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Department of the Environment and Heritage annual report 2004-05

Volume two
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005
ISSN 1441 9335

Legislation annual reports 2004-05 (continued)

Operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

1. Protecting environment and heritage

1.1 Focusing on matters of national environmental significance

An important means of protecting matters of national environmental significance is through identifying them as controlling provisions for actions that are likely to have significant environmental impacts and therefore require assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. Provisions of the EPBC Act also require certain actions to be undertaken in a particular manner to avoid adverse impacts on matters of national environmental significance. During the year 193 matters of national environmental significance, and the environment generally in relation to proposals involving Commonwealth land or agencies, were protected through these processes (see Table 5, Appendix 1 of this report).

In 2004-05 the most frequent controlling provision was again listed threatened species and ecological communities, followed by listed migratory species. Listed threatened species and ecological communities were determined to be a controlling provision for 58 proposed actions, or 92 per cent of all actions determined to require approval. Listed migratory species were also determined to be a controlling provision for 25 of these proposals.

There were 13 controlled action decisions where the ecological character of a Ramsar wetland was the matter protected, and eight proposed actions where World Heritage values were determined to be a controlling provision. In the first full year of operation of the new national heritage provisions, no proposed actions were determined to require approval due to likely significant impacts on national heritage values, although five proposals were referred where impacts on national heritage values were possible. There were five controlled action decisions where the controlling provision was the Commonwealth marine environment; these were predominantly projects relating to petroleum exploration and development. No nuclear actions were proposed during the year.

More than one matter protected under Part 3 of the EPBC Act was determined to be a controlling provision for 33 of the 63 proposals determined to require approval. These actions typically involved potential impacts on species listed as both threatened and migratory, or listed species found in or near the Commonwealth marine environment, World Heritage properties or Ramsar wetlands. For example, a proposal to develop a tourist and residential estate at South Mission Beach in Queensland was determined to be a controlled action under both the World Heritage and the listed threatened species and communities provisions of the EPBC Act. This was due, in particular, to potential impacts on the southern cassowary, listed as endangered under the EPBC Act, and impacts on the World Heritage values of the adjacent Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, for which the southern cassowary is also a listed value.

A total of 26 actions were approved in 2004-05 with a range of conditions to ensure that matters of national environmental significance and the environment were protected. Two proposals were approved without conditions. At 30 June 2005 76 actions affecting matters protected by the EPBC Act were undergoing assessment; that is, a decision had been made on the assessment approach but the assessment was still to be completed. These ongoing assessments include 15 assessments conducted under bilateral agreements and 31 assessments conducted under state or territory processes that have been accredited on a case-by-case basis. Table 6 in Appendix 1 of this report lists the types and number of assessment approaches used during 2004-05.

The focus of the EPBC Act on protecting matters of national environmental significance continues to positively influence the way in which developers design projects, utilising best practice methods and measures in order to minimise potential impacts on these protected matters, thereby avoiding or minimising the need for assessment and approval under the EPBC Act.

1.2 Proposals involving Commonwealth land and/or actions

Actions by the Australian Government and actions on Commonwealth land

In 2004-05 six actions were determined to require approval under the EPBC Act because of likely significant impacts on the environment on Commonwealth land, and a further four actions by Australian Government agencies were determined to be controlled actions.

One of these actions was an Australian Government Department of Defence proposal to conduct the Talisman Saber 2005 major military exercise. This action involved Australian and US forces in a range of military training activities that included aircraft operations, naval manoeuvres, amphibious landings, field training, live fire activities, and engineering works. The action was approved subject to specified conditions and took place in June 2005 at several locations across northern Australia, including on Commonwealth land at Shoalwater Bay in Queensland. The approval included an agreement that an audit would be conducted on the implementation of the Shoalwater Bay Training Area Strategic Plan (1996) by November 2005. The department anticipates that this audit will play an important role in setting the scene for the strategic assessment of Defence activities and facilitate the assessment of future major exercises.

Actions by the Australian Government or actions on Commonwealth land can also require approval because of potential impacts on matters of national environmental significance. An action for which both Commonwealth land and a number of matters of national environmental significance were found to be controlling provisions is the proposal to replace a ferry service in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands with a new hovercraft operation. The proposal has the potential to impact on heritage-listed buildings on Home Island, green and hawksbill turtles, and the endangered buff-banded rail. The assessment of this proposal continued in 2004-05, with the department to complete an assessment report for the proposal shortly.

The department also published a review of the conservation values of Commonwealth land in western Sydney. This review identified four properties that contained areas of high conservation value that warrant further protection. The four properties are at Llandilo, Ingleburn, Orchard Hills and Holsworthy. They all contain important remnants of vegetation communities once widespread on the Cumberland Plain. These diverse and relatively large areas of remnant vegetation provide important habitat at the regional and national scale for native flora and fauna. The department is currently negotiating with the Australian Government managers of these properties, Airservices Australia and Defence, to ensure that future development of such land is compatible with good conservation practice.

