Australian new environment agency to speed up approvals

  • : Coal, Crude oil, Metals, Natural gas
  • 24/04/16

The Australian federal government announced today it will introduce new legislation in the coming weeks to implement the second stage of its Nature Positive Plan, which includes setting up a national environment protection agency to speed up approval decisions.

The planned Environment Protection Australia (EPA) will initially operate within the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water until it transitions to become an independent statutory agency, with "strong new powers and penalties" to better enforce federal laws, the government said on 16 April.

The EPA chief will be an independent statutory appointment, similar to the Australian federal police commissioner, so that "no government can interfere" with the new agency's enforcement work. The agency will be able to audit businesses to ensure they are compliant with environment approval conditions and issue environment protection orders to anyone breaking the law. Penalties will be increased, with courts able to impose fines of up to A$780mn ($504mn) or jail terms for up to seven years in cases of extremely serious intentional breaches of federal environment law.

EPA will also be tasked with speeding up development decisions, including project assessments in areas such as renewable energy and critical minerals. Almost A$100mn will be allocated to optimise the approval processes, with its budget directed to support staff to assess project proposals and help businesses comply with the law.

A new independent body Environment Information Australia (EIA) will also be created to provide environmental data to the government and the public through a public website. EIA will need to develop an online database giving businesses quicker access to data and helping EPA to make faster decisions. It will also need to publish state of environment reports every two years.

The government said that an audit ordered by environment minister Tanya Plibersek last year found that around one in seven developments could be in breach of their offset conditions, when a business had not properly compensated for the impact a development was having on the environment, highlighting "the need to urgently strengthen enforcement".

The planned new legislation is part of the federal government's reform of Australia's environmental laws including the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Resource project decisions are currently made by the environment minister, with the move to an independent agency will removing any perception of political interference in such decisions, the government said when it first announced the reforms in late 2022.

The first stage of the reform was completed late last year with new laws passed to create the Nature Repair Market, with further stages expected to be implemented in the future, the government said.

Tight timing

Resources industry body the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia (CMEWA) welcomed the announcement that the federal government will take a "staged approach" to the implementation of the reforms but noted the timing of EPA's implementation was "tight".

"We continue to hold reservations about the proposed decision-making model and will continue to advocate for a model that balances ecologically sustainable development considerations and includes the [environment] minister as the decision maker," CMEWA chief executive Rebecca Tomkinson said.

The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) said that it had been advocating for the creation of EIA, whose future collated data "will provide greater certainty and reduced costs for both government and project proponents", which "may shave years off project development". But it was cautious about potential "unintended consequences" stemming from more bureaucracy.

"Australia has one of the most comprehensive environmental approvals processes in the world and the MCA has been clear about the significant risks of duplicative, complex and uncertain approvals processes pose to the minerals sector, the broader economy and the environment if we do not get this right," it warned.

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