Dr Emily Gibson, Science, Technology,
Environment and Resources
Australia’s coasts and marine ecosystems are facing a range of threats, including climate change, coastal development, land-based run-off, and direct human uses.
Three major regulatory issues in Commonwealth waters are oil and gas exploration and production (including decommissioning), electricity infrastructure, and aquaculture.
Achieving a balance between competing uses and users will be crucial for achieving a sustainable ocean economy, consistent with Australia’s recent international policy commitments.
With the sixth
largest coastline and third
largest marine area in the world, the Australian coast and marine
environment is intimately
linked to the national economy, industry, arts, social lifestyle and cultural
identity. More than 85%
of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the sea.
The value of Australia’s coast and marine resources
is often referred to in economic terms. For example, the AIMS index of
marine industry 2020, which assesses
the contribution of Australia’s ‘blue economy’ to the nation’s economic bottom
line, estimates that the economic output of 14 marine industries was $81.2
billion in 2017–18. In addition, the coast and oceans provide an estimated $25 billion worth
of ecosystem services, such as carbon dioxide absorption, nutrient cycling,
and coastal protection. Other values cannot be easily
measured in economic terms: for example, the intrinsic recreational value of
the coast and ocean, and the cultural importance of Sea Country to Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Coastal ecosystems, including mangroves, seagrass
meadows and tidal marshes, and the ocean, play a critical role in the carbon
cycle. Coastal blue carbon ecosystems sequester
more carbon dioxide than terrestrial forests. Australia is considered a
‘blue carbon hotspot’, with 12%
of the world’s blue carbon ecosystems holding 7–12% of global carbon stocks.
The Australian Government is taking a range of measures to restore,
conserve and account for blue carbon ecosystems. Additionally, in January
2022, a blue
carbon method was approved under the Emissions Reduction Fund, allowing
projects that restore tidal flows in blue carbon ecosystems to generate
Australian Carbon Credit Units.
Australia is a member of several international organisations
which collectively seek to increase marine ecosystem protections and achieve a
sustainable ocean economy. The High Ambition Coalition for
Nature and People and Global
Ocean Alliance both aim to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and
oceans (in marine protected areas (MPA) or ‘other effective area-based
conservation measures’) by 2030. The High
Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy (Oceans Panel) seeks to ensure
of the ocean area under national jurisdiction is sustainably managed using sustainable ocean
plans by 2025.
Australia’s sustainable ocean plan is yet to be
developed. However, a range of other policy and planning instruments exist,
oceans policy (1998), marine
bioregional plans prepared for 4 of the 6 Commonwealth marine regions (all
released in 2012), and 10–year management plans
for Commonwealth marine parks (all updated in 2018). The new Government has committed
to undertaking statutory reviews of marine park management plans (noting these
cover approximately 20% of Australia’s exclusive
economic zone) and making changes based on scientific evidence and
State of the coast and oceans
The 2016 State
of the environment report highlights the multiple
pressures impacting coastal and ocean systems and processes, operating at
different spatial and time scales. In 2021, researchers identified 5
coastal and marine ecosystems classified as ‘collapsing’: the Great Barrier
Reef (GBR), mangrove forests of northern Australia, Ningaloo Reef, Shark Bay
seagrass beds, and Great Southern Reef kelp forests. Stakeholders, including
Marine Conservation Society, have expressed concern that the major parties
policies are inadequate to address key threats, including climate change and
Heritage-listed GBR receives
significant investment from the Queensland and Australian Governments to
including climate change, coastal development, land-based run-off, and direct
human uses. Notably, in the summer
of 2021–22, the GBR experienced its fourth mass bleaching event since 2016- and
the first one during a La Niña year (which are typically associated with cooler ocean
However, the Great Southern Reef receives considerably
less attention and investment- despite encompassing 8,100 km of coastline from
Western Australia (WA) to NSW. The Great Southern Reef is
diverse and unique species and incorporates the only marine ecological
community listed as endangered under the Environment Protection
and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), the Giant
Kelp Marine Forests of South East Australia. The Great Southern Reef faces
similar threats to the GBR, compounded by ocean temperatures warming at 2–4
times the global average and range expansion of species, such as long-spined sea
urchins and tropical herbivorous fish that graze on and reduce cover provided
by kelp and seagrasses. Marine scientists and advocates- as well as the Australian Greens- are arguing for greater recognition of the Great Southern Reef
to support sustainable and adaptive management across relevant state and
Governance of the coast and oceans
Governance of Australia’s coasts and oceans is
shared in accordance with the Offshore Constitutional Settlement (OCS) by the Commonwealth, state and Northern Territory (NT)
governments. Local governments also play an important role with respect to
coastal zone planning and management.
