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Department of the Environment and Water Resources annual report 2006–07

Volume two
Department of the Environment and Water Resources, 2007
ISSN 1441-9335

Legislation annual reports 2006–07 (continued)

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

1. Protecting environment and heritage

1.1 Matters of national environmental significance

Matters of national environmental significance are identified under the EPBC Act as controlling provisions for actions that are likely to have significant environmental impacts upon them and therefore require assessment and approval. 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. In 2006—07, 276 matters of national environmental significance were protected through these processes. Where proposals involved Commonwealth land or agencies, the environment more generally was protected.

The most frequent controlling provision was 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 65 proposed actions, or 89 per cent of all actions determined to require approval. Listed migratory species were determined to be a controlling provision for 23 proposals. There were 17 controlled action decisions where the ecological character of a Ramsar wetland was the matter protected, and 12 proposed actions where world heritage values were determined to be a controlling provision. There were five decisions where the controlling provision was the Commonwealth marine environment; these were projects relating to tourism, recreation and conservation management, energy generation and supply, and mining.

More than one matter protected under Part 3 of the EPBC Act was determined to be a controlling provision for 35 of the 73 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 the Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk. The relevant matters in that case were listed threatened species and communities and the world heritage values of the Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves World Heritage Area.

A total of 44 actions were approved in 2006—07 with a range of conditions to ensure that matters of national environmental significance and the environment were protected. No proposals were approved without conditions and one proposal was rejected. At 30 June 2007, 110 actions affecting matters protected by the EPBC Act were under assessment; that is, a decision had been made on the assessment approach, but the assessment was still to be completed. These ongoing assessments include 39 assessments conducted under bilateral agreements and 25 assessments conducted under state or territory processes that have been accredited on a case-by-case basis.

The focus of the EPBC Act on protecting matters of national environmental significance continues to positively influence the way in which developers design projects, using best practice methods and measures 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 2006—07, three actions were determined to require approval under the EPBC Act because of likely significant impacts on the environment on Commonwealth land, and a single action by an Australian Government agency was determined to be a controlled action.

One of these actions, the installation of a 70 kilometre optical fibre cable between Jabiru and Rikurdji in the Northern Territory, was deemed a controlled action under the EPBC Act on 14 July 2006. The proposal was considered likely to have a significant impact on the environment, including impacts on Aboriginal cultural values related to archaeology and sacred sites, and impacts on the natural environment through clearing vegetation and the introduction of invasive species. The optical fibre cable installation was approved on 5 June 2007. The proponent is required to provide an environmental management plan for approval, which minimises impacts on environmentally sensitive areas, ensures the route avoids sacred sites and archaeological areas, and prevents the spread and introduction of weeds. The proponent will also provide an offset to Parks Australia North to assist in the management of weeds within Kakadu National Park.

Another example of an action considered likely to have a significant impact on Commonwealth land was the Nobbys Lighthouse redevelopment, Newcastle, New South Wales. That proposal involves the construction of a restaurant and other facilities around Nobbys Lighthouse, which is the earliest surviving lighthouse in New South Wales and is on the Commonwealth Heritage List for its historic values. The proposal is currently under EPBC Act assessment.

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 in relation to authorisation for specific actions, where those actions are likely to have a significant impact on the environment. Actions on which advice has been sought have involved proposals on Commonwealth airports, dredging sea bed materials and sea dumping.

In 2006—07 advice was sought under section 160 on 11 occasions. These projects included the proposal to build an office building complex at Canberra International Airport, Australian Capital Territory. Advice was provided to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services that there were no significant environmental concerns associated with this project.

1.3 Intergovernmental cooperation

Bilateral agreements

In January 2007 an environmental impact assessment bilateral agreement under the EPBC Act was entered into with the New South Wales Government. The agreement will allow the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Water Resources to rely on specified environmental impact assessment processes of the State of New South Wales in assessing actions under the EPBC Act.

The assessment bilateral agreement with the Northern Territory was reviewed, prior to its expiry on 30 May 2007 after five years of operation. The review demonstrated that the agreement was meeting its objectives and recommended that the agreement continue to operate. As a result of the review report, minor amendments were made and the bilateral agreement continued.