Advice on authorising actions

Section 160 of the EPBC Act requires Australian Government agencies, or employees of the Australian Government, to obtain and consider advice from the Minister for the Environment and Heritage in relation to authorisation for specified actions, where those actions are likely to have a significant impact on the environment. Actions on which advice has been sought have included providing foreign aid, managing aircraft operations in airspace, and implementing major development plans for a number of airports.

During 2004-05 advice was sought under section 160 on seven occasions (see Table 8, Appendix 1 of this report). These projects included major development plans for the Parafield, Brisbane and Gold Coast airports, which involved proposals for urban and commercial development, runway modifications, and a road bypass. Advice was also sought from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority regarding a permit to dredge the departure path of the Port of Hay Point, Queensland, and the disposal of up to 14 million cubic metres of spoil within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The minister provided advice on the proposal by Gold Coast Airport Ltd to extend its runway from 2042 metres to 2500 metres to allow aircraft using the airport to operate over a longer range. The advice concluded that the environmental impacts of the proposal should not prevent the Minister for Transport and Regional Services approving the proposed major development plan, subject to conditions. These conditions included requirements for a construction environmental management plan, a pre-construction survey for endangered plants, compensatory revegetation, a tree management plan, sediment and contamination control, and monitoring of construction noise. Recommendations were also made in relation to aircraft noise.

Chevron Texaco applied for a permit under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981 in April 2004 to dredge, excavate and dispose of 12 million cubic metres of dredge spoil from channels adjacent to Barrow Island in Western Australia. The proposed action was referred under section 160 of the EPBC Act and is to be assessed by environmental impact statement. During 2004-05 the proponent continued preparation of a draft environmental impact statement in consultation with the department. It is anticipated that the draft will be submitted to the department in 2005-06.

Exemptions

In 2004-05 one exemption on national interest grounds from the EPBC Act assessment and approval requirements was granted to the Department of Defence for the consolidation of specific science and technology activities supporting the Australian Defence Force. A limited exemption was also granted to the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation in relation to the additional assessment and approval requirements applying to Australian Government agencies after demonstrating that it is required to comply with relevant state and territory environment and planning laws.

1.3 Increasing intergovernmental cooperation

Bilateral agreements

A key objective of the EPBC Act is to promote a partnership approach to environmental protection and biodiversity conservation. To this end, the EPBC Act aims to strengthen intergovernmental cooperation, and minimise duplication, through the establishment of bilateral agreements that enable transparent and effective accreditation of state and territory environmental assessment, and potentially approval, processes.

In 2004-05 a bilateral agreement with Queensland was completed. Bilateral agreements accrediting specified state and territory assessment processes are now in place with Tasmania, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland. Such agreements ensure that proponents and the public need only deal with a single assessment process, but with Australian Government scrutiny maintained through the Minister for the Environment and Heritage still being required to grant approval and set conditions for the project. During the year 16 projects had been or were being assessed under a bilateral agreement.

The Australian Government is currently in discussions with New South Wales and Victoria to develop bilateral agreements with those states. The Australian Capital Territory has advised that amendments to relevant legislation will need to be completed prior to further consideration of a bilateral agreement, and South Australia is assessing whether to pursue the development of such an agreement.

In the absence of a bilateral agreement, the duplication of Australian Government and state or territory assessment processes continues to be significantly reduced through the use of case-by-case accreditation and coordinated assessments. Accredited assessments meet at least those standards that would be required under a bilateral agreement. During the year 39 projects had been or were being assessed under state or territory processes accredited on a case-by-case basis.

Bilateral agreements and case-by-case accreditations provide for a more efficient, timely and effective environmental assessment process. Proponents are required to prepare and submit only one set of assessment documentation, with the transparency of the process maintained through comprehensive public consultation requirements.

Heritage management

As a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, the Australian Government cooperates closely with state authorities to ensure the protection and promotion of state-managed World Heritage properties is consistent with Australia's national undertakings under the convention. During 2004-05 the Australian Government was involved in consultations and funding for reviews of management arrangements for a range of listed properties, and was also actively involved in reviewing and updating community, Indigenous, and technical and scientific consultative committees for state-managed World Heritage properties.

The department supports activities that relate directly to discharging Australia's World Heritage responsibilities and to priorities that reflect the national interest, including promotion, community engagement, and the development of strategic partnerships. During 2004-05 the Australian Government funded activities in state-controlled World Heritage properties that included agreed on-ground priority projects and strategic management support activities. The latter included community consultation through management, technical and scientific, and Indigenous advisory committees, and coordination of World Heritage management through the engagement of World Heritage Area executive officers.