The OCS, established in June 1979, provides that
the states and NT regulate activities in coastal
waters (from the territorial
sea baseline out to 3 nautical miles). The Commonwealth regulates
activities in offshore areas (those beyond 3 nautical miles, encompassing the exclusive
economic zone and Australian
Fishing Zone). The Commonwealth has entered into separate Joint
Authority arrangements with Queensland, WA and the NT to enable certain
fisheries that straddle coastal and offshore waters to be managed under state
These arrangements coexist with Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples’ traditional estates, which include land and
marine areas (often referred to as Sea Country). Indigenous customary and
subsistence fishing and other marine resource rights are recognised to some
extent in all Australian jurisdictions. Recent initiatives- including Aboriginal
Coastal Fishing Licences in the NT and the allocation
of abalone quota in Tasmania- are providing commercial opportunities. Sea
Country is also included in 25 of 78
Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), while over a quarter of the 126 Indigenous
ranger groups undertake a range of Sea Country management activities.
Indigenous ranger programs provide positive outcomes for employment, the environment, and Indigenous mental health, and the incoming Government has committed to expanding these programs.
Australia’s marine parks, including 2
recently declared Commonwealth marine parks in the Indian Ocean Territories,
more than 4 million km2 or 45% of Australia’s waters. However, a
2021 study found that only
25% are fully protected (International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Category Ia and II). The previous
government oversaw a large-scale downgrading of marine protections when, in
2018, approximately 1 million km2 of the total MPA estate (31%) was
rezoned. Around half the downgraded MPAs were offset by increased protections
in other MPAs. Downgraded areas were opened up to
activities such as commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration under a
range of ‘class approvals’, prior usage rights, or licenses.
Regulatory issues in the blue economy
Offshore oil and gas, and greenhouse gas storage
The Offshore Petroleum
and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (OPGGS Act) is the
predominant framework regulating offshore oil and gas and greenhouse gas
storage activities. Oil and gas titles cover 392,278
km2 of the Commonwealth offshore area, predominantly to the
north-west of WA and in Bass Strait.
Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator (NOPTA) issues titles for offshore
oil and gas and greenhouse gas storage activities, on the advice of the
relevant Commonwealth–state/territory Joint Authority or,
in some circumstances, the Commonwealth Minister for Resources.
Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA)
regulates offshore work health and safety, well integrity, and environmental
management. NOPSEMA’s environmental management authorisation process has been endorsed
in a strategic assessment under the EPBC Act. This means that petroleum exploration and production, and greenhouse gas
storage exploration (with limited exceptions) do not require separate approvals
under the EPBC Act.
The Department of Industry, Science, Energy and
Resources (DISER) releases new
areas for exploration each year, with provision for public consultation. In
2021, the department also released
areas for potential greenhouse gas storage opportunities, consistent with
the Morrison Government’s support
for carbon capture and storage (CCS).
There is considerable community
and stakeholder concern about offshore oil and gas projects. These concerns
include the provision of grants and other subsidies in light of the need to
decarbonise economic activity, potential for oil spills, impacts
of seismic testing on marine mammals and commercial fisheries, conflicts
with recreation activities, and visual impacts.
Following a sustained community-led
campaign, the Australian Government, as part of the Commonwealth–NSW
taking steps to refuse an application to extend a petroleum exploration permit
(known as PEP-11) for an area off the NSW central coast. There is also community
concern about on-going and proposed developments in the Great Australian
Bight and Bass Strait, including near the Twelve
Apostles (Vic) and King
Island (Tas). The Australian
Greens and some independent federal parliamentarians have advocated for a
moratorium or ban on new oil and gas developments.
The decommissioning of offshore oil and gas
infrastructure emerged as a significant issue during the 46th Parliament. Titleholders
have an ongoing
legal obligation to maintain all structures and equipment on their titles in
good repair and to decommission (that is, remove) all equipment and other
property as soon as it ceases being used or required for future use. However, this
not always occurred in a timely, safe and environmentally responsible manner,
companies seeking permission to cap wells and leave associated equipment in
place. The decommissioning liability for Australia’s offshore petroleum
industry has been estimated at approximately
$60 billion over the next 50 years.
In February 2021, the
Government took over responsibility for the operation and decommissioning
of the Northern Endeavour Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO)
facility following the financial collapse
of its owner. In April 2022, the Parliament passed legislation
imposing a temporary levy on offshore petroleum production licence holders to
recover the cost of decommissioning the Northern Endeavour. This has been estimated
at up to $1 billion.
