All proposed activities must consider the impacts on the environment, including matters of National Environmental Significance and the EPBC Act environmental assessment process may apply to activities that are excluded from the streamlined arrangements such as activities that:
- Have, will have or are likely to have a significant impact on the environment on Commonwealth land.
- Are taken in any area of sea or seabed that is declared to be a part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975.
- Have, will have or are likely to have a significant impact on the world heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage property or on the national heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef National Heritage place.
- Are taken in the Antarctic.
- Are injection and/or storage of greenhouse gas.
In planning activities that are excluded from streamlined arrangements, it is strongly recommended that sufficient time be allowed for the EPBC Act referral process, as well as any requests for further information that suspends the referral process and assessment and approval processes.
In these cases, additional time will be required for assessment of the action and for the Minister for the Environment to make a decision whether to approve the taking of the action. The timeframes for assessment processes are identified in the EPBC Act and vary depending upon the type of assessment required and the time taken to receive information from the applicants to complete the assessment. Production activities, exploration activities and greenhouse gas storage activities that may have a significant impact on environmentally sensitive areas are, in particular, more likely to require further assessment and an approval decision under the EPBC Act.
Applicants are reminded the awarding of a petroleum or greenhouse gas storage title under the OPGGS Act is not a guarantee of approval under the EPBC Act. A referral may result in a decision by the Minister for the Environment that the action is clearly unacceptable or an assessment and approval process may result in a decision to not approve the taking of the action.
Further information on the assessment process and statutory timeframes.
Further information on consideration of specific matters of National Environmental Significance under the EPBC Act assessment process is below, specifically in relation to:
- Heritage values
- Commonwealth marine areas and Commonwealth land
- Indigenous heritage values
- Other protected matters
- The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976
- Cetaceans and the EPBC Act
- Marine Bioregional Planning.
Listed heritage values are protected and managed under a range of Commonwealth powers.
World Heritage properties are sites that are recognised under the World Heritage Convention as being of international significance because of their outstanding universal natural and/or cultural values. The World Heritage Committee makes the final decision on whether a place is inscribed on the World Heritage List. Places on the World Heritage List are protected under the EPBC Act as matters of National Environmental Significance.
The National Heritage List has been established to include places of outstanding heritage significance to Australia. The National Heritage List comprises places with natural, historic and/or Indigenous values. A place entered in the National Heritage List is known as a National Heritage place. Each place in the National Heritage List has been assessed by an independent body, the Australian Heritage Council, to determine whether the place has national heritage values. The Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Energy makes the final decision on whether a place is listed. Places in the National Heritage List are protected under the EPBC Act as matters of National Environmental Significance.
The Commonwealth Heritage List established under the EPBC Act comprises natural, Indigenous and historic heritage places entirely within a Commonwealth area, or outside the Australian jurisdiction and owned or leased by the Commonwealth, which the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Energy is satisfied have one or more Commonwealth Heritage values. The minister makes the final decision on whether to include a place in the Commonwealth Heritage List.
In addition, Commonwealth Government agencies are required to develop:
- heritage strategies
- a heritage register
- management plans for places on the Commonwealth Heritage List to protect the heritage values of the Commonwealth Heritage Places they own or lease.
The World Heritage List, National Heritage List and Commonwealth Heritage List are compiled and maintained by the Department of the Environment and Energy. As of March 2016, there are 104 places in the National Heritage List, 41 places on the World Heritage List and 397 places included in the Commonwealth Heritage List. These lists include some offshore areas.
New places are added to the lists on an ongoing basis so the database should be reviewed regularly. The values of Commonwealth Heritage List places are protected by the EPBC Act as part of the environment of Commonwealth lands and waters.
From 2012, all references to the Register of the National Estate (established in 1976 as a national inventory of places of significant natural and/or cultural heritage) were removed from the EPBC Act and the Australian Heritage Council Act 2003. The register now remains as an online archive of information about Australia’s heritage places. The EPBC Act continues to protect the heritage values of places in the register that are in Commonwealth areas or are otherwise the responsibility of the Australian Government, such as the heritage values of places in the National Heritage List.
Applicants are encouraged to check each release area for any sites relating to Australian Government heritage lists.
Commonwealth marine areas and Commonwealth land
In Commonwealth marine areas and on Commonwealth land, heritage values form part of the environment and are considered under the EPBC Act. An Indigenous heritage value does not need to be included on a list or register to be considered under the definition of the environment in the EPBC Act.