Assessment bilateral agreements are also in place with Western Australia, Tasmania, and Queensland. The agreements ensure that 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. Australian Government scrutiny is maintained through the minister still being required to grant approval and set conditions for the projects. This year 51 projects were assessed under a bilateral agreement.

Development of assessment bilateral agreements with the other states is progressing. In late June 2007 public comments were sought on an assessment bilateral agreement the Commonwealth proposes to enter into with the South Australian Government. In the absence of an assessment bilateral agreement, 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. This year 28 projects were assessed under state or territory processes accredited on a case-by-case basis.

Heritage management

As a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, the Australian Government cooperates closely with state authorities to ensure that the protection and promotion of state-managed world heritage properties is consistent with Australia's undertakings under the convention. The Australian Government is working with state authorities to review existing world heritage management plans for the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and to develop a world heritage strategic plan for the Greater Blue Mountains. For the Tasmanian Wilderness, the mid-term review of the 1999 management plan has progressed and the revised draft plan is being finalised for public comment in the latter half of 2007. The draft zoning regime has progressed as part of the review of the Wet Tropics management plan. For the Greater Blue Mountains, the new strategic plan has been approved by the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Authority Management Committee, and will soon be considered for approval for publication by the relevant Australian and New South Wales government ministers.

The department is also cooperating with state authorities and owners on management plans for the following places in the World Heritage List and/or National Heritage List: the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens World Heritage Area (Victoria), Richmond Bridge (Tasmania), the Batavia Shipwreck Site and Survivor Camps Area 1629 — Houtman Abrolhos (Western Australia), Recherche Bay North-east Peninsula (Tasmania), and Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps (Baiames Ngunnhu), New South Wales.

Species Information Partnerships

Through Species Information Partnerships the department, with the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, continued to work for consistency between lists held by the Australian Government and those held by the states and territories, and to increase the exchange of information to support the listing and recovery of threatened species.

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

In 2006—07, information provided by the states and territories under the agreements supported listing decisions under the EPBC Act for nine South Australian species, 28 Northern Territory species and 37 Western Australian species. Species Information Partnership agreements were also signed with Tasmania and Victoria, and listing decisions under the EPBC Act are expected to be made as a result of these agreements.

Marine

To assist the bioregional planning process for the Commonwealth marine environment, a memorandum of understanding was signed in 2006—07 between the department and relevant Western Australian Government agencies to facilitate marine bioregional planning in the North-west and South-west marine regions. In addition, a financial agreement was entered into with the Western Australian Marine Science Institution to conduct an inventory of marine and coastal research for north Western Australia. The project involves Western Australian Government agencies, research and tertiary education institutions, and the private sector.

The February 2007 amendments to the EPBC Act inserted Schedule 1 into the Act which enables the detention of non-citizens suspected of EPBC Act offences. Such issues commonly arise at the Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve. Regulations for the detention arrangements are being drafted, and arrangements are being made with other Australian Government agencies to enable streamlined implementation. These new detention arrangements are expected to become operational in 2007—08.

To strengthen enforcement at the Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve, $31.7 million funding over four years was secured by the Australian Customs Service to procure a vessel to provide a constant enforcement presence. The vessel will have Customs officers on board, all of whom are ex-officio wardens.

National Partnership Approach for the Sustainable Harvest of Marine Turtles and Dugongs in Australia

Two meetings of the National Partnership Approach for the Sustainable Harvest of Marine Turtles and Dugongs in Australia were held in 2006—07. The meetings were well attended by Indigenous members from the Northern Territory, Torres Strait and Queensland and government members from the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts, Queensland Environment Protection Agency, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Torres Strait Regional Authority and Australian Government Departments of the Environment and Water Resources and Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. A number of themes were identified to provide the focus for future meetings. These themes included building strong partnerships between Indigenous communities, government agencies, researchers, conservation groups and other stakeholders; having a holistic approach to management as this leads to wider social, cultural and economic benefits for communities; recognising that the results of management actions will only be evident over long timeframes, both from an ecological and community perspective; addressing and minimising, wherever possible, non-harvest impacts on turtle and dugong; and sharing case studies and information on existing and potential management actions.

The second meeting established a working group of Indigenous members to provide strategic direction for the partnership. The department will provide the secretariat for the working group.

