EPBC Act - Protecting Australia's World Heritage properties
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), in force from 16 July 2000, enhances the management and protection of Australia's World Heritage properties.
World Heritage properties are sites that are recognised under the World Heritage Convention as being of international significance because of their outstanding natural and/or cultural values. Australia has a number of World Heritage listed properties. Find out more about them on our Australian World Heritage places page.
Some of the key improvements introduced by the EPBC Act include:
- up-front protection for World Heritage properties, rather than the last resort protection offered under previous legislation;
- a stronger and more efficient assessment and approvals process; and
- improved management for all World Heritage properties through the application of consistent World Heritage management principles and
- more robust Commonwealth/State arrangements.
Actions that require approval
The EPBC Act regulates actions that will, or are likely to, have a significant impact on the World Heritage values of a declared World Heritage property. This includes relevant actions that occur outside the boundaries of a World Heritage property.
An action that will, or is likely to, have a significant impact on the World Heritage values of a declared World Heritage property is subject to a rigorous environmental assessment and approval regime under the EPBC Act. Actions that are taken in contravention of the EPBC Act may attract a civil penalty of up to $5.5 million, or a criminal penalty of up to 7 years imprisonment, in extreme cases.
An 'action' includes a project, development, undertaking or any activity or series of activities.
What is a 'declared World Heritage property'?
All Australian properties that are on the World Heritage List are automatically 'declared World Heritage properties' and therefore are protected by the EPBC Act. The Commonwealth Minister for the Environment (the Minister) also has the power to declare other properties to be World Heritage 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.
The assessment and approval process
A person proposing to take an action that is likely to have a significant impact on the World Heritage values of a declared World Heritage property should refer the action to the Environment Minister. The Minister will decide whether the action requires approval under the EPBC Act. Administrative guidelines are available to assist proponents in determining if their actions are likely to have a significant impact on World Heritage values and so need to be referred to the Environment Minister.
If the Minister decides that the action requires approval under the EPBC Act then an environmental assessment of the action will be carried out. For the purposes of assessing actions the EPBC Act enables the Commonwealth to accredit State or Territory environmental impact assessment processes that meet appropriate criteria. If an accredited State or Territory assessment is not used then there must be a Commonwealth assessment.
After assessment the Environment Minister decides whether to approve the action and, if so, what conditions to impose to ensure the protection of World Heritage values.
In limited circumstances approval may be given on the Commonwealth's behalf by State or Territory Governments. This can occur when the Commonwealth Environment Minister has accredited a World Heritage management plan and the action is approved by a State or Territory in accordance with that plan. To be accredited for this purpose, a management plan must meet certain conditions set out in the EPBC Act. For example, a plan can be accredited only if the Commonwealth Environment Minister is satisfied that the plan:
- meets Australia's responsibilities under the World Heritage Convention; and
- will not allow the approval of actions that may have unacceptable or unsustainable impacts on the World Heritage values of the property.
A State or Territory management plan may not be accredited if the proposed accreditation is disallowed by either House of the Commonwealth Parliament.
If a proposed action is to be taken in accordance with an accredited management plan, then approval is not required under the EPBC Act and the action need not be referred to the Commonwealth Environment Minister.
Management of World Heritage properties
Many of Australia's World Heritage properties are managed and protected cooperatively between the Commonwealth Government and State Governments, with relevant State agencies taking responsibility for on-ground management. Each property usually has State legislation protecting it, in addition to Commonwealth laws. This continues under the EPBC Act.
For a World Heritage property in a State or Territory, the Commonwealth must use its best endeavours to ensure that a management plan is prepared and implemented for the property in cooperation with the relevant State or Territory. The management plan must be consistent with the World Heritage Convention and Australia's World Heritage management principles. World Heritage Management principles are set out in regulations and cover matters relevant to the preparation of management plans, the environmental assessment of actions that may affect the property and community consultation processes.
The EPBC Act continues the joint management arrangements between the Commonwealth and the traditional owners of the Uluru - Kata Tjuta and Kakadu World Heritage properties in the Northern Territory.
Other fact sheets in this series provide details about other matters of national environmental significance protected by the EPBC Act.
For more information about the EPBC Act visit the Department of Environment and Heritage's web site at www.environment.gov.au/epbc or call the Community Information Unit on 1800 803 772.