Australia's World Heritage properties are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
The EPBC Act provides automatic protection for World Heritage properties and imposes substantial civil and criminal penalties on a person who takes an action that has, will have or is likely to have, a significant impact on the world heritage values of a declared World Heritage property.
The EPBC Act sets out an environmental impact assessment process for proposed actions that will, or are likely to, have a significant impact on the world heritage values of a declared World Heritage property. This process allows the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Water Resources to grant or refuse approval to take an action, and to impose conditions on the taking of an action.
All properties that have been inscribed on the World Heritage List are automatically 'declared World Heritage properties' and are therefore protected. The EPBC Act also gives the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Water Resources the power to declare other properties where:
- the property has been nominated for, but not yet inscribed on the World Heritage List or
- the property has not been nominated for World Heritage Listing but the Minister believes that the property contains world heritage values that are under threat.
Historically, the protection and management of many of Australia's World Heritage properties has involved a cooperative approach between the Australian Government and State Governments, with relevant State agencies taking responsibility for on-ground management. The EPBC Act creates a mechanism for the Australian Government and a State to enter bilateral agreements to achieve the requirements of the Act and to remove duplication of regulatory processes. This provides an avenue for formalising existing cooperative arrangements through Australian Government accreditation of State World Heritage management plans and environmental impact assessment processes. In order to be accredited, the relevant State plan or process must be consistent with the Australian World Heritage management principles, which are regulations made under the EPBC Act.
The EPBC Act continues the existing joint management arrangements between the Australian Government and the traditional owners of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu World Heritage properties. The EPBC Act replaces and significantly improves on the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983 (WHPC Act). The WHPC Act enabled the Australian Government to make regulations to protect Australia's World Heritage properties from threatening actions identified in the regulations. This legislation did not provide automatic protection of the natural and cultural heritage values of Australia's World Heritage properties and, in effect, operated as a last resort mechanism for stopping specific actions. In contrast, the EPBC ensures up-front protection and improved management for the world heritage values of Australia's World Heritage properties.