New Ground | Expert Environmental Consultants in Queensland

EPBC Act Reforms Update – October 2023

As a representative of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand on the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) Environmental Consultant Committee, I participated in a meeting on 20/10/2023 whereby DCCEEW provided an update of the many EPBC Act reforms underway. This blog provides a summary of a few of these reforms with a view to keep industry up to date on forthcoming change.

Nature Positive Reforms: National Environmental Standards, Regional Planning and the Environment Protection Australia agency (EPA)

As part of the Nature Positive Reforms program, DCCEEW is introducing National Environmental Standards, better technical guidance and Regional Plans. Establishment of the independent Environmental Protection Australia agency (EPA) is another key plank in the reforms. Engagement and consultation with stakeholders on the proposed Nature Positive Reforms is underway and an exposure draft package is planned for release for public consultation by the end of 2023. Nature Reform legislation is planned to be introduced to parliament and committee process in 2024.

National Environmental Standards

Nature Positive Reforms are to be delivered via six (6) National Environmental Standards. These are Matters of National Environmental Significance, Regional Planning, Environmental Offsets (including Conservation Payments), First Nations Engagement and Participation in Decision-making, Community Consultation and Data & Information. Supporting these Standards will be Conservation Planning Instruments, namely: Listing Reforms; Recovery Strategies; Protected Areas and Management Plans.

These standards and conservation planning instruments will underpin the Environmental Approvals process.

Regional Planning

The regional planning process Enables Commonwealth and State governments to facilitate development by ensuring environmental pressures are being addressed at a landscape and/or seascape scale. Focus will be on regions that are priority areas for development, including for renewable energy, critical minerals and urban expansion. Regional Planning Identifies priority areas for protection, conservation and restoration (e.g. to protect and link habitat). We understand that a regional plan for South East Queensland is in preparation in collaboration with between Commonwealth and Queensland governments.

The intention is for Regional Planning to allow for Classes of action undertaken in accordance with a regional plan to not require additional Commonwealth environment assessment and approval. Giving rise to easier assessment of other activities consistent with a regional plan. Regional Plans will set out implementation responsibilities.

Regional Plans will consist of a ‘zoning map’ showing Conservation Priority Areas and Development Priority Areas, including any conditions.

Environment Protection Australia (EPA)

The EPA will assess projects in a single step including: Avoidance and mitigation of unacceptable impacts upfront through project design; Consistency with National Environmental Standards; If no residual significant impacts – option for a “fast track” pathway (no approval required); Identification of required offset and/or conservation payments (if required).

The EPA will then decide whether projects can be approved based on these assessments or whether approval is not required. Any Offsets and conservation payments must deliver a net gain (if required)

The EPA has been established as an independent agency. Legislation will outline EPA’s corporate governance arrangements (including appointment of a Chief Executive Officer) and statutory responsibilities. EPA will operate with a high degree of independence. The Environment Minister will be able to issue EPA with a public Statement of Expectations but will not otherwise be able to direct the agency.

Functions of the EPA will include making environmental assessments, decide project approvals and the conditions attached to them. EPA will also administer other regulatory functions currently undertaken by the DCCEEW including: Sea Dumping, Ozone and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Management, Hazardous Waste, Product Emissions Standards, Recycling and Waste Reduction and Compliance and enforcement in relation to the regulatory functions of EPA.

The new Compliance and Enforcement Branch

The Compliance and Enforcement Branch has been established to provide compliance and enforcement capability for the Department’s environmental legislation. The branch works with business, industry, government and the community to understand and improve compliance with national environmental law. The branch conducts civil and criminal investigations, collects and analyses environmental intelligence, monitors compliance with environmental approvals, and engages with the community.

The Compliance section engages with a variety of stakeholders to detect, deter and disrupt non-compliance of national environmental laws. It seeks to promote voluntary compliance through the use of a range of monitoring, investigation and enforcement activities and takes actions against serious non-compliance focused on providing general and specific deterrence and compliance outcomes that are proportionate to the identified contravention.  

The Compliance section investigates contraventions of civil penalty provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999; For allegations of non-compliance under the EPBC Act, the Compliance Section will prioritise matters relating to an action commenced: without an approval or exemption, which have, will or are likely to result in a significant impact on one of the nine matter of national environmental significance (Part 3 of the Act); and whilst a referral is being assessed by the department (s74AA).

DCCEEW has launched an online tool allowing public stakeholders to report perceived breaches of environment law. The compliance and assessment branch then investigates these reports.

EPBC Offsets Update

DCCEEW is undertaking an EPBC Offsets Audit Process as well as an EPBC Offsets Ground-truthing program. Offsets of 100 approved actions are being audited, the compliance status of these offsets are being assessed against respective approval conditions as per the ‘Offsets Compliance Strategy’. The Department is yet to release audit findings.

The Ground-truthing program consists of 20 properties which were selected based on their high ecological value. We are glad to report that a New Ground offset site is amongst these. The results of the program are intended to provide information on how DCCEEW can refine offset assessment survey methods. The results of this program are yet to be released.

Finally, the DCCEEW Offsets register continues to be updated with details of offsets associated with approved actions since it was recently launched.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out should you have any questions around how these reforms may impact your project.

Nelson Wills

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