Fed Govt invests $25M to clear environmental assessment backlog

The Federal Government has made a $25 million “congestion busting” investment in a bid to break through a multi-billion-dollar backlog of environmental assessments.

According to Environment Minister Sussan Ley, just 19 per cent of key assessment decision points were being made on time in the December quarter last year.

“By March 2020, we are making 87 per cent on time and the department is on track to make that figure 100 per cent by June 2020, with no relaxation of any environmental safeguards under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC),” she said.

Additionally, Ms Ley said there was a backlog of 78 overdue key decisions in December 2019.

“That backlog has already been reduced by 47 per cent and is on track to be cleared by the end of this year,” she said.

“Cutting green tape is not about removing protection for the environment – it is about getting rid of unnecessary delays – delays that currently cost environmental groups, businesses and the economy hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Ms Ley said business confidence in a balanced assessment approach makes companies more proactive in identifying and complying with environmental safeguards under the EPBC Act.

“Professor Graeme Samuel will prepare an interim report into his review of the EPBC Act by the middle of this year, and I expect he will, in the course of the review, identify a range of measures that we can take to prevent unnecessary delays and improve environmental standards,” she said.

Ms Ley added that she would be prepared to make changes ahead of the final EPBC review report, if sensible opportunities presented themselves.

“We are getting congestion out of the system and we will continue to do so as the economy comes through the COVID-19 crisis, but we will also continue to ensure that our environment is protected and that proponents comply with environmental legislation,” she said.

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NSW and Fed Govt reach new bilateral agreement under EPBC Act

Major project assessments are set to be streamlined under a new bilateral agreement between the Federal and NSW Governments.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the new Bilateral Assessment Agreement will reduce the risk of Federal and state government duplication under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, while maintaining strong environmental safeguards.

“The changes are being made within the current Act, and do not form part of the wider EPBC review under Professor Graeme Samuel,” she said.

“They help all parties to understand what is expected of them in protecting the environment and the responsibilities they face in putting forward major projects.”

The new agreement includes harmonisation of the way proponents ‘off-set’ environmental impacts through the provision of alternate habitat areas.

“The NSW Biodiversity Offsets Scheme will now apply to all projects under the Bilateral agreement, and requires companies to contribute to the Biodiversity Conservation Trust that funds appropriate environmental protections to achieve strategic biodiversity gains across the state,” Ms Ley said.

According to NSW Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes, the bilateral agreement is just one element of ongoing reforms designed to provide greater certainty, timeliness and transparency to the NSW Planning system.

“This agreement will mean environmental protections are applied more consistently than ever before to deliver better environmental outcomes,” he said.

“It will also help to achieve a single, streamlined assessment process that provides certainty for industry and investors by eliminating double-handling delays.”

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Federal Government to reform environmental tracking

The Federal Government has announced plans for a national digital transformation program, to provide greater progress transparency for major environmental projects.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said projects will be more clearly tracked, with quarterly results published on the Department of Environment and Energy website.

The program will initially commence through a partnership with the West Australian Government.

“This will mean access to one online portal to submit an application through both tiers of government, and access to a single database of biodiversity studies that can, in turn, be rolled out nationally,” Ms Ley said.

“The biodiversity database will provide better access to information, allow faster and more comprehensive data for project assessments, and provide a baseline that can be used by government to better measure conservation outcomes.”

According to Ms Ley, the partnership will lay the foundation for a national system that reduces the current 3.5 year assessment time frame.

“At the same time, we are investing $25 million in reducing unnecessary delays within the existing assessment system, including the establishment of a major projects team to ensure assessments can be completed efficiently and thoroughly in accordance with the act,” Ms Ley said.

While not specifically waste or resource recovery focused, the program will work in tandem with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999), which is currently under review.

The review’s discussion paper, released 21 November, examines whether the act remains fit for purpose, and fit for the future within the context of a changing environment.

The paper suggests the act could be amended to move towards a national standard setting approach linked more closely to outcomes.

As an example of how federal and state governments could agree to harmonised national standards, the paper cites standards for waste and site contamination under the National Environment Protection Council.

Under the review’s terms of reference, the independent reviewer must provide a report to the environment minister within 12 months of the review’s commencement.

The discussion paper is open for submissions until 14 February.

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Government launches review of Environment Protection Act

The Federal Government has launched a once in a decade review of Australia’s environmental law.

The decision aims to deliver greater certainty to business groups, farmers and environmental organisations.

Led by Monash University Professorial Fellow Graeme Samuel, the statutory review will examine whether the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) remains fit for purpose, and fit for the future within the context of a changing environment.

According to Environment Minister Sussan Ley, Professor Samuel will lead an expert panel including Bruce Martin, Wendy Craik, Erica Smyth and Andrew Macintosh.

“This review is not about ideology,” Ms Ley said.

“The one thing all sides of the environmental debate concede is that the complexities of the act are leading to unnecessary delays in reaching decisions, and to an increased focus on process rather than outcomes.”

Ms Ley said decision making delays are estimated to cost the economy roughly $300 million a year, which frustrates business and environmental groups.

“The act has been a world benchmark in environmental protection, but needs to be adapted to changes in the environment and economy,” Ms Ley said.

“I’ve asked Professor Samuel to look at how we can improve efficiency, and make clear and simple decisions that deliver strong, clear and focused environmental protection.”

Ms Ley said Professor Samuel will be releasing a discussion paper in November and begin initial stakeholder meetings shortly thereafter.

Under the review’s terms of reference, the independent reviewer must provide a report to the environment minister within 12 months of the review’s commencement.

Terms of reference include examining the act’s current operations and the extent to which objectives are being achieved. Furthermore, the reference aims to make recommendations to modernise the act, including considerations of Australia’s international environmental responsibilities and the implementation of relevant agreements between the Commonwealth, states and territories.

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