Tackling today’s environmental issues for a better tomorrow

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

Engineer Tara Halliday, one of three women who has received a 2019 Women on Boards scholarship, is helping to reduce our environmental footprint.

“Think big, be brave and do good: you only get one life to make an impact.”

That’s the powerful business motto of Tara Halliday, who’s living it to the full as a Senior Principal Environmental and Social Consultant at Coffey, and as a 2019 recipient of a Women on Boards Scholarship. A partnership between the Victorian Government and the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM), the scholarship aims to boost the number of women with science and technology knowledge on mining and resource company boards.

Tara in the oilfields of IraqSince attaining an environmental engineering degree from RMIT University, Tara has devoted two decades to working in the environmental field and she believes that right now, the stakes couldn’t be higher. “We’re at a point where we need to make rapid improvements in sustainability and this field is the perfect place to direct my energy and enthusiasm” she says.

Her energy is being put to good use. For the past 12 years, she has held senior leadership positions with Coffey focusing on the Asia Pacific region and worked on projects not only throughout Australia but also internationally: in Brazil, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos and Tanzania, to name but a few.

Tara’s consulting work for clients, many of whom are AusIMM members, involves assessing environments (along the lines of biodiversity and water quality) and communities (addressing aspects such as health and socioeconomic impacts) to determine potential results of project development (for instance, how much vegetation is required to be cleared by a project and what that may mean for plants and animals).

She then devises how to avoid impacts (say, relocating infrastructure to avoid disturbance of important habitat) and for impacts that can’t be avoided, how to best mitigate them. This advice is provided to regulators to determine whether the project should be approved and if it is to be approved, what conditions should apply to it. “The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals provide great guidance on what we as a sector should be aiming towards,” she offers.

Reassuringly, making projects more sustainable doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Tara has seen first-hand how focusing on optimising benefits can lead to better environmental and social outcomes, improved community acceptance and social licence “often at no greater cost to proponents.”

Tara in the zinc mines of ChinaNegative public stereotypes persist, nonetheless. “One of the biggest myths the public has about the resources sector is that it operates with a ‘profit at all costs’, ‘pillage the earth’ mentality,” says Tara.

“The onus is on the sector to shift this perception through demonstration and transparency and by ensuring poor performers in the sector lift their game. The sector is integral to society; it provides raw materials we all use every day.

“However, we need to use these resources a lot more efficiently and embrace the principles of a circular economy (creating products that can be recycled or repurposed, thereby reducing waste and pollution). The sector can also provide great benefits and opportunities to the local communities in which it operates. Communication with the public needs to be genuine, transparent and provide for public participation in development of projects to ensure ongoing understanding and broad acceptance of the industry.”

Outside her day job with Coffey, Tara has gained board experience in the not-for-profit sector at the YWCA Darwin and with the Barwon South West Waste and Resource Recovery Group Board, on which she currently serves.

She hopes the Women on Boards Scholarship will deliver greater diversity to the resource sector. “My view of the term ‘diversity’ captures gender equality/diversity, sexual diversity, racial/cultural diversity, diversity of backgrounds and ages, diversity of physical capabilities and diversity of thinking and thinking approaches. Such diversity is valuable on boards and in senior leadership positions because it has repeatedly been shown to result in significantly better decisions and better organisational performance. Diversity at the top of organisations also creates a wonderful flow-on effect (‘you can’t be what you can’t see’) or at a larger scale in a sector or community, that leads to greater equality and inclusion.”

As to the future of the resources industry, Tara predicts upheaval will become the new normal, and that businesses will need to make environmental awareness central to their business plan to survive and thrive.

“The sector is in a period of rapid change from many different angles, such as technology, shareholder expectations, community expectations, accessibility to energy and water, carbon footprints and global commodity volatility,” she explains.

“The successful businesses will be those that put sustainability at their core, properly understand their environmental and social context and embrace the change. They’ll apply innovative thinking to their business and make the smartest decisions and best utilise human capital. Workplace diversity, particularly in leadership positions, helps with all of these aspects.”

More information about the Women on Boards Scholarship, as well as details about Victoria’s mining and resources sector can be found on the Earth Resources website.

The Victorian Connection interviewed all three recipients of the Woman on Boards Scholarship. Read the series: