Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, 2012
Outcome 5: Operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is the Australian Government’s central environmental law. It provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places that are 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 regulates 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 does not directly relate to one of the eight matters of national environmental significance).
A major Australian Government priority is to ensure that Australian environmental regulation, including the EPBC Act, continues to effectively address the challenges involved in combining sustainable economic development with effective environmental protection. This priority was reflected in many aspects of the department’s work relating to the EPBC Act in 2011-12.
International interest in Australia’s environment was highlighted by a joint monitoring mission by the World Heritage Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in March 2012. The department coordinated this mission, which assessed the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The mission team had over 40 meetings with stakeholders including industry, Traditional Owners and environmental groups. The findings of the mission were considered by the World Heritage Committee at its annual meeting in June 2012.
Other key developments relating to the protection of World Heritage sites during 2011-12 included:
- baiting on Macquarie Island, which has significantly reduced rabbits and rodents and led to the re-establishment of tern nesting and the regrowth of the previously lush vegetation cover
- provision of $20 million for the protection and promotion of the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens in Melbourne.
The Australian Government is committed to ensuring that the EPBC Act continues to fully meet Australia’s environmental protection and sustainable development needs. The Independent Review of the Operation of the EPBC Act and the Australian Government’s response to the review’s final report was announced in August 2011 by the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the Hon. Tony Burke MP. The review emphasised the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and duplications within and across jurisdictions. Both the review and the minister confirmed the continuing importance of delivering better environmental outcomes through processes such as ‘one-time’ strategic assessments.
This approach was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). It shaped the department’s work on developing and refining cooperative arrangements between the Commonwealth and other jurisdictions, and on progressing the Australian Government’s National Environment Law Reform package.
The EPBC Act enables the Australian Government and the states and territories to cooperate on environmental impact assessments and approvals under bilateral agreements, subject to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities being satisfied that agreements meet the objectives and requirements of the EPBC Act. COAG agreed in April 2012 to fast-track the completion of these arrangements, with all agreements to be completed by March 2013. During 2011-12 the department supported the minister in finalising a new bilateral agreement between the Commonwealth and Western Australia, and in clarifying the roles of the Commonwealth and Queensland under their existing agreement. As of 30 June 2012, bilateral agreements were in place between the Commonwealth and all jurisdictions except New South Wales. Further information on bilateral agreements is covered in Section 2.1.
The department placed a major emphasis during 2011-12 on progressing the broad regulatory reform package detailed by the minister in August 2011. This work included:
- the development of amendments to the EPBC Act
- progressing the regulatory reforms endorsed by COAG
- investigating options to increase the protection of national parks.
Further information on these reforms is in Section 3 of this report.
An important part of the EPBC Act’s protective framework is the identification 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 2011-12, the minister made listing decisions for 15 species and six ecological communities. These decisions included adding new listings for six species and six ecological communities. Five species were down-listed to a lower category of threat, and two were up-listed to a higher category of threat. As at 30 June 2012, 1791 species, 50 ecological communities and 19 key threatening processes were listed under the EPBC Act. Four hundred and sixty recovery plans were in place during 2011-12, including 27 plans that were made or adopted in that period. One hundred and twenty-four recovery plans were in preparation as at 30 June 2012.
The Australian Government continued to progress the alignment of Commonwealth, state and territory listings in 2011-12. A potential new model to further progress and improve threatened species list alignment was developed in consultation with all jurisdictions. It is planned to finalise this model in 2012-13. This work aligns with one of the priorities identified by COAG at its April2012 meeting.
The EPBC Act enhances the way in which Australia’s Ramsar wetlands are managed and protected, and has established a process for identifying Ramsar wetlands and encourages best practice management through nationally consistent management principles. As of 30 June 2012 Australia had 64 Ramsar wetlands that cover around 8.1 million hectares. No Ramsar sites were added in 2011-12.