The Australian Government joined the Queensland Government and 18 Rainforest Aboriginal tribal groups in the development of the Wet Tropics Regional Agreement, which was signed in April 2005. During 2004-05 the Australian Government also cooperated closely with the Queensland Government in the prosecution of an individual charged with felling timber within a state national park, located within the boundaries of the Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves World Heritage property.

The department prepared draft Regulations to the EPBC Act specifying criteria to be met by state or territory management plans for World Heritage properties and/or national heritage places in order for them to be accredited under the EPBC Act. These Regulations will be made in July 2005.

Species Information Partnerships

The department, in association with the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, continued to work towards improving both consistency between Australian Government, state and territory threatened species lists, and the exchange of information to support the listing and recovery of threatened species.

During 2004-05 the Australian Government and the South Australian, Victorian, Tasmanian and New South Wales governments discussed arrangements to exchange species information through Species Information Partnerships. The Western Australian and Northern Territory governments provided information on endemic species as part of finalised partnership agreements. Many of these endemic species were assessed by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee for eligibility for listing as threatened under the EPBC Act.

To continue building on the Species Information Partnership formed with the Northern Territory Government, the committee met with representatives from the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service and other stakeholders in Alice Springs in June 2005 to discuss threatened species conservation.

Species Information Partnerships reduce duplication, allow for more targeted expenditure of limited conservation resources, and facilitate the best possible conservation outcomes for threatened species.

1.4 Providing an efficient, timely and effective assessment and approval process

Referrals

During 2004-05 360 actions were referred to the Australian Government for decision on whether approval was required under the EPBC Act. Approximately 13 per cent of these referrals were the result of compliance action taken by the department, an increase from previous years reflecting the department's enhancement of its compliance and enforcement capabilities. A total of 67 actions (63 after reconsideration) were determined to be controlled actions and a further 41 actions (44 after reconsideration) were determined to be not-controlled actions if taken in a particular manner.

Profile of actions referred under the EPBC Act

As for the previous year the largest number of referrals came from Queensland, which continues to have the highest number of controlled action decisions. These figures reflect the pattern of development along the Queensland coast, potentially impacting on the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics World Heritage properties and a number of Ramsar wetlands. Table 3 in Appendix 1 of this report lists the numbers of referrals and decisions made by jurisdiction during 2004-05.

Activity categories for which a relatively large number of referrals were received in 2004-05 include new urban and commercial development; energy generation and supply; exploration activities (including on- and off-shore mineral, oil and gas exploration); tourism, recreation and conservation management; and mining. Table 4 in Appendix 1 of this report lists the numbers of referrals and decisions made by activity category during 2004-05.

Statutory timeframes performance (referrals)

The timeframe for deciding whether an action requires approval is 20 business days, including a 10-day public comment period. During the year there were 37 late decisions on referrals, or 11 per cent of the total number. This compares with 40 late decisions in 2003-04 (14 per cent of the total referral decisions for that year). The average number of business days late for referral decisions in 2004-05 was 1.6 days, compared to an average of 2.5 since the commencement of the EPBC Act.

Where the statutory timeframe was not met, this was due to the increasing number of detailed and complex projects being referred. There was also the need to seek legal advice in some cases, and to deal with complexities arising from amendments made to the EPBC Act on 23 September 2003, in relation to referrals that form a component of a larger action, penalty provisions applicable to particular manner decisions, and provisions that came into force on 1 January 2004 in relation to the heritage amendments.

Further demonstrating the increasing complexity of referrals, the 20-day timeframe for decision-making on referrals was suspended 42 times in 2004-05. This was due to the need to seek further information before a decision could be made.

Decision trends-particular manners decisions

The EPBC Act provides for the minister to decide that a referred proposal is not a controlled action provided it will be taken in a particular or 'specified' manner. This provision may be used when there is clear evidence that a particular mitigation or avoidance measure will be employed to avoid significant impacts. Under section 77A of the EPBC Act penalties apply to breaches of particular manner decisions.

A total of 41 referrals (44 after reconsideration) during 2004-05 were decided to be not-controlled actions provided they were carried out in a particular manner. Projects that are decided to be not-controlled actions provided they are carried out in a particular manner are often specifically designed to minimise or eliminate adverse impacts on matters of national environmental significance.

The department actively encourages proponents through its education activities to design projects and activities in ways that avoid impacts on matters of national environmental significance. The use of the particular manner decision allows the minister to 'lock in' these design approaches. The department believes that the use of the particular manner decision is an effective way of promoting and supporting a shift to better environmental practices by key industries.

Case study

Using the particular manner decision to deliver better environmental outcomes with a streamlined process-Iluka Resources Mineral Sands Mine, Western Australia

Iluka Resources Ltd proposed to construct and operate a mineral sands mine in the Cataby region of Western Australia, along the Brand Highway. The department was concerned about the potential loss of known habitat for the Carnaby's cockatoo, a listed endangered species under the EPBC Act. As part of its referral documentation the company provided a report on the cockatoo usage of the area, including the area's likely significance for breeding and feeding and the potential for increased habitat fragmentation as a result of the company's proposal.

