Western Australian governments,” Salisbury wrote.
The letter goes on: “We do not consider the review of the EPBC Act needs to occur before such an agreement is entered into.”
Salisbury wrote that although the statutory review was under way, national laws already provided a mechanism for the transfer of approval powers to states.
He told Ley that WA’s environmental processes were “robust” and a deal between the federal and state governments would save costs and time for industry “without compromising environmental regulation”.
Salisbury told Ley he had recently written to and met with the WA premier, Mark McGowan, about the same issue.
Answers given to a Senate committee show federal environment officials had four meetings with Rio Tinto – on 27 August and 11 December 2019 and 6 March and 3 April 2020 – at which a bilateral approval agreement or reform of Australia’s environment laws were discussed.
In July this year, on the day of the release of the interim report from the EPBC Act review, Ley announced the government would put a streamlining bill to parliament.
But officials were instructed to begin drafting the bill 11 days before the review’s chair, Graeme Samuel, delivered his report.
Rio Tinto’s iron ore projects were on a list of major projects the government announced in June would be “fast-tracked” and WA was the first state to signal it would pursue a bilateral approval agreement. Both governments said formal negotiations began in August.
An environment department spokesman said the minister was not present at meetings its officials had with Rio Tinto and the company’s representations “did not play a role” in the bill before the parliament.
Asked if the minister had further meetings with the company, a spokesman for Ley said: “The minister routinely meets with a broad range of stakeholders.” He added that the bill “reflects the interim findings of the Samuel review”.
A spokesman for Rio Tinto said the company would not comment about meetings it had with government and declined to respond to a series of questions.
He pointed Guardian Australia to the company’s April 2020 submission to the EPBC Act review and an October 2019 submission to a Productivity Commission inquiry which showed the company’s publicly-stated support for bilateral approval agreements.
But Tim Beshara, the federal policy director of the Wilderness Society, said the company was “forum-shopping” for sign-off for its mines with the “lowest possible protections in place and before any independent review might suggest the protections are increased”.
“When Rio Tinto is the one who gets to set the bar for what is acceptable damage to Australia’s natural and cultural heritage, we all lose,” he said.
“It’s unconscionable that the Australian government, before, during and after the demolition of Juukan Gorge could be actively facilitating Rio Tinto’s future work program to go ahead with even lower standards than they are required to meet today.”
Samuel’s interim report found Australia’s environment is in unsustainable decline and governments have failed to protect the country’s unique wildlife and habitats. His final report is due at the end of October.
Conservationists have warned that the reforms the government is proposing would weaken already unsatisfactory protections.
A spokeswoman for McGowan confirmed the premier received Rio Tinto’s letter but did not answer questions about meetings with the company.
On 27 November last year, McGowan called for a bilateral approval agreement with the federal government.
The spokeswoman said an agreement was being drafted and was expected to result in a “six-month reduction in decision-making timeframes without compromising environmental standards”.
“Many industry stakeholders have been pushing for this for a longtime and we’re pleased it’s in train,” she said.