Indigenous Heritage Values
The Commonwealth heritage management principles include the principle that:
‘Indigenous people are the primary source of information on the value of their heritage and the active participation of Indigenous people in identification, assessment and management is integral to the effective protection of Indigenous heritage values’.
All future applicants should refer to Ask First: A guide to respecting Indigenous heritage places and values (Australian Heritage Commission 2002) and actively engage the relevant Indigenous people with rights or interests to ensure that Indigenous heritage values are given appropriate consideration.
Other protected matters
Applicants should also be cognisant of matters of National Environmental Significance such as, but not limited to, wetlands of international importance (Ramsar) and heritage places, including Indigenous heritage values, even those considerable distances from the acreage but that could potentially be impacted in the event of a hydrocarbon spill.
The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976
The Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 protects all shipwrecks and associated relics that are 75 or more years old, regardless of whether their physical location is known. More recent shipwrecks may be declared as historic under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 by the Minister for the Environment. The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 aims to ensure that historic shipwrecks are protected for their heritage values and maintained for recreational and educational purposes. It also regulates activities that may result in the damage, interference, removal or destruction of an historic shipwreck or associated relic.
The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 also provides for protected zones to be declared in order to enhance the protection of historic shipwrecks and relics that are of special significance or sensitivity or at particular risk of interference. Permits are required to enter protected zones that can cover an area up to 200 hectares.
The jurisdiction of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 is not limited to Commonwealth marine areas as defined by the EPBC Act, as it protects historic shipwrecks and associated relics found in Australian waters from the low water mark to the edge of the continental shelf, including the coastal waters of the Australian states and territories.
The requirements of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 must be taken into consideration when applying for any state, territory or Commonwealth planning approval for actions or developments in these waters.
Any actions involving contact with the seabed or operations in close proximity to the seabed, have the potential to damage, destroy or interfere with historic shipwrecks and it is strongly recommended that applicants seek professional advice and develop risk mitigation strategies to prevent committing an offence under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.
When undertaking actions in the marine environment, applicants and their contractors must conform to all requirements of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and must:
- Not damage, destroy or interfere with any historic shipwrecks or relics that may be encountered during the course of a proposed action without a permit.
- Not enter or conduct activities within a shipwreck protected zone without first obtaining a permit under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.
- Provide a written notification of the discovery of any suspected shipwreck or shipwreck relics identified during the course of the proposed action including a:
- detailed description of the remains of the shipwreck or of the relic. This could include sonar images, electronic data and digital photographs
- description of the place where the shipwreck remains or relic is located that is sufficiently detailed to allow it to be identified and re-located including navigation data and datum information.
It should be noted that although the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 does not currently provide for the protection of the natural environment associated with shipwrecks, these natural components form an integral part of historic shipwreck sites and are often critical to the long term preservation of shipwrecks and relics. Damage to these natural components can result in increased deterioration of shipwrecks and consequently affect the shipwrecks’ role as a marine habitat.
Further information about the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.
Cetaceans and the EPBC Act
The 2016 release areas include areas that are in, or in proximity to, recognised cetacean migration corridors and areas listed as biologically important areas for feeding, breeding, calving and resting.
Species to pay particular attention to on Australia’s north-west coast include humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). Humpback whales migrate north from around May each year, reaching the waters of the north-west in June. The southern migration occurs from late August-October. The exact timing of the migration period can vary from year to year and cow and calf migration can occur for up to four weeks before and after these migration periods. Blue whales migrate through the waters of Australia’s north-west from April-August before returning south from October-December.
Migratory inshore dolphin species are found all year round in the tropical waters of northern Australia.
A policy statement on the interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales has been developed by the Department of the Environment and Energy in consultation with the petroleum industry, whale research scientists and conservation groups. The September 2008 EPBC Act Policy Statement 2.1 - Interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales.
The document outlines standard management measures that should be used at all times when operating in Australian waters and outlines additional management measures that should be used in areas where there is a moderate to high likelihood of encountering whales. It should be noted that the intention of Policy Statement 2.1 is to reduce the likelihood that seismic surveys will result in acoustic injury to whales and does not cover potentially significant behavioural impacts to whales that may occur when whales are calving, feeding, breeding or resting.
The Policy Statement 2.1 states that seismic surveys should not be proposed in proximity to areas where and when cetaceans are likely to be breeding, calving, resting or feeding. Some proposed 2016 release areas are in proximity to areas where whales are expected to be engaged in critical lifecycle activities. Activities and associated mitigation measures will need careful consideration and may require mitigation measures to be implemented that are beyond the scope of Policy Statement 2.1.
