Climate groups lash out at environment protection laws

Climate groups have hit out at an overhaul of environmental laws that will see the creation of a national watchdog, labelling it as little more than a distraction.

Laws have been introduced to federal parliament setting up a national Environment Protection Agency, with the body given strong enforcement powers.

Under the changes, courts could slap fines of up to $780 million on people for intentional breaches of environmental laws or impose a sentence of seven years in prison.

The agency is set to examine illegal land clearing as one of its first priorities, following audits that found one-in-seven companies could be in breach of offset conditions.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the agency would be the "tough cop on the beat".

"The EPA would administer Australia's national environmental laws to better protect our environment and make faster, clearer decisions," she told parliament.

"It would be charged with delivering accountable, efficient, outcome-focused and transparent environmental regulatory decision-making."

But the head of policy at the Climate Council Jennifer Rayner said the national agency would do little to fix issues with environmental laws.

"Establishing the new Environment Protection Agency without fixing our broken national environment law is like planting seeds in barren soil—a waste of time," Dr Rayner said.

"An effective national environment law must protect nature from climate change and stop the rampant destruction of habitat. The urgent and essential reforms that can deliver this are nowhere to be seen."

Environment group Lock the Gate Alliance's national co-ordinator Carmel Flint said the laws would not do enough.

"Australia's environment laws are not fit for purpose, and the new EPA will be powerless to address the massive damage that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel projects are inflicting," she said.

"The Albanese government has folded to the demands of the WA mining and gas sector, and is squandering an opportunity to finally bring Australia's environment laws up to a modern standard that the community expects and was promised."

Greens environment spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young also decried the laws.

"This government has dumped their promise to fix Australia's environment laws to make sure they protect the environment," she told reporters in Canberra.

"What we're seeing today is little more than a rebranding of a branch within the environment department. A few tweaks on the letterhead, a new business card, but not much more."

The legislation will set up the head of Environment Information Australia, an independent position to provide environmental data to the public.

Minister for Environment Tanya
Tanya Plibersek says the laws will mean greater accountability to protect the environment. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

The head of the body will be required to report on progress Australia is making towards being "nature positive" in a world first.

Nature positive will be classed in the laws as an improvement to the diversity, abundance, resilience and integrity of an ecosystem.

Business Council of Australia chief executive Bran Black said the nature positive laws risked undermining the authority of the minister.

"In practice, the minister's delegable power to consider important projects will be given to an unaccountable EPA, with the risk of downplaying a project's broader economic and social benefits," he said.