review of the decommissioning framework, the Parliament passed amending
legislation in September 2021 to increase oversight of changes in control
of titleholders, and to expand existing powers to ‘call back’ previous
titleholders to decommission infrastructure and remediate the marine
environment where the current or immediate former titleholder is unable to do
so (known as ‘trailing liability’). At the direction
of the Australian Government, NOPSEMA is maintaining a heightened focus on
decommissioning, consistent with the Government’s enhanced
Offshore electricity infrastructure
Australia is regarded as having some
of the best wind resources in the world, providing significant
opportunities as a bulk source of clean energy. The Blue Economy CRC
estimates the technical
offshore wind resource as 2,233 gigawatts (GW) – significantly more than Australia’s
current and projected electricity demand. While much of this resource is
located in the coastal regions stretching from WA to south-east Australia, there
are reported benefits
of co-locating offshore wind infrastructure near existing depreciating assets
(such as thermal coal power plants) and energy-intensive industries (see Figure
Figure 1 Supply and demand potential for
offshore wind energy
To support offshore electricity infrastructure
development, the 46th Parliament passed the Offshore
Electricity Infrastructure Act 2021 (OEI Act) in December 2021;
the Act commenced on 2 June 2022. The OEI Act establishes a
regulatory framework and provides an expansive definition of offshore renewable
energy resources (wind, tidal, solar, rain, and geothermal, among others),
while offshore infrastructure includes fixed or tethered infrastructure for the
storage, transmission or conveyance of electricity.
The OEI Act allows the relevant minister to declare
areas as suitable for offshore renewable energy infrastructure, and to make
licensing decisions. In April 2022, the Morrison Government announced that Bass
Strait would be the first priority area assessed for offshore wind developments.
The Offshore Infrastructure Registrar provides
advice to the minister who makes licensing decisions. The Offshore
Infrastructure Regulator (designated as NOPSEMA) will oversee
health and safety, infrastructure integrity, environmental management, and
financial security for offshore infrastructure activities. Separate
environmental approvals will be required under the EPBC Act.
The operational arrangements of the framework will
be detailed in regulations, which underwent
consultation in early 2022.
The production value of Australia’s aquaculture sector is
forecast to exceed $2 billion in 2021–22 (more than wild-catch fisheries at $1.39 billion). This exceeds the 2017 National
aquaculture strategy’s projection for 2027. While over half of this value ($1.36 billion) is predicted to flow
from salmonids (salmon and trout) farming, other important species include rock
lobster, prawns, southern bluefin tuna, abalone and pearls. The Australian
seaweed industry blueprint also highlights opportunities for the
development of seaweed industries.
At present, aquaculture occurs
in land-based operations (for example, hatcheries) and in coastal waters,
regulated by the states and NT. However, offshore aquaculture is becoming more
feasible due to improvements in technology; it also offers potential
environmental and resource access benefits. A recent parliamentary report recommended
increased regulatory efficiency and transparency, including consistency across
jurisdictions, stronger biosecurity controls, and the development of
aquaculture in Commonwealth waters.
According to the National aquaculture strategy, the Australian Government supports using Commonwealth Fisheries Management Act 1991 (FMA Act) provisions to enable state and NT
governments to extend existing aquaculture legislation and management into Commonwealth
waters. Any activities likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance will require approval under the EPBC Act.
However, assessments and approvals could potentially be delegated to states and
territories as part of bilateral agreements.
Australia’s first offshore
aquaculture project is likely to occur in Commonwealth waters north-east of
Tasmania. In September 2021, the Commonwealth and Tasmanian Governments entered
into a memorandum of understanding to allow a trial examining the economic,
environmental and operational feasibility of offshore aquaculture. The Tasmanian
Government amended the Living Marine Resources Management Act 1995 to allow for ‘marine farming of fish for research
purposes’. The subsequent Commonwealth and Tasmanian Government agreement allows
‘marine farming of fish for research purposes’ to be carried out in these
specified waters, managed under Tasmanian law.
In response to public
submissions, the trial area was reduced. Concerns
raised include potential negative impacts on the local ecology, biodiversity
and environment, animal welfare and habitat impacts, attraction of predators,
and conflicts with recreational activities and local fishing operators. This
follows long-standing environmental sustainability concerns
about salmonid aquaculture in Tasmania,
compounded by the mass salmon deaths in Macquarie Harbour during 2017–18.
The trial may provide a template for future aquaculture development
in Commonwealth waters. However,
devolved Commonwealth regulatory powers are unlikely to provide consistency
across all facets of aquaculture, especially relating to licence and lease arrangements.
Blue Economy CRC, Offshore Wind Energy in Australia, Final project report, 2021.
Leah Ferris and Liz Kenny, Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Bill 2021 [and] Offshore Electricity Infrastructure (Regulatory Levies) Bill 2021, Bills Digest, 27, 2021–22,
(Canberra,: Parliamentary Library, 21 October 2021).
Emily Gibson, Offshore Petroleum (Laminaria and Corallina Decommissioning Cost Recovery Levy) Bill 2021 [and] Treasury Laws Amendment (Laminaria and Corallina Decommissioning Cost Recovery Levy) Bill 2021, Bills Digest, 32, 2021–22, (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, 19 November 2021).
K Roberts, O Hill and C Cook, ‘Evaluating Perceptions of Marine Protection in Australia: Does Policy Match Public Expectation?’, Marine Policy, 2020, 112, e103766.
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