The Biologically Important Areas for cetaceans in the five marine regions are detailed in a Conservation Values Atlas.
Part 8 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Regulations 2000 outlines the requirements for all people interacting with cetaceans within Commonwealth waters. The regulations specify how vessels, aircraft and people must behave around these animals i.e. vessels must not deliberately approach whales closer than 100 m. Within 300 m vessels must use caution and travel at low speed. Touching or feeding whales and dolphins is prohibited.
Further information is contained within the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005 that has also been adopted by all states and territories.
Marine Bioregional Planning
A Marine Bioregional Planning Program has been implemented under the EPBC Act. The two key outputs of the program are the development of four Marine Bioregional plans, to guide decisions under the EPBC Act and the identification and establishment of a network of marine reserves in Commonwealth waters that has seen more than 2.3 million square kilometres added to Australia’s national network of marine protected areas.
Marine Bioregional plans were released in August 2012 for the south-west, north-west, north and Temperate East Marine Regions. The Marine Bioregional plans contain detailed information in two schedules. These plans provide a comprehensive description of the conservation values, the pressures these values are under and priorities for further effort and investment. They include a description of key conservation and heritage priorities, as well as current and emerging pressures on the marine environment. The plans also provide advice to people wishing to undertake new activities within Commonwealth waters about the relative risk of significant impact that certain activities may represent for matters of National Environmental Significance.
Pressures on some of the conservation values relevant to the oil and gas industry include for:
- Various cetaceans: chemical pollution/contaminants, nutrient pollution, marine debris, noise pollution, physical habitat modification, human presence at sensitive sites, collision/entanglement with infrastructure, collision with vessels and oil pollution.
- Various marine turtles: marine debris, noise pollution, nutrient pollution, changes to turbidity, light pollution, invasive species, physical habitat modification and collision with vessels.
- Sea snakes: physical habitat modification and oil pollution.
- Various elasmobranches: chemical pollution/contaminants, and marine debris.
- Various seabirds: chemical pollution/contaminants, changes to turbidity, marine debris, human presence at sensitive sites, physical habitat modification, invasive species, light pollution and oil pollution.
The Marine Bioregional plans provide further details on the pressures the conservation values.
Many of the 2016 release areas overlap key ecological features that have been identified as part of marine bioregional planning process. Key ecological features assist in defining the Commonwealth marine environment, a matter of National Environmental Significance under EPBC Act, and are elements of the ecosystem that are considered to be of regional importance for biodiversity or ecosystem function and integrity. They include habitats, specific benthic or pelagic features, species groups or ecological communities.
Further information about key ecological features.
Pressures on some of the key ecological features relevant to the oil and gas industry include:
- Ancient coastline at 125 m depth contour: noise pollution.
- Ancient coastline at 90-120 m depth contour: physical habitat modification.
- Carbonate bank and terrace system of the Sahul Shelf: changes in sea temperature, marine debris and physical habitat modification.
- Continental Slope demersal fish communities: physical habitat modification and changes in the sea temperature.
- Exmouth Plateau: physical habitat modification.
- Shelf break and slope of the Arafura Shelf: changes in the sea temperature, marine debris, oil pollution and physical habitat modification.
Biologically important areas spatially define areas where aggregations of individuals of a species are known to display biologically important behaviour.
All six species of marine turtle that are found in Australian waters are known or may occur in the waters off north and west Australia. These species include the vulnerable hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate) vulnerable green turtle (Chelonia mydas), endangered loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), endangered olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), endangered leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) and vulnerable flatback turtle (Natator depressus).
The waters off north and west Australia support important nesting areas for green, hawksbill, loggerhead and flatback turtles. Olive ridley turtles are known to forage in the northern parts of the region but records indicate that they nest only occasionally in the region.
The vulnerable fairy tern as well as numerous migratory bird species are known to occur in the waters off north and west Australia including red-footed booby and wedge-tailed shearwater. Seabirds spend most of their lives at sea, ranging over large distances to forage over the open ocean. Many of these species also breed in and adjacent to the water of north Western Australia, including significant populations of terns, shearwaters and boobies.
During their migration, shorebirds use a number of staging areas as intermediate feeding sites to rest and restore energy reserves. Within and adjacent to the region, there are a number of sites that are of international or national significance to shorebirds. Maps of biologically important areas, for species including cetaceans, marine turtles and migratory birds are available in the Conservation Values Atlas online.