1.4 Assessment and approval process

Referrals

In 2006—07, 347 actions were referred to the Australian Government for a decision on whether approval was required under the EPBC Act. Approximately 15 per cent of these referrals were the result of compliance action taken by the department. A total of 74 actions (73 after reconsideration by the minister or his delegate) were determined to be controlled actions and a further 74 (75 after reconsideration) were determined not to be controlled actions if taken in a particular manner. A total 188 of these referrals were deemed not to be controlled actions and required no further assessment.

Profile of actions referred under the EPBC Act

As in previous years the largest number of referrals came from Queensland, which continues to have the highest number of controlled action decisions. This reflects the continuing development along the Queensland coast, potentially impacting on the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics world heritage properties and a number of Ramsar wetlands.

Referrals were most common in the residential development, mining, and water management and use sectors.

Meeting statutory timeframes (referrals)

The EPBC Act allows 20 business days from receipt of a referral for deciding whether an action requires approval. This includes a 10-day public comment period. This year there were 73 late decisions, or 22 per cent of the total. This compares with 64 late decisions last year (19 per cent of the total). Referral decisions were late an average 3.28 business days in 2006—07, compared to an average 3.4 business days in 2005—06.

Where the statutory timeframe was not met, this was due to delays in obtaining sufficient information to make a decision and the complexity of proposals received.

The 20-day timeframe for decision-making on referrals was suspended 45 times in 2006—07. This was due to the need to seek further information before a decision could be made.

Decision trends—particular manner' decisions

The EPBC Act provides for the minister to decide that a referred proposal is not a controlled action provided it is undertaken 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.

This year 75 referrals were decided to be not-controlled actions provided they were carried out in a particular manner.

Through ongoing education, the department encourages proponents to design projects and activities in a manner that avoids impacts on matters of national environmental significance. The particular manner provision allows the minister to support this design approach. The particular manner provision promotes and supports industries and individual developments that are shifting to better environmental practices.

Case study: Capture of juvenile Tasmanian devils for conservation purposes

In January 2007 the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries and Water referred a proposal under the EPBC Act to capture Tasmanian devils to establish an 'insurance' population.

An infectious cancer, known as devil facial tumour disease, is the major threat to the survival of the Tasmanian devil. The disease was first reported in 1996 in the north-east of the state and is progressively spreading westward at approximately 10 kilometres per year. It is likely that the entire range of the species will be exposed to infection within two or three years. The disease is invariably fatal once clinical signs are observed and has led to substantial population declines (of up to 90 per cent) in infected populations.

It is likely that the disease will result in local population extinctions. As a consequence, this once common and widespread species is now listed as a vulnerable species under the EPBC Act and state legislation.

The referred proposal involved the capture of up to 30 newly independent juvenile Tasmanian devils from a currently disease free area in north-west Tasmania to establish a population for the conservation of the species. Following capture, animals were physically examined and suitable individuals transferred to a quarantine facility managed by the Department of Primary Industries and Water at Taroona, Hobart. They will be used to establish a disease free population at Maria Island or another suitable location.

To reduce the risk of capturing diseased animals, the capture programme maintained a buffer of at least 50 kilometres from the known western extremity of the disease front. Trapping was conducted across a large area (approximately 4,000 square kilometres) to maximise genetic diversity. As soon as a suitable juvenile devil was caught at a particular location, the trap was relocated to reduce the chance of capturing siblings. The entire trapline was moved every three to four days to minimise the impact on local populations.

These measures were all specified in the referral. Taking these into account, the minister considered that the capture of a relatively small number of juvenile Tasmanian devils over a large area with a population estimated to be in excess of 1,000 individuals would not have a significant impact on the species and therefore the proposal did not require EPBC Act approval provided it was undertaken in the manner specified.

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 2006—07 the department handled eight such requests.

Reconsideration of decisions

In 2006—07, seven referral decisions were reconsidered (by the minister or his delegate) and four decisions were revoked and a new decision made. The number of reconsiderations is small in comparison with the total number of referral decisions and, through consultation with key stakeholders and interest groups, the department ensures that reconsiderations maintain the transparency and public accountability inherent in the overall framework of the EPBC Act. Reconsideration can be justified where there is substantial new information on likely impacts on matters protected by the EPBC Act or on the potential impacts of the proposed action.

