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Department of the Environment and Heritage Annual Report 2003-04

Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004
ISSN 1441 9335

Operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (continued)

Overview

The Australian Government, through the operation of the EPBC Act, continues to protect matters of national environmental significance - namely nationally threatened species and ecological communities, internationally important wetlands, migratory species, World Heritage properties, National Heritage places, the Commonwealth marine environment, and protecting the environment from nuclear actions.

Since the commencement of the EPBC Act in 2000, the Department has considered nearly 1240 referrals. The clear processes and mechanisms established by the EPBC Act have streamlined administration of environmental decisions while focusing the Australian Government on environmental outcomes of national importance.

During 2003-04, the Department received 292 referrals. Fifty-four of these referrals were controlled actions requiring approval under the Act. It was decided that a further 38 actions could proceed without approval if undertaken in a particular manner. Decisions on the level of assessment were made for 37 actions, with 21 actions to be assessed by preliminary documentation, four by public environment report, two by an environmental impact statement and ten through an accredited state or territory process. During the year, 26 actions were approved and one approval was declined. The Department also received 12 requests for advice under section 160 of the EPBC Act from Australian Government decision-makers. The statutory timeframes were met for 86 per cent of referral decisions, 84 per cent of assessment decisions and actions and 81 per cent of approval decisions made under the Act. The average delay for referral decisions however was only 1.9 days.

Compared to previous years there has been a reduction in meeting the timeframes for referral, assessment and approvals decisions and actions. This is indicative of the increased time required for decision-making on an increasing number of actions that are complex and sensitive, and the increasing work resulting from actions referred in previous years now entering the approval phase. The Department is conscious of the need for timely decision-making under the Act and is working on strategies to increase adherence to statutory timeframes.

The EPBC Act continues to be successful in encouraging development interests to interact with the Department early in the project design phase with the aim of having effective environment protection measures incorporated in project designs and management arrangements. This trend is exemplified in the strategic environmental assessments of export fisheries, which are aimed at ensuring that ecological sustainability is specifically recognised in managing Australian fisheries. The assessment of these fisheries is changing management practices across Australia's commercial fisheries with a shift from species management to an ecosystem-based fisheries management approach.

The EPBC Act has been strengthened through the inclusion of a new system for managing heritage. This new system, which came into force on 1 January 2004 provides for the identification, protection and management of National Heritage places as a matter of national environmental significance, and also Commonwealth heritage places.

In addition, the EPBC Act has been made more effective by including provisions to deal with staged developments, and to enforce decisions that a development can be undertaken without approval, provided that the development is undertaken in a particular manner in order to avoid significant impacts on matters protected by the Act.

Through assessment of wild harvests, approval of breeding and propagation programmes, and regulating exports and imports of wildlife under the EPBC Act the Australian Government is ensuring that wildlife industries are ecologically sustainable and are humane. During the year a total of 59 108 wildlife trade permits were issued. In addition a total of 34 non-fisheries wildlife trade programmes were approved.

Wildlife trade activities are being further improved by increasing public transparency in decision-making, and by encouraging best practice animal welfare and sustainable management practices. Wildlife trade provisions are integrated with other environmental impact assessment procedures to streamline assessment while ensuring that potential environmental impacts of wildlife trade proposals are properly considered.

The Australian Government continues to lead international activities to conserve migratory waterbirds in the Australasian region. The outcomes of 2003-04 will build on to the successful migratory waterbird conservation undertaken to date at both the national and international levels. Implementation of the migratory waterbird partnership initiative under the World Summit on Sustainable Development will be facilitated, and the proposed bilateral agreement on migratory bird conservation with the Republic of Korea will be brought to completion. At the national level the Wildlife Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds will be released for public comment for the purpose of it being formally made under the EPBC Act.

While environmental harm is prevented by encouraging voluntary observance of high quality environmental performance, enforcement action is taken under the EPBC Act where necessary. For example, the Department investigated and successfully prosecuted a land manager whose action had a significant impact on a Ramsar wetland of international importance. The Federal Court found that the land manager and his company had acted in breach of the EPBC Act by undertaking clearing and farming activities within the Gwydir Wetlands Ramsar site.

The Department's capacity to handle cases like this has been significantly enhanced by the establishment of an Environment Investigations Unit. The unit will provide specialised investigative skills thus improving the capacity to carry out higher level law enforcement, including formal investigation and prosecution of environmental crime under the EPBC Act.

The first external performance review of the administration of the EPBC Act, conducted by the Australian National Audit Office, concluded that the administration of the Act is sound and effective. The Productivity Commission, in the course of inquiring into the impact of native vegetation regulation, found that the EPBC Act met more of the criteria for good regulation than legislation in other jurisdictions, particularly by setting out time limits for consideration of applications and taking economic and social factors into account in the approvals process.

Potential users have been provided with increased guidance on the operation of the EPBC Act. Through targeted awareness raising activities, some proponents have been given practical assistance on the operation of the EPBC Act.

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