SA Mines and Energy Journal : February - March 2013
FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013 SA MINES & ENERGY JOURNAL 36 ENVIRONMENT The Sandhill Dunnart is a matter of National Environmental Significance found in South Australia. Image courtesy of J. Bingall In April 2012, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) discussed bilateral agreements for developments under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conser vation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) allowing state assessment and approval processes for protecting matters of National Environmental Significance (NES). The proviso was that state legislation be consistent with federal standards in order to seek equivalent outcomes and reducing process duplication. Where the conditions of a Program for Environmental Protection and Rehabilitation (PEPR) or a Statement of Environmental Objectives (SEO) under the South Australian Mining Act 1971 and Petroleum & Geothermal Energy Act 2000 respectively satisfy those of the EPBC Act, the approvals from the relevant Ministers can be accredited under the EPBC Act. This removes the need for a separate assessment and approval from Canberra. The EPBC Act would remain the key legislative mechanism for matters of NES and the Federal Environment Minister would retain discretionary power to inter vene if necessary. The EPBC Act is the primary federal legislation for protection of matters of NES and applies in addition to state-based environmental legislation -- such as the South Australian Native Vegetation Act 1991 -- and environmental regulations regarding resources developments (PEPR/SEO). The states were supportive of the move toward bilateral agreements on the condition that the Commonwealth provide financial assistance to ensure adequate compliance. Establishment of bilateral agreements would streamline environmental approvals, reduce assessment and approval timeframes and provide decision- making clarity and consistency. This would ultimately reduce costs and make investment more attractive, a move welcomed by industry associations. Opposition to the concept of assessment and approval bilaterals was strong, especially from environmental NGOs. Australian Greens Senator Larissa Waters introduced an amendment bill to the EPBC Act, seeking a series of omissions and repeal of all sections allowing for approval bilaterals and mechanisms that facilitate negotiations between the Commonwealth and the states regarding environmental approvals. In December 2012, the Federal Government deferred the decision until the March 2013 COAG meeting, citing concerns around state approaches to standards and the need for a consistent and comprehensive set of standards before proceeding with the agreement. This decision frustrated business leaders and industry associations, which believed that an opportunity for improving the assessment and approvals process was lost, whilst stressing that they were not endorsing a reduction in environmental standards. Opposition to bilateral agreements in the media has focused on what NGOs and the Greens claim is a complete handover of all power to the states; a limiting of the practical scope of the EPBC Act and the creation of a single-tiered environmental management system. The Greens also describe the states as short-sighted, overly reliant on resource revenues and thus incapable of sound environmental governance, despite resources revenue totalling only 3.9 per cent of South Australia's Gross State Product in 2010/11. South Australia has effective environmental legislation requiring PEPRs/SEOs to ensure protection and management of the State's native vegetation, threatened and ecologically important fauna and water resources and management of emissions and waste, whilst also promoting sustainable development. Under a bilateral agreement, the State Government would be responsible for both the assessment and approval of a proposed development, subject to any legislative measures outlined in the EPBC Act for any factors likely to impact on matters of NES. While the State has the approval power, the Federal Minister for Environment would retain discretionary power to overturn a decision if necessary. A provision that all environmental assessment reports and relevant information regarding a proposal be tabled in parliament upon request also ensures that any assessment and approval process is scrutinised by members of parliament. In no way does a bilateral agreement denigrate the legal framework or the values of the EPBC Act. The issue over bilateral agreements is an ideological argument between top-down, command and control environmental governance and a more decentralised model that maintains the environmental values of federal legislation, but makes environmental governance more efficient and economical. The South Australian resources industry does not wish to avoid its responsibilities regarding environmental management and compliance, but rather welcomes a system where one comprehensive assessment process is satisfactory to gain development approval. State of play Lewis Stoll examines proposed changes to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and discusses the need for streamlining environmental approvals for the industry.
December 2012 - January 2013
April - May 2013