Assessment of controlled actions

The assessment of potential environmental impacts of proposed actions uses the best available science, with comments 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 actions, the quality of the information already available, the level of public interest and the nature and scale of the likely impacts. Decisions on the level of assessment for controlled actions in 2006—07 are summarised in Table 6 at Appendix 1.

In 2006—07 the department completed 23 assessments following finalisation of relevant documentation by the proponent. A further 15 assessments were completed by states and territories. Decisions on the assessment approach and the status of the assessments are summarised in Table 6 at Appendix 1.

Meeting statutory timeframes (assessments)

Eleven out of 53 decisions on the appropriate assessment approach (21 per cent of the total) were made outside the statutory timeframe in 2006—07. The main factor contributing to late decisions was delays in obtaining sufficient information to make the decision.

The EPBC Act requires the minister to prepare written guidelines for the content of public environment reports and environmental impact statements within 20 business days from the date on which the assessment approach was decided. During 2006—07 the department prepared guidelines for four public environment reports. No guidelines for environmental impact statements were finalised.

Once the minister has accepted final preliminary documentation, a finalised public environment report, or a finalised environmental impact statement, an assessment report or recommendation report must be prepared for the minister prior to the end of the period specified in section 130 of the EPBC Act. In 2006—07 there were 12 late assessment reports out of 19 for assessment by preliminary documentation, two out of two for assessment by public environment report and one out of two for assessment by environmental impact statement. Delays in these cases mostly resulted from the need to adequately consider and test complex technical issues, and to ensure relevant jurisdictions were satisfied with the guidelines when conducting joint assessments with the states.

Approvals

In 2006—07, 44 controlled actions were approved; a further six were awaiting decision at 30 June 2007. Conditions attached to approvals include managing the environmental impacts of construction, providing compensatory habitat to offset impacts on listed species, monitoring programmes to ensure water quality is maintained, independent audits, and measures for managing impacts on cetacean species.

Meeting statutory timeframes (approvals)

Sixteen out of 45 approval decisions (36 per cent of the total) were made outside the statutory timeframe in 2006—07. These delays were due to the need for ongoing consultation with proponents/states over the content of final approval conditions. In a number of cases, additional independent work was also commissioned to help inform decisions.

Post referral and approval verification, monitoring and auditing

The department closely monitors projects referred and approved under the Act to ensure compliance with approval conditions as well as compliance with other decisions involving environmental commitments made by proponents e.g. 'particular manner decisions'. The department has implemented a risk based random compliance audit programme and is developing a strategic audit programme.

The department also responds to all incident reports received from internal and external sources that may involve potential or actual contraventions of the EPBC Act.

Case study: Refusal of mining expansion on Christmas Island

A proposal to extend phosphate mining on Christmas Island required approval under the EPBC Act due to the potential for significant impacts on the environment. Christmas Island is home to 16 threatened and migratory species listed under the Act. Over 60 per cent of the island is set aside as national park, containing what is thought to be the world's largest and most diverse land crab community. The island is known around the world for its red crab migration.

In April 2007 the minister decided to refuse the action because of unacceptable impacts on the flora and fauna of Christmas Island, including its unique rainforest.

The minister took into account evidence that the future survival of a number of species on the island would be seriously threatened by expanded mining operations. Independent analysis suggested that an extension of mining works would most likely contribute to the extinction of a number of threatened species, including the critically endangered Christmas Island pipistrelle bat, and adversely impact on the remaining populations of the endangered Abbott's booby and Christmas Island frigatebird. Land clearing required for any expanded mining operations would also result in the permanent loss of primary rainforest on the island.

The decision took into account the principles of ecologically sustainable development. Economic benefits provided by the expanded mining would only be short-term (three to five years); however, the environmental impacts would be irreversible and could impact on the viability of alternative sustainable industries. The extension was opposed by the Christmas Island Chamber of Commerce who argued the need for Christmas Island to move to a new economic base.

In refusing the proposed extension, the minister emphasised that the Australian Government remained committed to a strong economic future for Christmas Island and will continue its substantial support to the island and its people.

