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NT government Environment Protection Bill 2019 passes in parliament

The Northern Territory government has passed an amended Environment Protection Bill that takes current environmental challenges into account.

Repealing the Environment Assessment Act 1982 and the Environmental Assessment Administrative Procedures 1984, the Environment Protection Bill 2019 passed in Parliament on September 19.

Recognising the need to reform and modernise the territory’s environmental management and protection framework, in 2016 the state government commenced a comprehensive environmental regulatory reform program.

In presenting the Bill, the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Eva Lawler, noted that the territory’s existing environmental impact assessment system had not been substantially amended since that time.

It is outdated, ambiguous, inefficient and ineffective to deliver the environmental protections that are, and should be expected in 2019, she explained.

Upon the passing of the Bill, Lawler said projects that have a significant impact on the environment will now undergo rigorous environmental assessment.

“The legislation ensures greater transparency, more certainty and delivers a system that is outcome and risk focussed. We want our children and future generations to have access to clean water, clean air, and the great territory lifestyle.

“Our government promised to take Territory on the journey and we have with extensive consultations conducted with the community and stakeholders to reach this important milestone,” Lawler said.

There had been dozens of submissions on the Bill during the reform process. In May 2019, the Legislative Assembly referred the Environment Protection Bill 2019 to the Social Policy Scrutiny Committee for inquiry.

The Social Policy Scrutiny Committee received 46 submissions to its inquiry. Submitters put forward a number of suggestions as to how the Bill might be improved, including the time for decisions on environmental approval.

One submitter expressed concern regarding the prescriptive nature of the timeframe in these clauses and the potential for unintended consequences of default provisions if actions are not undertaken in the required time.

The Environmental Defenders Office NT (EDONT) questioned why the ministerial discretion to extend the decision making timeframe beyond the 30 business days, as provided for in the exposure draft, had been removed from the Bill. EDONT noted that it considered that the minister “must retain discretion to extend the decision-making timeframe, particularly for major projects that have a high impact and for which there is considerable complex information, and thus where careful decision making is required”.

Brian Fowler, general manager for Northern Territory and sustainability as Arafura Resources, pointed out to the committee, the cost to proponents associated with delays in decision-making processes can be quite significant.

“I do not think there is a proper understanding of what it costs a proponent to sit there and wait, spinning their wheels. In Arafura’s case our sitting around time is somewhere between $350,000 and $400,000 a month. Every month that the project could be going forward, that is what it is costing our organisation to stand still. It is what we call our ‘burn rate’.

“If you can get all your approvals lined up, everything is in place, arguably you can press the button and start. For every month you are delayed, it is another $300,000 or $400,000 it is costing you,” a committee transcript from Fowler noted.

On the matter of timeframes, the committee noted that the approach taken in the Bill is consistent with the findings and recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s 2013 report on Major Project Development Assessment Processes.

Governments should develop statutory timelines that specify the maximum time that may elapse between a proponent’s assessment documentation being lodged and when the assessment agency provides its report and decision recommendation to the relevant decision maker.

A 102-page Inquiry into the Environment Protection Bill 2019, released in September 2019 by the Social Policy Scrutiny Committee, highlights numerous concerns by submitters to which the committee responded and gave clarity.