Reforms to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) offer an opportunity to bend back the curve of biodiversity decline in Australia, while simultaneously simplifying and streamlining assessment and approval processes for business. The recommendations in our 2020 submission to the EPBC Act review describe the suite of reforms that in our view are needed to effectively deliver the objectives of the Act.
In January this year, the Final Report of the Independent Review of the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 by Professor Graeme Samuel was released. We endorse the recommendations of this report. Importantly, Prof Samuel stated “the full suite of National Environmental Standards recommended should be implemented immediately. The Standards developed in detail by the Review should be accepted in full, and other necessary Standards should be developed and implemented without delay.”
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 has now been introduced to Parliament. This Bill provides the powers to make legally enforceable national environmental standards and to establish an Environmental Assurance Commissioner. These were important pillars of the reform package proposed by Prof Samuel.
While this Bill is an important step forward, we have three outstanding concerns:
- The Bill fails to prescribe clear requirements for the quality and application of national environmental standards. Consequently, it is impossible to guarantee that States and Territories would protect matters of national environmental significance in the national interest or that the poor environmental outcomes currently occurring under the EPBC Act would be addressed.
- The Environmental Assurance Commissioner does not have sufficient powers or resources to undertake independent compliance and enforcement of Commonwealth, states and territories.
- There is no public commitment that all the urgent reforms identified by the final Report will be implemented to deliver comprehensive improvement to the Act.
In light of these concerns, we suggest that the Committee recommends that the Senate oppose the Bill unless the following is in place:
- A requirement that national environmental standards must be developed for all MNES in a scientific, evidence-based manner by appropriate experts, and a requirement that national environmental standards must be consistent with the objectives of the EPBC Act, including:
- ‘Maintain or enhance’ the absolute outcomes for all matters of national environmental significance; and
- Address cumulative impacts, at all scales (e.g. national, state, regional and individual project levels).
- Removing the limit on monitoring and auditing individual decisions and actions;
- Clarifying powers to compel production of information;
- Requiring the Minister to respond publicly to audit reports;
- Clarifying that any person can refer a complaint to the EAC;
- Requiring a mandatory compliance and enforcement standard be developed as a precondition to any accreditation or devolution; and
- Ensuring adequate funding for effective operation.
Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Defenders Office