On the basis of this report, and through extensive consultation with relevant stakeholders (including the Carnaby's Cockatoo Recovery Team, Birds Australia, the Dandaragan Shire Council, and state agencies such as the WA Department of Conservation and Land Management and the WA Department of Environment), the company then developed a detailed management plan that identified the likely impacts of its activity on the listed species, and outlined a range of avoidance, mitigation and management measures to minimise possible impacts.

These measures included using buffer zones; suspending mining adjacent to nest areas during the breeding season; relocating two known nest trees; salvaging suitable natural hollows and providing artificial hollows; controlling competitors (honey bees, galahs, corellas and wood ducks); developing a detailed revegetation plan coupled with a conservation covenant on restored and rehabilitated areas post-mining; and continuing consultation with key stakeholders.

It was determined that the proposal was not a controlled action provided it was taken in a particular manner that required full implementation of the comprehensive management plan. The company welcomed the particular manner decision as recognition of the substantial work undertaken to identify and adequately manage the potential for impacts on the Carnaby's cockatoo. The work also improved understanding of this listed species' distribution in the area and will enable an analysis over time of the mitigation measures' effectiveness.

Statements of reasons

Subsection 77(4) of the EPBC Act allows a person taking an action that the minister has decided is a controlled action to request reasons for the decision. During 2004-05 the department handled 12 such requests.

Reconsideration of decisions

Eleven referral decisions were reconsidered in 2004-05, with six decisions being revoked and substituted with a new decision (see Table 2, Appendix 1 of this report). While the number of reconsiderations is small when compared to the total number of referral decisions, by consulting with key interests the department ensures that any reconsideration decisions maintain the transparency and public accountability inherent in the overall framework of the EPBC Act. Reconsideration can be justified and can contribute to better environmental outcomes where there is substantial new information on the likely impacts on the matters protected by the EPBC Act.

Assessment of controlled actions

The assessment of potential environmental impacts from proposed actions utilises the best available science, with comment and analysis sought from relevant experts within the department, other Australian Government or state and territory government agencies and, when necessary, external scientific institutions and organisations.

The EPBC Act provides a range of assessment approaches to ensure that an environmental assessment reflects the nature of the proposed action, the adequacy of information already available, the degree of public interest and the nature and scale of the likely impacts. Decisions on the level of assessment for controlled actions during 2004-05 are summarised in Table 6, Appendix 1 of this report.

During 2004-05 the department completed 29 assessments following finalisation of relevant documentation by the proponent, 24 by preliminary documentation. Nine assessments were completed under an accredited process or a bilateral agreement. A further 76 assessments were in progress at 30 June 2005.

Statutory timeframes performance (assessments)

Eight out of 38 decisions on assessment approach were made outside the statutory timeframe in 2004-05, or 21 per cent of the total number. Factors contributing to late decisions included the requirement for additional assurances from states and territories that accredited assessment processes would meet Australian Government requirements and the need to clarify and consult on information in preliminary documentation.

The EPBC Act requires the minister to prepare written guidelines for the content of public environment reports and environmental impact statements within 20-days. During 2004-05 guidelines were prepared for two environmental impact statements, both within 20 days. Guidelines were prepared for three public environment reports, with one particularly complex case taking longer than the statutory timeframe.

Once the minister has accepted final preliminary documentation, a finalised public environment report or a finalised environmental impact statement the secretary must prepare an assessment report for the minister within 20-days. During 2004-05 there were 12 late assessment reports out of 24 for assessments by preliminary documentation, one out of two for assessment by public environment report and one out of three for an assessment by environmental impact statement. Delays in these cases most commonly resulted from the need to adequately consider complex technical issues raised by the assessment process and the need to seek further detailed information from the proponent.

Case study

Environmental impact assessment of the Coral Sea Pearls Pty Ltd aquaculture development in the Great Sandy Strait, Queensland

The proposed action involved the development and operation of a pearl oyster facility at four sites in the Great Sandy Strait. The facility would be developed in three stages and cover approximately 200 hectares when fully developed. The key issues related to potential impacts on humpback whales, green turtles, loggerhead turtles, flatback turtles, leathery turtles, dugong, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, and a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

Prior to formally submitting preliminary documentation for the proposed action in August 2004, the proponent sought extensive advice from the department on the range of potential impacts that the department might need to consider during assessment under the EPBC Act. As a result of these discussions, the proponent submitted preliminary documentation that clearly addressed all the key issues of concern and enabled the proposal to be assessed on the preliminary documentation.

No public submissions were received on the preliminary documentation during the public consultation process. However the department's assessment report concluded that there was considerable uncertainty about the potential for adverse impacts on humpback whales from the proposed action. The department determined that, in order to ensure that the proposal was unlikely to have an unacceptable impact on matters of national environmental significance, the proponent would need to satisfy a range of conditions. The approval conditions included entanglement protocols to aid the safe release of animals and the submission of satisfactory compliance reports prior to constructing stages 2 or 3 of the development. The conditions also provided for a review of the facility's operation to be undertaken if the minister believes that changes are necessary to protect species listed under the EPBC Act.

