The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is the Australian Government’s central piece of environmental legislation. It provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places—defined in the EPBC Act as matters of national environmental significance.
- The eight matters of national environmental significance to which the EPBC Act applies are:
- World Heritage sites
- National Heritage places
- wetlands of international importance, or Ramsar wetlands
- nationally threatened species and ecological communities
- migratory species
- Commonwealth marine areas
- the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
- nuclear actions.
In addition, the EPBC Act confers jurisdiction over actions that have a significant impact on the environment where the actions affect, or are taken on, Commonwealth land, or are carried out by a Commonwealth agency (even if that significant impact is not on one of the eight matters of national environmental significance).
The EPBC Act’s provisions enable the Australian Government to cooperate with the states and territories in integrating processes associated with impact assessment and approval, heritage protection and biodiversity conservation.
The protection and management of Australia’s World Heritage sites is one of the eight matters of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act. A key development in the protection of these sites during 2010–11 was the inscription of the Ningaloo Coast in the World Heritage List, which recognises the outstanding universal values of the coast’s diverse and abundant marine life and cave fauna. Koongarra, an area in the Kakadu National Park, was also added to the World Heritage List. There are now 19 Australian properties inscribed in the World Heritage List and protected under the EPBC Act and its management requirements.
The EPBC Act protects Australia’s native species and ecological communities, and an important part of the EPBC’s protective framework is identifying and listing of threatened species, ecological communities, and key threatening processes. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee advises the minister on nominations for these listings. In 2010–11, the minister made listing decisions for 47 species and two ecological communities. These decisions included adding new listings for 28 species and two ecological communities. Thirteen species were de-listed, three others down-listed to a lower category of threat, and one up-listed to a higher category of threat. At 30 June 2011, 1 785 species, 50 ecological communities, and 19 key threatening processes were listed under the EPBC Act.
The EPBC Act enhances how Australia’s Ramsar wetlands are managed and protected, has established a process for identifying Ramsar wetlands, and encourages best practice management through nationally consistent management principles. At 30 June 2011 Australia had 64 Ramsar wetlands that cover around 8.1 million hectares. No Ramsar sites were added in 2010–11. In 2010 Kakadu National Park was merged and extended from two separate Ramsar sites into a single Ramsar site that encompasses the entire National Park. This changed the number of Ramsar sites in Australia from 65 to 64 and increased the Ramsar estate by approximately 600 000 hectares.
The department continued to assess large, complex and economically significant projects from all industry sectors under the EPBC Act. The department received 428 new referrals in 2010–11 and 150 referrals were determined to be controlled actions requiring further assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. A total of 146 referrals were deemed not to be controlled actions, and 104 referrals were determined not to be controlled actions subject to their being undertaken in a particular manner. Thirty-eight per cent of proposals referred under the EPBC Act in 2010–11 were determined to require environmental impact assessment, compared with 36 per cent in 2009–10.
In 2010–11, 103 proposals were approved under the EPBC Act, a substantial increase on the 66 proposals approved in 2009–10. This increase was largely driven by approvals for mining projects in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia, and residential developments in New South Wales and Victoria.
Assessing three large coal seam gas/liquefied natural gas (CSG/LNG) projects required a major departmental effort in late 2010 and early 2011. Considering the cumulative impacts of these projects, especially on groundwater resources, was crucial in the assessment, and independent technical advice on groundwater issues from Geoscience Australia formed a critical element of the department’s advice to the minister. The minister approved the three CSG/LNG projects, with stringent conditions, in October 2010 and February 2011. The department’s experience in the assessment of these projects has strengthened its capacity to deal effectively with future CSG/LNG developments.
The department places a high priority on providing an efficient, timely and effective assessment and approval process under the EPBC Act. In 2010–11, 90 per cent of all statutory decisions under the EPBC Act were made within the statutory timeframes, –compared with 94 per cent in 2009–10 and 93 per cent in 2008–09.
In addition to the assessment framework the EPBC Act provides for individual projects, the EPBC Act allows for strategic assessments that consider matters of national environmental significance at a strategic landscape scale. Strategic assessment allows for individual future developments to proceed without further assessment if they are consistent with an approved strategic assessment. Strategic assessments enable Commonwealth and state processes to be streamlined, at the same time achieving ecological sustainability by considering environmental assets at the landscape level. Environmental issues can be dealt with in a more comprehensive way, allowing for cumulative impacts to be considered early in the planning process. This removes the need for multiple time consuming and expensive assessments by each individual developer and provides certainty for all involved.
In April 2011 the minister endorsed the Midlands Water Scheme, a major new irrigation project in Tasmania under the Water for the Future initiative. The scheme was the second strategic assessment to be endorsed under the EPBC Act. This assessment helped ensure that the scheme is ecologically sustainable and consistent with the EPBC Act. Further information on the Midlands Water Scheme is in case study 3. A further five strategic assessments involving state or territory governments are underway.
In the May 2011 Budget the government allocated over $29 million between 2011–12 and 2014–15 to the Regional Sustainability Project. This initiative will develop the capacity of selected regions to protect matters of national environmental significance, consistent with the EPBC Act and the Sustainable Australia – Sustainable Communities population strategy. The regional sustainability planning methods developed in the selected regions will provide models for broader application across Australia that are consistent with the strategic assessment approach, and represent a significant integration of the department’s environmental and sustainable population responsibilities.
As part of the marine bioregional planning process, new networks of Commonwealth marine reserves (also called marine protected areas or marine parks) are being identified. These reserves will help meet Australia’s international and national commitments to establish a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas by 2012. The draft South-west marine bioregional plan and a Commonwealth marine reserve network proposal were released for public consultation in May 2011. The draft Marine Bioregional Plans and marine reserve network proposals for the North-west, North and East marine regions will be publicly released in 2011–12. A separate process to formally establish the marine reserve networks under the EPBC Act will be undertaken once proposals are finalised.
The department considers all allegations of non-compliance under the EPBC Act and the number of reported incidents in 2010–11 was consistent with previous years. The EPBC Act has put in place a range of enforcement mechanisms for managing suspected or identified instances of non-compliance and for reviewing the compliance of referred projects. These mechanisms include environmental audits, civil or criminal penalties for contraventions of the EPBC Act, and remediation orders and determinations to repair or mitigate environmental damage. Examples of the department’s use of enforcement mechanisms can be found under the ‘Breaches and investigations’ section of this report.
To further encourage compliance, the department engages in cooperative partnerships to build public awareness of the EPBC Act. For example, during 2010–11 the department undertook a series of presentations directed at local councils, state agencies and non-government organisations throughout Australia. Training on awareness and use of EPBC Act compliance and enforcement powers was provided to a number of co-regulator and partner agencies. The department also provides information to the general public to raise understanding of the EPBC Act and its operations, and policies and guidelines to provide guidance for stakeholders in determining whether a proposed action is likely to have a significant impact on a species or ecological community listed under the EPBC Act. Publications produced in 2010–11 are listed in Appendix C of this report.
As noted in last year’s report, a comprehensive and independent review of the first 10 years of the operation of the EPBC Act was completed in 2009, as required under section 522A of the EPBC Act. The review was undertaken by Dr Allan Hawke AC, supported by a panel of experts, with the department providing secretariat support. The final report of the review was provided to the minister in October 2009, and was publicly released in December 2009. The report is available on the department’s website. The government formally responded to the review after the end of the reporting year and the response is also available on the department’s website. Further information on the EPBC Act review is in Section 3.Back to top