Strategic assessment of a biodiversity plan for coal mining in the Upper Hunter Valley

On 20 September 2012, the Australian Government entered into an agreement with the NSW Government to undertake a strategic assessment of a biodiversity plan for coal mining in the Upper Hunter Valley, NSW. The strategic assessment will be undertaken in accordance with national environmental law, specifically section 146 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

Why is a strategic assessment being undertaken?

The Upper Hunter Valley is expected to experience an expansion in coal mining activity over the next 20–30 years. New mining proposals are expected to require approval under national environmental law alongside the state approval processes due to the occurrence of nationally listed threatened species and ecological communities in this area.

Strategic assessments provide a sensible and flexible approach to planning, balancing development needs with environmental protection. A strategic assessment will not only benefit the environment and local communities but also industry through streamlined government environmental processes, reduced approval timeframes and the cutting of red-tape.

This strategic assessment will look at the impacts of new and expanded coal mining on biodiversity in the Upper Hunter Valley. It will document biodiversity values within the region as a whole and enable cumulative impacts to biodiversity to be considered across the indicative assessment area.

Figure 1 – Location of Upper Hunter Valley, NSW strategic assessment area

Map includes an indicative biodiversity assessment area which includes land near to the towns Singleton, Broke, Denman, Muswellbrook and Aberdeen and adjoining the Wollemi and Yengo National Parks
 Amended map of Upper Hunter strategic assessment area (PDF - 2,293 KB)

Considerable conservation benefits can be gained by taking a proactive approach to managing cumulative impacts to biodiversity in advance of inevitable project-by-project applications for future coal mining.

These benefits will include:

  • Availability of comprehensive information on biodiversity values within lease boundaries well in advance of mine planning. This should allow impacts to be avoided to the fullest extent practicable.
  • Guidelines to mitigate impacts on listed threatened species and ecological communities during the mine construction and operation phases.
  • A framework for the offsetting of unavoidable impacts including the creation of a pooled offset fund, the identification of regional priorities for investment and the promotion of innovative ways to facilitate the private supply of offsets.
  • A framework for the ecological restoration of lands at the completion of mining.

In addition, the strategic assessment offers significant efficiency savings for industry and regulators as separate Commonwealth assessment and approval will not be required and all biodiversity requirements will be clearly spelt out in the biodiversity plan.

Terms of reference

The terms of reference for this assessment were finalised on 12 December 2013.

Draft terms of reference were released for public comment for the period 31 May 2013 to 5 July 2013. The draft terms of reference were made available on the NSW Government Planning & Infrastructure website

The public submissions report, prepared by NSW, summarises the issues raised during the public comment process and how they have been addressed.

What are the next steps?

The terms of reference set the framework for the development of a biodiversity plan for coal mining in the Upper Hunter Valley (biodiversity plan) and a strategic assessment report. Both documents will be prepared by the NSW Government.

The biodiversity plan will identify and document biodiversity values within the assessment area, particularly matters of national environmental significance listed under national environmental law and endangered ecological communities and species protected under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.

The biodiversity plan will also identify mechanisms to achieve desired conservation outcomes, including through avoidance, mitigation, offset arrangements and adaptive management measures.

The strategic assessment report will assess the impacts of implementing the biodiversity plan on matters of national environmental significance, particularly any clearing of native vegetation associated with future development of coal mining operations in the lease areas of interest.

The draft biodiversity plan and strategic assessment report will both be released for public consultation (likely to be mid 2014) prior to being finalised. Provided the biodiversity plan adequately addresses the protection of matters of national environmental significance, the plan will then be considered for endorsement by the federal environment minister under national environmental law.

What happens once the plan is endorsed?

Once endorsed the minister may approve ‘classes of actions’ in accordance with the plan.

For this strategic assessment, classes of actions that will be considered for approval under national environmental law are new and expanded coal mining operations within the defined Upper Hunter indicative assessment area (see Figure 1).

Future mining applications that demonstrate consistency with the biodiversity plan and are included in an approved class of actions will not need to obtain individual approval under national environmental law.

Mining proposals will still require state assessment and approval to address other state requirements (relating to other impacts on land, water, air quality and noise and socio-economic impacts on communities). However, it is intended that classes of actions meeting the requirements of the biodiversity plan will not require further individual biodiversity assessment, according to the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.

What is the role of mining companies?

All mining companies that expect to undertake significant coal mining operations in the Upper Hunter Valley are participating in this process.

These companies are funding biodiversity assessments on mining leases and preparation of the biodiversity plan which will be written by the NSW Government. Field assessment and offsetting calculations will be undertaken by independent consultants that have been accredited to use the NSW Biodiversity Certification Assessment Methodology.

Further information