This case demonstrates the department's ability to assist proponents with the assessment process and achieve sound environmental outcomes.

Approvals

Twenty-eight controlled actions were approved in 2004-05, and a further four were awaiting decision at 30 June 2005 (see Table 7, Appendix 1 of this report). Actions approved include the Port of Airlie Resort and Marina Development in North Queensland; the Wambo Coal Mine Expansion in the Hunter Valley; the Casino Offshore Gas Field Development in Bass Strait; the Roe Highway Extension in Perth; and the establishment of a parachute drop zone for military exercises on the Townsville Field Training Area (see case study below). Conditions attached to approvals included plans to manage the environmental impacts of construction, monitoring programmes, compensatory habitat, independent audits, and measures for managing impacts on cetacean species.

Statutory timeframes performance (approvals)

Twelve out of 28 approval decisions were made outside the statutory timeframe in 2004-05, or 43 per cent of the total number. These delays were due to the complexities of the issues under consideration and included the resolution of social and economic issues. Other factors contributing to delays included complex condition setting and the need to acquire up-to-date information on the distribution and population size of listed threatened species. The need for additional consultation with proponents and with state and territory governments, and discussions with other Australian Government agencies, also provided challenges to meeting the statutory timeframes for approval decisions.

Case study

Approval of the Townsville Field Training Area Parachute Drop Zone, North Queensland

The Townsville Field Training Area Parachute Drop Zone project proposed by the Department of Defence was determined to be a controlled action due to the potential significant impacts on the environment on Commonwealth land and on the squatter pigeon (southern subspecies)-a listed threatened species under the EPBC Act.

The proposed action involves the establishment and ongoing maintenance of a cleared drop zone for use in parachute exercises in the Keelbottom sector of the Townsville Field Training Area. The proposed drop zone site contains mixed ironbark and Reid River box woodlands with a grassy ground layer. The proposed action involves clearing approximately 208 hectares of woodland vegetation. The site is to be cleared of trees, stumps, termite mounds and rocks. Erosion gullies and minor creek lines are to be re-contoured to minimise hazards to parachutists.

The squatter pigeon (southern), listed as vulnerable under the EPBC Act, may be potentially impacted by the proposed action. However, trees are not a vital habitat element for this species as it forages and nests on the ground. The existing grassy understorey is to be retained on the parachute drop zone and is likely to continue to provide suitable foraging habitat for the species.

Three sites of local Indigenous heritage significance have been identified within or near the proposed drop zone. The archaeological remains at the three sites have a high level of Indigenous cultural heritage significance, and two isolated stone artefacts located within the proposed drop zone were relocated outside the drop zone boundary under guidance from traditional owners.

The Townsville Field Training Area Parachute Drop Zone was approved under the EPBC Act with conditions on 5 April 2005. Approval conditions aim to minimise the environmental impacts of establishing the drop zone and include such measures as installing permanent erosion and sediment control measures in all drainage lines; revegetation works using local grass species; identifying and controlling weed species; providing protection for cultural heritage sites through the designation of 'no go' areas on maps and construction diagrams; and establishing buffer zones along drainage lines and Keelbottom Creek. The approval decision provides strong measures for protecting the environment on Commonwealth land, including Indigenous heritage and the squatter pigeon, while allowing Defence training activities to go ahead.

Post referral and approval verification, monitoring and auditing

Monitoring and auditing enable the department to verify compliance by proponents with conditions of approval (or particular manner decisions), and to ensure that the department remains engaged in protecting matters of national environmental significance beyond the completion of the formal approval process.

The department has established a database to monitor compliance with approval and particular manner decisions. Checks to ensure approval and particular manner conditions are being met are now being successfully undertaken. These checks have exposed a number of non-conformities, which are being addressed.

The department commissioned a consultant-Australian Quality Assurance and Superintendence Pty Ltd (AQUAS)-to develop a strategy and manual to assist the department with a rolling programme of voluntary audits. The voluntary audit programme is a partnership between the department and industry to monitor the ecological sustainability of actions and decisions. AQUAS also assisted the department with its 2004-05 audit programme, which took place in May-June 2005. The audits included approvals, a particular manner decision and a permit issued under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981, and involved a coalmine, a golf course development, two tourism developments and a dredging campaign.

The 2004-05 audit programme was based on a series of trial audits undertaken in 2003-04 of offshore seismic surveys that had been determined to be not-controlled actions if taken in a particular manner. While the audits found a high degree of compliance with the department's Guidelines on the application of the EPBC Act to interactions between offshore seismic operations and larger cetaceans, they also highlighted areas where the guidelines were ambiguous or needed updating. A revision of the guidelines is currently under way.