Case study: Review of the seismic exploration and whales policy

During the year the minister released for public comment a revised Policy Statement on the Interaction between Offshore Seismic Exploration and Whales. Developed with the involvement of the oil and gas industry, conservation groups and Australia's best whale research scientists, the comprehensive policy reflects new scientific knowledge and operational experience since the first edition was released in 2001.

Seismic surveying (i.e. the use of high-intensity sound and recorders) is widely used by the oil and gas exploration industry to map geological structures below the sea floor and to identify areas where oil and gas deposits may occur. However, human-made sound in the marine environment (including sound produced by seismic surveys) is a concern because of its effect on whales and dolphins, which use sound for hunting, navigation and communication.

The policy statement provides practical standards to minimise the risk of acoustic injury to whales from seismic operations, and advises the seismic industry on their legal responsibilities under the EPBC Act. It reinforces Australia's position as a world leader in whale protection and research and represents global best practice in minimising the potential impacts of seismic survey activities on whales.

Changes to the policy from the 2001 edition include:

The policy will be immediately implemented by the Australian seismic exploration industry with a view to refining the policy based on operational experience and public comments (due 31 August 2007).

Fisheries assessment and approval processes

Under the EPBC Act, the department 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 Commonwealth-managed fisheries and all state and territory fisheries with an export component are required to undergo assessment.

In 2006—07, 15 fisheries were comprehensively assessed, including two Commonwealth-managed fisheries and 13 state-managed fisheries in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. Two were assessed for the first time and 13 for the second time. All received export approval.

Eleven short-term wildlife trade operations were reviewed and extended, allowing export of product from the fisheries to continue while their management arrangements improved.

A total of 122 fisheries have been declared as either exempt from the export provisions of the EPBC Act for five years, or as approved wildlife trade operations for periods of up to three years.

As a result of the fisheries assessment process, recommendations were agreed between the department and fisheries management agencies that require the agencies to demonstrate improved environmental performance, and actively enhance the ecologically sustainable management of fisheries in the short to medium term. The outcomes are published in detailed reports on the department's website at www.environment.gov.au/coasts/fisheries/index.html.

In 2007—08 it is expected that 39 fisheries will be assessed under the EPBC Act for the second time.

Wildlife trade

The department has continued to improve the wildlife trade permitting process in recent years. One area of improvement has been the introduction of a new product called multiple consignment permits. These allow the permit holder to make a number of export and import consignments for a limited period of time.

The department has also developed a more effective compliance framework, whilst also assisting legitimate industries to trade efficiently. The success of the streamlined system is reflected in the graph below. It shows a significant reduction in the number of permits needed by industry. At the same time a substantial increase in the number of trade transactions (exports and imports) has occurred. The reduction in permit assessments has allowed the department to develop an improved permit verification system for compliance with Part 13A of the EPBC Act.

Wildlife trade permits and transactions

Wildlife trade permits and transactions

1.5 Transparency and public awareness

Increasing stakeholder and public awareness

The department places a high priority on increasing stakeholder and public awareness of the EPBC Act and has developed a world-class internet site which provides information about the Act to meet the different needs of stakeholders.

In 2006—07 the department upgraded databases and websites supporting the EPBC Act, improving both public access to information and transparency of decision-making. The EPBC Act website was upgraded to make it easier to use and to streamline access to key information.

Following the amendment of the EPBC Act in February 2007 stakeholder information sessions on the impact of the amendments to the EPBC Act were held in every state and territory capital city. The 14 sessions were presented by departmental officers. Over 360 people attended representing approximately 100 non-government organisations and state and territory government agencies.

Wildlife trade

The department continued to raise awareness about international wildlife trade. Activities in 2006—07 included:

Listed threatened species and ecological communities

The department continued to publish new nominations of threatened species, threatened ecological communities and key threatening processes on its website, and to provide a formal two-month public comment period. The website also provides information on amendments to the lists of threatened species, threatened ecological communities and key threatening processes. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee's advice to the minister is also published.

The department hosts an online natural resource management tool for people to search for conservation advice on threatened species and ecological communities by specific natural resource management regions. This information helps regional planning bodies, community groups, landholders and other stakeholders to plan activities that can be undertaken to assist the conservation and recovery of newly listed threatened species and ecological communities. Information sheets on listed ecological communities also include this advice.