The department continued to assess large, complex and economically significant projects from all industry sectors under the EPBC Act in 2011-2012. The department received 412 new referrals in 2011-12, and 132 referrals were determined to be controlled actions requiring further assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. A total of 151 referrals were determined not to be controlled actions, and 94 referrals were determined not to be controlled actions subject to their being undertaken in a particular manner. Thirty-five per cent of proposals referred under the EPBC Act in 2011-12 were determined to require environmental impact assessment, compared with 38 per cent in 2010-11.
In 2011-12, 75 proposals were approved under the EPBC Act, a decrease on the 103 proposals approved in 2010-11. In 2011-12, 86 per cent of all statutory decisions under the EPBC Act were made within the statutory timeframes, compared with 90 per cent in 2010-11 and 94 per cent in 2009-10. This reflected the complexity of issues raised by many of the proposals considered under the EPBC Act in 2011-12 together with an increase in the number of other statutory requests such as those for statement of reasons, reconsiderations and variations to approvals (61 in 2010-11 compared with 78 in 2011-12), many of which were resource intensive.
In addition to the assessment framework it provides for individual projects, the EPBC Act allows for strategic assessments that consider matters of national environmental significance at a landscape or regional scale. This allows for individual future developments to proceed without further assessment if they are consistent with an approved policy, plan or program. Strategic assessments streamline Commonwealth and state processes, and achieve environmental sustainability by considering environmental assets at the strategic landscape scale. This strategic and streamlined approach is consistent with that endorsed by COAG in 2011-12. The Commonwealth entered into four new strategic assessments in 2011-12, including a comprehensive strategic assessment for developments and activities that may impact on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. In 2011-12 the minister endorsed and/or approved three strategic assessments, including an assessment for growth centres in Western Sydney.
The department progressed the development of new regional networks of Commonwealth marine reserves as part of the marine bioregional planning process. These reserves will protect examples of Australia’s diverse marine ecosystems and will help meet Australia’s international and national commitments to establish a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas by 2012. All marine reserve proposals were finalised by 30 June 2012 prior to the government commencing the statutory process to proclaim the new reserves under the EPBC Act. Processes to develop management plans under the EPBC Act for the new Commonwealth marine reserve networks will commence in 2012-13 after the new reserves have been proclaimed. The department’s work on the marine reserves network underlines the importance of the EPBC Act to the management of Australia’s environment.
The department takes a strategic and active approach to ensuring compliance with the EPBC Act. The department formally adopted a new Compliance and Enforcement Policy specific to the EPBC Act in February 2012. The department’s compliance and enforcement activities are undertaken under a Compliance Audit Plan, which involves both a Random Program and a Strategic Audit Program (based on higher environmental risk). The department also works closely with other Commonwealth, state and territory regulatory and enforcement agencies in investigating and prosecuting potential breaches of the EPBC Act.
Operation CETUS formed a highlight of the department’s compliance and enforcement work during 2011-12. This joint national operation by Australian Government and state conservation and environment agencies aimed to protect migrating whales from undue disturbance and enforces whale-approach limits, particularly at popular whale-watching hotspots. As well as compliance and enforcement activities, Operation CETUS promoted responsible whale-watching practice and raised awareness about the national guidelines for whale watching. Further information on this operation is in Section 2.3.
The department considers all allegations of non-compliance under the EPBC Act. The 448 incidents examined by the department in 2011-12 represent a decline from the 466 incidents examined in 2010-11 and 532 incidents examined in 2009-10. This may be attributed to the department’s increased involvement in proactive enforcement and awareness-raising with key stakeholders, and the escalation of enforcement activities in response to serious contraventions of national environmental law.
The EPBC Act contains 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. Section 2.3 details examples of the department’s use of enforcement and compliance mechanisms.
To further encourage compliance, the department engages in cooperative partnerships to build public awareness of the EPBC Act. For example, during 2011-12 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.
Further information on the department’s compliance and enforcement activities under the EPBC Act is in Section 1.3, in relation to Commonwealth marine areas, and in Section 2.3 in relation to all other activities.
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 Act. Departmental publications produced in 2011-12 are listed in Appendix C of this report.