The 2004-05 audit programme continued to inform the department on the EPBC Act's operation, including the efficacy of the department's administrative procedures. Two of the 2004-05 audits are now being used to resolve identified issues and develop better management plans. The department also includes independent audit of approval conditions as part of the condition set for riskier projects. Each project is subjected to a risk assessment at the time of approval in order to better target resources.

Review of the Administrative Guidelines on Significance

The Administrative Guidelines on Significance provide guidance on actions that should be referred to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage for a decision on whether assessment and approval are required under the EPBC Act. The review of the guidelines, involving public comment and interviews with a range of stakeholders, was nearing completion in June 2005. New and revised guidelines will form part of a new framework of EPBC Act policy statements aimed at providing the best possible guidance to stakeholders.

In response to requests, and the recommendations of the Australian National Audit Office Performance Audit of Referrals, Assessments and Approvals under the EPBC Act, the department has developed new Guidelines for actions by Commonwealth agencies and actions on, or impacting upon, Commonwealth land. New industry sector guidelines are also being developed, providing more detailed guidance for the aquaculture, agriculture (land-clearing), wind farm and urban development sectors. New and revised guidelines will be released for public comment and trial use before final revision and publication.

Strategic assessments
Environmental management processes, procedures and systems governing the conduct of major military training exercises

On 8 August 2004 the Minister for the Environment and Heritage agreed to a request by the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Robert Hill, to conduct a strategic assessment under the EPBC Act of the Department of Defence's environmental management processes, procedures and systems governing the conduct of major military training exercises.

The public was invited to comment on the draft terms of reference for the strategic assessment of major military exercises in March-April 2005. The Department of Defence will suggest changes to the terms of reference and, with the agreement of the Environment and Defence Ministers, the terms of reference will be finalised. The Department of Defence will then prepare a report that addresses how environmental impacts associated with major military exercises are to be managed. The report will be released for public comment before it is considered by the minister.

A strategic assessment of Defence exercises is unprecedented internationally. The expected benefit is that it will provide a more efficient process under the EPBC Act for considering the environmental impacts of major military exercises.

Offshore petroleum exploration and appraisal activities in Commonwealth waters

A strategic assessment is being undertaken that describes the offshore petroleum exploration and appraisal activities undertaken in Commonwealth waters, and assesses the likely environmental, social and economic impacts of these activities. The draft assessment prepared by the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources (DITR) was made available for public comment in February-March 2005. DITR is currently finalising the assessment, taking into account the comments received.

Sustainable fisheries assessments

Under the EPBC Act, the Department of the Environment and Heritage assesses the environmental performance of fisheries management arrangements to ensure that fisheries are managed in an ecologically sustainable way and to identify areas for improvement. All fisheries with an export component, including state-managed fisheries, are required to undergo assessment before 1 December 2005. A total of 129 fisheries have been identified for assessment and during 2004-05 a substantial effort was devoted to completing 50 comprehensive fishery assessments, with the outcomes published in detailed reports on the department's web site (see Table 11, Appendix 1 for details). This brings the total of completed assessments to 88. A further 24 fisheries were under active assessment at the end of 2004-05.

These assessments involve a broad range of recommendations that require Australian Government, state and territory fishery management agencies to demonstrate improved environmental performance, and actively enhance the ecologically sustainable management of fisheries in the short to medium term. As a result of these assessments, fisheries management agencies are demonstrating an increased commitment to ecologically sustainable fisheries management practices, such as spatial management, enhanced research and data collection processes, cross-jurisdictional management approaches, harvest strategies for target and by-product species, mitigation and monitoring of protected species interactions, the development of enhanced reference points and performance measures for both target and non-target species, and enhancements to compliance systems and measures to better enforce management arrangements and address illegal harvesting.

During 2004-05 41 fisheries had their assessment deadline extended until 1 December 2005 due to their particular management arrangements. Priority will be given to completing these assessments. Another priority will be to develop, in consultation with Australian Government, state and territory fisheries management agencies, a re-assessment process for the next round of fishery assessments due to commence in 2006.

In 2004-05 11 statements of reasons were provided in respect of decisions made concerning the assessment of fisheries under the EPBC Act. These statements of reasons related to decisions concerning five Commonwealth managed fisheries, eight state or Northern Territory managed fisheries, and product taken from high seas fisheries.

1.5 Transparency and public awareness

Increasing stakeholder and public awareness

The EPBC Act web site (www.deh.gov.au/epbc/index.html) continues to play a vital role in increasing stakeholder and public awareness of the Act. During 2004-05 the site was upgraded in response to public feedback, and now includes streamlined access to frequently used components, as well as news highlights. The site continues to facilitate community involvement by publishing EPBC Act-related public notices and invitations to comment. Each week the web site lists all permits issued or granted and all matters from the previous week required by the Act to be made available to the public.

