Oil and gas industry and national environment law
Australia is a country with large reserves of oil and natural gas, for which there is global demand. The federal environment department is responsible for assessing oil and gas proposals that are likely to have a significant impact on matters protected under national environment law—the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
Do oil and gas exploration projects need federal approval?
Any activity that is likely to have a significant impact on nationally protected matters, such as listed migratory or threatened species, must be assessed under national environment law. This includes oil and gas projects.
The Commonwealth marine area is also a nationally protected matter. For activities taking place in or having an impact on those areas, assessments under national environment law must consider the impact on the whole of the environment, rather than being limited to specific listed species and places.
Referred activities are subjected to a rigorous and comprehensive assessment process that includes opportunities for the public to have a say.
What happens when new exploration leases are released?
The release of exploration leases by the federal resources department does not mean that oil and gas activities automatically have federal environmental approval.
Before each annual release, the federal environment department provides advice on the environmental sensitivities in each of the proposed locations scheduled for release. The industry must consider these sensitivities when planning any future exploration and development activities in such areas. The information also guides industry on where exploration or production activities are likely to be subject to higher scrutiny and may need to be assessed under national environment law. This advice is published with the annual petroleum acreage release.
But any activity, including oil and gas exploration, likely to have a significant impact on nationally protected matters must be submitted to the federal environment department to see whether it needs further assessment under national environment law.
How are the environment and wildlife protected?
Decisions made under national environment law must be legally valid, and only proposals that will not have an unacceptable impact on nationally protected matters are allowed to go ahead.
If, after a thorough environmental assessment, a project is given approval, it will be subject to conditions to manage any potential impact on nationally protected matters.
For example, the approval of the Gorgon natural gas exploration project was subject to more than 20 conditions, including several plans to manage wildlife, ongoing monitoring of wildlife to ensure any impact could be managed quickly, a quarantine system to prevent invasive species from entering Barrow Island, and a $62.5 million contribution to a flatback turtle conservation program.
What safeguards are in place to prevent oil spills?
As well as national environment law, the industry must comply with several federal laws, including the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006, which is administered by the federal resources department. Under this legislation, companies must prepare legally-binding environmental plans, including oil spill contingency plans.
The Montara oil spill highlighted some of the challenges both the industry and government face in ensuring the best technologies, processes and practices are in place to prevent this type of incident affecting Australia’s oceans and shores, and the many people and industries that rely on them.
Since the spill, the environmental assessment process has been reviewed, and—until the Montara Inquiry findings can be considered and the government determines its response–interim measures have been put in place.
For example, every assessment of an offshore oil and gas project now considers a spill scenario of at least 11 weeks’ duration. The plans, technologies and processes a company has in place to respond to this type of spill are also the subject of greater scrutiny.
What about seismic surveys?
Offshore seismic exploration has the potential to affect whales because these species are sensitive to the lower sound frequencies produced by seismic surveys.
As with any other activity, seismic surveys require federal assessment if they are likely to have a significant impact on a nationally protected matter.
The department has published guidelines for the industry outlining ways to minimise the impacts of seismic surveys on whales.
Can I have a say about an oil and gas proposal in my region?
Yes. Any proposal submitted to the federal environment department is placed on the department’s website, and is open for public comment for 10 business days. Also, for projects that require further assessment, the department uses several different assessment methods, including environmental impact statements, all of which provide further opportunities for public comment.
Where can I get more information?
For more information go to www.environment.gov.au/epbc, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1800 803 772.
The views and opinions contained in this document are not necessarily those of the Australian Government. The contents of this document have been
compiled using a range of source materials and while reasonable care has been taken in its compilation, the Australian Government does not accept
responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the contents of this document and shall not be liable for any loss or damage that may be occasioned
directly or indirectly through the use of or reliance on the contents of the document.