Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004
ISSN 1441 9335
Review of performance: Outcome 1 - Environment (continued)
Managing environmental assessments and approvals
The Department administers the referral, assessment and approval provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
In 2003-04, the Department:
- processed assessments and approvals for 'matters of national environmental significance'; and
- promoted understanding of the Act.
A detailed report on the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is included in this annual report under 'Other reports'.
The Approvals and Wildlife Division contributed to this output.
Matters of national environmental significance
To protect the matters of national environmental significance defined in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
Assessments and approvals
Many types of development activities can potentially have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance. Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, these matters are:
- World Heritage properties;
- Ramsar wetlands;
- nationally threatened species and ecological communities;
- migratory species;
- Commonwealth marine areas;
- national heritage places; and
- nuclear actions.
In addition, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 provides controls for activities undertaken by the Australian Government or involving Commonwealth land, which can potentially have an impact on the environment.
Under the Act, the Department operates an environment assessment process. A person who proposes an action can refer the proposal to the Minister. After consulting the public and reviewing relevant information, the Minister makes decisions about:
- whether the proposed action requires Ministerial approval under the Act;
- the method of assessing the impacts of the proposed action if it needs Ministerial approval; and
- whether the proposal is approved, and, if so, under what conditions.
The process is being refined continually to make it more efficient and effective, and to ensure that processes are transparent and involve the public.
During 2003-04, the Australian Government further strengthened the Act by introducing:
- a new system for protecting and managing heritage;
- provisions to deal with staged developments; and
- provisions that require actions be undertaken in the particular manner that was proposed by the proponent.
In 2003-04, the Department examined 292 proposed actions which could significantly impact on matters protected by the Act.
During 2003-04, decisions under the Act were challenged on six occasions. Legal challenge can be expected to continue until a body of legal precedent has been established.
The Department undertakes compliance and enforcement action when the necessary approvals under the Act are not obtained before carrying out an action. Compliance investigations were undertaken into 130 activities. Nine per cent of all referrals resulted from compliance matters.
The Department managed the first civil action for a breach of the environmental approvals part of the Act in the Federal Court, which found a land manager guilty for clearing and farming within the Gwydir Wetlands Ramsar site.
Promoting understanding of the Act
The Department promotes intergovernmental cooperation and works to reduce any duplication between the Australian Government and state and territory governments. As well, information, advice and assistance is given to community groups that have an interest in, or are regulated by, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
During 2003-04, the Department continued to place a high priority on increasing stakeholder and public awareness of the Act. Stakeholders participated in referrals, assessments and approvals by accessing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 web site at www.deh.gov.au/epbc. This site contains information about all aspects of the Act, including weekly information on all matters that the Act requires to be made publicly available.
An increasing number of proponents worked with the Department to ensure they incorporated effective environment protection measures in the design and management of projects. This early engagement can reduce regulatory burden, while increasing environmental performance.
To bolster its capacity to investigate and prosecute environmental crime, the Department established an Environment Investigations Unit during the year. The new unit enlarges and provides leadership for the Department's core of skilled investigative officers. It took over ongoing investigations under the Act, refined investigative procedures, and improved cross-Departmental coordination.
The Department prosecuted its first successful civil action for a breach of the environmental approvals part of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 relating to a Ramsar site.
It was apparent that the referral, assessment and approvals process faces increasing pressure due to:
- the number, complexity and sensitivity of development proposals that must be dealt with;
- increasing public expectations about the manner of protecting matters of national environmental significance; and
- an increasing number of reported non-compliance incidents that require compliance and enforcement action.
It was also apparent that ongoing post-approval requirements (for construction plans and environment management plans, monitoring, and audits) have significantly increased the volume of tasks the Department must do to fulfil its responsibilities as a regulator.
The matter of Minister for the Environment and Heritage v Queensland Conservation Council Inc, which was the Minister's appeal from the decision of Kiefel J in the 'Nathan Dam case', was concluded. In its July 2004 decision, the Federal Court confirmed the breadth of enquiry that needs to be undertaken under the Act in determining what actions require approval. This decision is expected to increase the scope and number of actions that will need assessment under the Act.
The Department upgraded the web site's search tool for matters of national environmental significance. It now includes a local government area search capability, and covers matters such as Commonwealth lands, Commonwealth heritage places and places on the Register of the National Estate.
Understanding of the Act was promoted through a range of information products. The Department also met with other Australian Government agencies, state and territory officials, Indigenous stakeholders, and industry and community groups to explain how the Act operates (a Natural Heritage Trust national investment).
Report on performance information
|'Accuracy, timeliness and comprehensiveness of advice provided to the Minister under the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999].'||Timeframes were met and policy advice met the Minister's requirements.|
|'Percentage of statutory timeframes met. Number of referrals under the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999]. Number of decisions made on referrals, assessment approaches and approvals under the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999]. Number of recommendations made in relation to environmental assessments under other relevant legislation.'||Statutory timeframes for decisions required by the Act were met on an average of 84 per cent of occasions (timeframes were met for 86 per cent of the referral decisions, 84 per cent of the assessment decisions and actions, and 81 per cent of the approval decisions), with:
|'The provision of useful and timely information that increases stakeholder and public awareness about environmental assessment and approval requirements, resulting in more effective application and administration of the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999].'||A wide range of information products is provided, including a web site that includes comprehensive information on the operation of the Act and the decisions made. Frequent face-to-face information sessions are also held.|
|'Number of training sessions and presentations conducted for external clients and stakeholders. Level of usage by external clients and stakeholders of information prepared by the Department, including the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999] home page.'||Seminars on the operation of the Act, especially in relation to the new heritage protection arrangements were held in capital cities and regional centres. Presentations on the strategic assessment of fisheries were made at national workshops. The Act's home page had 52 974 visits.|
|Appropriation||Estimated price||Revised price||Actual expenses|
|Environmental assessment and approvals - Output 1.4 (departmental)||$10.946 million||$13.878 million||$14.386 million|