Referrals, assessments and approvals

Referral documentation and all principal decisions in relation to referrals, assessments and approvals are posted on the site. Invitations to comment are posted with referral documentation. During 2004-05 public comments were received on 92 referrals. The EPBC Act Protected Matters Search Tool is also available through the site, or directly at www.deh.gov.au/erin/ert/epbc/index.html.

The draft public environment report for a proposal to replace a ferry service in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands with a new hovercraft operation was published for public comment in May 2005. In order to overcome possible language and literacy obstacles, public meetings were held on Home Island and West Island, with the assistance of interpreters, during the public comment period to ensure that the local community had the opportunity to participate in the consultation process.

Heritage

During the year referral documentation on the EPBC Act web site was revised to incorporate the new heritage requirements, and to recognise Indigenous issues involved in protecting heritage values under the EPBC Act. Public awareness of the Australian Government's role in heritage management was promoted through improving the way in which advice and public notices are presented on the department's web site (at www.deh.gov.au/heritage/laws/index.html).

In August 2004 the $3 million Sharing Australia's Stories programme was announced, to promote awareness of Australia's heritage places and contribute to implementing the new heritage system.

Listed threatened species and ecological communities

A major development in making information available to the public was the launch of the Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database on the department's web site at www.deh.gov.au/sprat. The SPRAT database stores key biological and ecological information on threatened species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species and species subject to international trade and commercial use listed under the EPBC Act. It is designed to assist people to make more accurate decisions about whether their proposed activity may require referral for approval under the EPBC Act. The database also provides general information on threatened species and ecological communities' conservation. There is currently information available on 400 listed species and new information is added regularly. An information sheet on how to use SPRAT was produced and distributed to stakeholders including consultants, state and territory government agencies and non-government organisations.

A 'frequently asked questions' information guide about the commercially fished species (southern bluefin tuna, orange roughy, eastern gemfish and school shark), currently nominated for listing as threatened under the EPBC Act, was produced and published on the department's web site at www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/nominations/fish-faq.html. The guide outlines the listing process and the possible implications for stakeholders, should the species be listed as threatened.

The department developed a communication strategy with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to improve fishers' reporting of incidental interactions with EPBC Act protected species such as dolphins, seals, whales and turtles. A protected species identification guide was developed to assist fishers and the general public to identify listed species and to encourage reporting of incidental capture.

As in previous years the department continued to publish new nominations of threatened species, threatened ecological communities and key threatening processes on the department's web site and to provide a formal two-month public comment period. During 2004-05 a page was added to the web site listing nominations that have been granted extensions to the 12-month statutory timeframe for consideration by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. This has made it easier for interested persons to track the progress of nominations. Amendments to the lists of threatened species, threatened ecological communities and key threatening processes, as well as the Threatened Species Scientific Committee's advices to the minister, continue to be published on the department's web site.

Conservation advice was developed and published on the department's web site for species and ecological communities listed in 2004-05. Pending the production of recovery plans, conservation advice provides guidance to regional planning processors, community groups, landholders and other stakeholders on recovery and threat abatement activities that can be undertaken immediately to assist the conservation and recovery of newly listed species or ecological communities. Information sheets on listed ecological communities now include this conservation advice. In relation to turtles and sharks, the department also communicates recovery actions and key issues to the public through regular newsletters, distributed via the department's web site and by members of the National Turtle and Shark Recovery Groups.

Enhancing community participation
Presentations and workshops

During 2004-05 the department gave increased emphasis to targeted communications supporting voluntary compliance with EPBC Act requirements. Key targets included agencies with regulatory and planning responsibilities that have direct contact with people who may be affected by the EPBC Act. The department held training sessions for key staff of local governments and Catchment Management Authorities in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. The half-day sessions outlined the ways in which the EPBC Act may affect these agencies' clients and how the agencies can facilitate compliance.

This approach has led to closer and more effective cooperation between the department and local and regional bodies, with many clients now receiving initial information on the EPBC Act through these agencies. There has also been a healthy exchange of information and views, allowing the department to adjust its responses and processes to take account of feedback from people 'on the ground'.

More than 20 training sessions, attracting between 20 and 40 participants, were held throughout the eastern states during the year. These were supplemented with visits to Western Australia and the Northern Territory by staff engaged in the environmental assessment of particular projects, who took the opportunity to brief state and local government officials on general EPBC Act requirements and issues.

Regional risk assessment project

One outcome of the closer working relationship with local and regional bodies has been the development of projects to establish baseline information and develop an EPBC Act risk analysis for two high growth regions, one in Western Australia and the other in Victoria. The department is working with local governments and relevant regional bodies in the Geelong-Surf Coast area in Victoria and in the region centered on Bunbury in Western Australia to develop a shared understanding of the risks to matters of national environmental significance arising from rapid urban development in those areas. These projects aim to produce both data and advice for planning and regulatory agencies directly involved in those regions. The projects are pilot projects designed to test the methodology for use in other areas facing rapid growth over the next decade. Outcomes from the projects are expected to be available later in 2005.