The department continued its Communities for Communities newsletter to keep the public informed about threatened ecological communities nominated for listing, listings made under the EPBC Act, and information and resources available on the department's website. Community groups are encouraged to use Communities for Communities as an information source when compiling their own newsletters.

Migratory and marine biodiversity

Recovery plans for listed marine species were developed and implemented in conjunction with relevant representatives from Australian, state and territory governments, industry, non-government organisations, and the Indigenous and research communities, who advise the department on these plans. In 2006—07 advice was provided on listed shark and marine turtle species.

Marine bioregional planning

The department produced information products on developments in marine bioregional planning under section 176 of the EPBC Act. The products covered marine bioregional planning in the South-west, North-west, East and North marine regions; information on ecological features; and details of the marine bioregional planning process.

Discussions with key interest groups commenced in late 2006 on the South-west Marine Region to set out the marine bioregional planning process and opportunities for input from stakeholders during development of the plan. In addition, scientists with expertise in the South-west Marine Region are providing input to develop a better understanding of the region's marine ecosystems and environment.

Heritage

Public consultations were held on the proposed listing of the Dampier Archipelago in the National Heritage List, including an additional public comment period announced by the minister on 29 September 2006, under section 324H of the EPBC Act. The department sought public submissions on the boundary proposed by the Australian Heritage Council and management ramifications arising from that boundary. Over 50 submissions were received. The Dampier Archipelago, including Burrup Peninsula, was included in the National Heritage List on 3 July 2007.

Presentations and workshops

In 2006—07 the department continued to hold information sessions around Australia on request from local and state government agencies and community groups interested in understanding more about the EPBC Act. The department also supported activities to enhance understanding of the EPBC Act for the community, farmers and rural stakeholders.

Strategic assessments and regional planning

The development of strategic regional plans on a trial basis in selected regions of Australia continued in 2006—07. Pilot regions were initially chosen because of the high level of EPBC Act referral and compliance activity, current growth rates and development pressures, and the presence of matters of national environmental significance. Strategic regional plans will increase certainty for both proponents and the department's staff about the application of the EPBC Act, and increase understanding of the regional and cumulative impacts on matters of national environmental significance in given regions. Planning in three regions progressed in 2006—07. They are:

A comprehensive and consultative planning process with state and local government agencies and scientific experts has been a key element in developing these regional plans. An account of major milestones follows:

Southern Swan Coastal Plain, Western Australia: This pilot draft regional plan is near completion. Preliminary discussions are under way to use the plan as a platform for bilateral agreement with the Western Australian Government for cooperative approaches to planning and environmental approvals. If successful, this would allow for EPBC Act issues in the region to be dealt with through the Western Australian planning system, and would reduce the need for Australian Government environmental approvals. In 2007—08 the department will finalise the strategic regional plan and continue discussions with the state government and local councils in the region to consider the alignment of planning processes and requirements.

Cardwell and Johnstone Shires, far north Queensland: The focal point in this region has been the Mission Beach development zone which is a hotspot for referral activity and compliance investigations related to potentially significant impacts on threatened species such as the cassowary and on the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef world heritage areas. The planning work will help identify environmental conservation areas and land predominately allocated to accommodate urban development in the state government's draft Far North Queensland 2025 Statutory Regional Plan, which is due to be released for public comment in April 2008.

Magnetic Island, Queensland: At the invitation of the Townsville City Council, a departmental staff member was seconded to the council to foster a strong intergovernmental relationship and gain a greater understanding of the council's planning processes and framework. This also assisted identification of areas for future cooperation and alignment of processes. In addition, the department, with state agencies, scientific experts and other key stakeholders, developed a draft strategic regional plan for Magnetic Island. The plan is expected to be finalised in 2007—08 and the department will negotiate with the local council to align planning processes and requirements where possible.

Strategic state and local planning

The department is working closely with the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change to ensure EPBC Act matters of national environmental significance are adequately protected in biodiversity assessments of regional growth areas and local government areas of NSW. Plans or policies such as local environment plans that achieve a 'maintain or improve' standard for biodiversity matters can be 'biodiversity certified' under NSW environmental legislation and avoid further environmental assessment under state processes. Where those plans also provide adequate protection against significant impacts for EPBC Act matters of national environmental significance, the federal minister can accredit the plan or make an approval bilateral agreement thereby avoiding the need for a separate EPBC Act referral. Currently, the department is in preliminary discussion to assess the merit of biodiversity certification for proposals in the Albury Shire and Sydney Region growth centres.

