‘Budget reform’ package aims to streamline environmental assessments

By Meg Lee and Luke Denham

The Morrison Government has announced a $128.5 million ‘Budget reform’ package that seeks to streamline and strengthen the Commonwealth’s role in environmental protection including assessment, decision-making and compliance enforcement. The package is part of this month’s Federal Budget.

The changes proposed are part of the first two stages of the Federal Government proposed 4-stage timeline for reforms to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act), impelled by Professor Graeme Samuel's independent review of the existing regime in 2020.

Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley has stated that the package will:

improve the quality and reliability of data used in assessments and decision making, ensure greater transparency and flexibility around environmental offsets and reduce duplication and delay in the assessment and approval process’.

The package comprises:

  • $62.3 million to deliver up to 10 regional plans in priority development regions, to protect areas of environmental significance, streamline assessments (including for major mining and gas projects) and manage cumulative impacts;
  • $37.9 million to specifically support the streamlining of assessment (including $10 million to progress plans to give the states and territories ‘single-touch approval’ decision-making powers on projects, and $27.9 million to continue ‘on-time assessment determinations’, which have risen to 96% in the last three years); and
  • $28.4 million to support informed decision making (including $12 million to modernise the environmental offsets policy, $9.5 million to improve compliance, $4.9 million to strengthen Australia’s knowledge base of protected plants and animals, and $2 million to scope a new advisory committee to provide expert industry and technology advice to government).

The new priority development regions have not yet been determined but could include Queensland’s Bowen Basin, the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory, and agricultural land in northern NSW and Western Australia’s Wheatbelt.

The regional plans would establish general development criteria for the region, and if a project meets those criteria it will not have to be re-assessed through the national environmental protection system under the EPBC Act.

According to Minister for Resources and Water Keith Pitt, the regional plans will be elemental in streamlining development approvals, including for major resources projects, bypassing the need for project-by-project approval under the EPBC Act:

This will boost investor confidence by identifying areas within a particular region where development activities may be undertaken while ensuring that strong environmental protections are maintained.’

The funding announcement is in addition to the $47 million expansion of the Digital Environmental Assessment Program which will seek to ensure that assessments are based on consistent data.

The Government’s proposed changes have received criticism by Labor, the Greens and some crossbenchers, who contend that the Government has ignored key recommendations from Professor Samuel's scathing review.

Some organisations are also circumspect about the funding announcement. One such body is the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), which claims that the measures are designed to make things easier for the resource extraction industry to obtain approvals and are not really about greater protection for the environment, claiming that the proposed fast-tracked approval process will simply hasten Australia’s extinction crisis, including the collapse of 19 Australian ecosystems and Koala populations, in favour of commercial projects and their investors.

The timing of implementation of the proposed changes is unclear. It is notable that two bills to enact other changes to implement Professor Samuel’s recommendations, which also include creating new national environmental standards and establishing a new environmental watchdog, have remained in the Senate since August and October 2020.[1]

Please contact us if you need any assistance with understanding the changes behind the new funding package and how it may affect your current and future development activities in your state or territory.

[1] Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 (Cth) and Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 (Cth)


Meg Lee

Partner & ESG Co-Lead

Natalie Bannister

Partner & Commercial National Practice Leader

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