EPBC Unit

The EPBC Unit is a joint project of WWF Australia, the Australian Council of National Trusts and the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, with funding from the Australian Government. The purpose of the EPBC Unit is to increase community awareness of the EPBC Act, and to assist community interests to become involved in its operation. During 2004-05 outreach services on the new heritage system were integrated into the Unit. The EPBC Unit has made a significant contribution to the successful operation of the EPBC Act through the active engagement of stakeholders in relation to the operation and requirements of the EPBC Act.

National Farmers' Federation EPBC Act Information Officer

In 2004-2005 the department and the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) continued to support the role of the NFF EPBC Act Information Officer in providing advice and assistance to farmers and rural stakeholders on the EPBC Act. The EPBC Act Information Officer provides:

The EPBC Act Information Officer continued to foster improved relationships between the department, rural stakeholders, conservation groups, state and territory agencies, and local governments, and to give EPBC Act presentations to farmers and rural stakeholders, particularly at the request of state and territory farming organisations, commodity groups, and state and territory government agencies in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland. These presentations, as well as radio interviews in the field, have greatly contributed to raising EPBC Act awareness in the farming community.

The department, in collaboration with the EPBC Act Information Officer, continued to update the web page 'Farmers and the EPBC Act'. The web page leads farmers quickly to the information they need to work with the EPBC Act. See www.deh.gov.au/epbc/farmers.

Consultation registers

Under section 266A of the EPBC Act, a register is maintained for persons or bodies interested in being invited to submit comments on permit applications relating to listed threatened species and ecological communities, listed migratory species, cetaceans and listed marine species. The registration period is 12 months. At 30 June 2005 15 people were registered.

Advisory committees
Threatened Species Scientific Committee

The Threatened Species Scientific Committee is appointed under subsection 502(3) of the EPBC Act. The committee's role is to advise the Minister for the Environment and Heritage on amending and updating lists of threatened species, threatened ecological communities and key threatening processes and on making or adopting recovery plans and threat abatement plans. The committee may also provide additional advice to the minister on issues relating to these responsibilities. The current membership of the committee is listed in Table 12, Appendix 3 of this report.

In 2004-05 the committee met four times: on 15-16 September 2004, 8-9 December 2004, 8-9 March 2005 and 14-17 June 2005. A major focus of the committee's work in 2004-05 was the assessment of the conservation status of a large number of Northern Territory and Western Australian species that are inconsistently listed under the EPBC Act and state or territory legislation. Information to support the committee's assessment was provided by the Northern Territory and Western Australian governments.

The committee substantially progressed its assessment of several complex threatened species nominations, including the koala and a number of commercially fished marine species. Once its consideration of these nominations is finalised, the committee will provide a recommendation to the minister on these species' eligibility for listing.

Throughout 2004-05 the committee discussed several strategic issues within its terms of reference, including the conservation of marine species, developing mechanisms for measuring the success of recovery plans, and effective solutions to the challenges of listing threatened ecological communities.

Biological Diversity Advisory Committee

The Biological Diversity Advisory Committee advises the minister on matters relating to the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of biological diversity. The functions, terms of reference and current membership of the committee are listed in Table 13, Appendix 3 of this report.

The committee held its thirteenth meeting on 5-6 April 2005. At this meeting the committee agreed that climate change, long-term monitoring, taxonomy, and biodiversity communication continue to be major areas requiring its attention.

At its twelfth meeting (in May 2004) the committee agreed that the lack of taxonomic resources in Australia to meet demand constituted a taxonomic crisis. Therefore in 2004-05 the committee began working with stakeholders to ensure that implications for biological diversity are considered in developing solutions to this problem.

The committee continued to focus attention on regional natural resource management planning, through its contribution and commitment to the project Evaluation of Biological Diversity Outcomes in the Natural Heritage Trust and National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality Regional Investment. The committee expects to continue its input in 2005-06 as further advice is sought.

The committee published the booklet Making economic valuation work for biodiversity conservation, building on the national Economic Value of Biodiversity workshop, held in 2003 and jointly sponsored by the department and Land and Water Australia.

During the year the National biodiversity and climate change action plan 2004-2007 was released. The committee provided advice that informed the development of the action plan-one of the first national plans in the world to identify actions to reduce the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

Indigenous Advisory Committee

The Indigenous Advisory Committee normally meets at least twice a year, sometimes jointly with the Biological Diversity Advisory Committee. Meetings are rotated around states and regions. In 2004-05 the committee met once, in May 2005 in Canberra.

The committee advises the minister on Indigenous issues under the EPBC Act. Issues the committee advised on in 2004-05 include:

The functions, terms of reference and current membership of the committee are listed in Table 14, Appendix 3 of this report.