On request, the department assists local and state governments throughout Australia in reviewing their planning arrangements to improve strategic environmental planning and protection outcomes in relation to the EPBC Act.

National Farmers' Federation EPBC Act Information Officer

The National Farmers' Federation EPBC Act Information Officer provided valuable assistance to many farmers and rural stakeholders needing legal certainty in relation to the EPBC Act. This included presentations to the National Farmers' Federation, state farming organisations, catchment management groups, commodity groups and state and territory government agencies in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. From February 2007 the role was expanded to include provision of a direct liaison point (for National Farmers' Federation members) to the entire department. This expanded position creates numerous opportunities for rural stakeholders, including:

The position is seconded to the National Farmers' Federation in the Australian Capital Territory.

Advisory committees

The EPBC Act established three committees to assist the minister in the administration of the Act. The functions, terms of reference and current membership for each of these committees are listed in Appendix 3 of this report.

Threatened Species Scientific Committee

The Threatened Species Scientific Committee is established under subsection 502(3) of the EPBC Act. The committee's role is to advise the minister on amending and updating the 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 committee met four times in 2006—07: 5—7 September 2006, 28—29 November 2006, 6—8 March 2007 and 26—28 June 2007. The committee focused on assessing the conservation status of a number of Western Australian and Tasmanian species as part of the Species Information Partnerships with those states. The conservation status of many of these species differs between the EPBC Act and state legislation. Information to support the committee's assessments was provided by the relevant state governments.

The committee re-assessed the conservation status of several other species, including the orange-bellied parrot and the Christmas Island pipistrelle. It also provided advice to the minister on the eligibility for listing of a number of nominated species and ecological communities.

In the latter part of 2006—07 the committee focused on drafting new procedures to implement the amendments to the EPBC Act. The committee prioritised public nominations received during the first call for nominations under the amended EPBC Act.

Biological Diversity Advisory Committee

The Biological Diversity Advisory Committee met three times in 2006—07.

On 20 November 2006, the committee considered ways in which climate change may influence how invasive species threaten biodiversity. The key message was that climate change is likely to result in invasive species becoming more opportunistic in competing with native species. The committee met again on 21 November 2006 and agreed that it would continue to progress key topics identified in previous meetings, including the role of climate change on invasive species, taxonomy and incentive-based programmes to support biological diversity outcomes.

The committee met on 25 January 2007 to formulate its response to the review of the 1996 National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity. The key recommendations made by the committee included in-principle support for a national environmental stewardship programme, of which the strategy should take full advantage; more detailed and explicit recognition of major threats to biodiversity (e.g. climate change, spread of both established and emerging invasive pest species); improved monitoring and evaluation practices and increased funding for taxonomy resources.

Indigenous Advisory Committee

The Indigenous Advisory Committee meets at least twice a year. Meetings are rotated around states and regions. In 2006—07 the committee met in October 2006 at Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory and in April 2007 in Canberra.

The committee advises the minister on the operation of the EPBC Act, taking into account the significance of Indigenous peoples' knowledge of land management and the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The committee is the key advisory group for the department's new Working on Country programme.

In 2006—07 the committee provided advice on:

Australian Heritage Council

The Australian Heritage Council is established under section 4 of the Australian Heritage Council Act 2003. It is the Australian Government's principal adviser on heritage matters.

In 2006—07 the Australian Heritage Council met seven times. It held face-to-face meetings in Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, Portland (Victoria), and Parramatta (New South Wales), and also held a teleconference. The council provided the minister with 21 assessments for the National Heritage List, one for the Commonwealth Heritage List and five for the List of Overseas Places of Historic Significance to Australia. The council also considered several strategic issues related to its functions, including raising the profile of the National Heritage List and the Productivity Commission's report, Conservation of Australia's Historic Heritage Places.

The Australian Heritage Council produced a report on its first three years of operation, outlining its role in the successful implementation of the new national heritage system. The council presented the report to the minister under section 24A of the Australian Heritage Council Act 2003 and the report was tabled in parliament on 24 May 2007.