Sophie Power, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources
Juli Tomaras, Law
and Bills Digest
The Government’s ‘One-Stop Shop’ has been implemented for environmental assessments. However, accrediting state approval decisions remains problematic, while other proposed changes to environmental legislationhave stalled.
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)
is the Commonwealth’s key environmental legislation. The EPBC Act is
focussed on the protection of nine ‘matters of national
environmental significance’. These matters include World
Heritage properties; threatened
species; the Great
Barrier Reef Marine Park; and water resources in relation to large coal
mining and coal seam gas developments (the ‘water
trigger’). Actions that are likely to have a significant
impact on a matter of national environmental significance undergo environmental
assessment and require approval from the Commonwealth Environment Minister.
The Minister usually attaches conditions to any approval.
The One-Stop Shop
Most projects and developments that require
approval under the EPBC Act also need separate approvals under relevant
state or territory legislation. Some
industry groups argue that this is unnecessary duplication which in turn results
in additional costs and delays for those projects.
As a result, the Commonwealth Government has implemented
a ‘One-Stop Shop’
to create a single environmental assessment and approval process for nationally
protected matters. The aim is to simplify the approvals process for businesses,
while maintaining high environmental standards. The Government suggests that it
will result in savings
to business, by reducing administrative costs and delays. A 2015 House of
Representatives Committee report
on Streamlining environmental legislation also supported the
One-Stop Shop (although ALP members disagreed
on this point).
The ‘One-Stop Shop’ relies on provisions in the EPBC
Act that allow the Commonwealth to make bilateral
agreements with the states, accrediting relevant processes under state
legislation. There are two types of bilateral agreements:
- Assessment bilateral agreements accredit state and territory assessment processes for the purposes
of the EPBC Act. A project is still referred to the Commonwealth, but
assessed under the state processes and laws. The final approval decision is
made by the Commonwealth Environment Minister. Assessment bilateral agreements were
made in the past with states and territories, prior to the ‘One‑Stop
- Approval bilateral agreements accredit state and territory assessment and approval
processes, where those processes meet certain standards. This means the final approval
decision on a project is made by the state or territory government, not the
Commonwealth. This mechanism has existed in the EPBC Act since it
commenced, but has only been used
once. Approval bilateral agreements cannot cover projects involving the
By December 2015, assessment bilateral agreements
were in place with all states and territories. Draft approval bilateral
agreements for many states were published in 2014–15, but none have been
finalised. The Commonwealth has released a condition-setting
policy which aims to reduce duplicative conditions in projects that require
both state and Commonwealth approval.
Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014 did not pass in
the last Parliament. Along with amendments to facilitate the operation of
bilateral agreements, the Bill also initially proposed to allow the
accreditation of state and territory approvals relating to the ‘water
The ‘One-Stop Shop’ has been criticised by conservation
groups, who argue
that the delays and costs of federal environmental oversight are overstated.
They would prefer the Commonwealth retain its regulatory powers over matters of
national environmental significance, particularly matters where Australia
has obligations under international agreements such as world
heritage. There are also concerns that states may have a conflict
of interest in approving projects which are of financial benefit to that
suggest that the ‘one-stop shop’ may actually be a more complex system.
Other proposals for change
Another Bill that did not proceed in the last Parliament
was the EPBC
Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015. That Bill proposed to restrict the ability
of certain individuals and organisations, such as conservation groups, to seek review
of Ministerial decisions made under the EPBC Act. While supported
by some industry groups, the Bill was criticised by lawyers, farming
organisations and conservationists. Recent
reports suggest this Bill may not be reintroduced this Parliament.
During the recent election campaign, both the ALP
issued policies for stronger national environmental laws. Proposals included
new ‘triggers’ (or matters of national environmental significance) such as a ‘climate’
trigger (to regulate land clearing) and a national
parks trigger; as well as an
independent environment protection agency. Another proposal was to extend
the water trigger to cover all unconventional gas projects (such as shale
and tight gas).
groups are also calling for a major overhaul of Australia’s environmental
laws and have convened a panel of experts to
develop new environmental legislation.
Meanwhile, many recommendations of a 2009 review of
the EPBC Act (Hawke
review) have not been implemented. The recommendations included, for
example, establishing a National Environment Commission, responsible for advising
on approvals, and monitoring and enforcement.
audit by the Australian National Audit Office raised concerns about the
Department of the Environment’s ‘passive approach’ to the management of
non-compliance with the EPBC Act. The Department has since taken steps to
improve its compliance
monitoring. Nevertheless, questions remain as to whether the Department has
sufficient resources to monitor the large number of projects referred and approved
under the EPBC Act to date.
J Tomaras and B McCormick, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014, Bills digest, 9, 2014–15, Parliamentary Library Canberra, 2014.
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