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Australia to establish EPA as part of environmental law reforms

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek

16th April 2024

By: Mariaan Webb

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

     

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In a move to bolster environmental protection measures, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced on Tuesday the establishment of an Environment Protection Agency (EPA) as part of the Albanese government’s Nature Positive Plan.

In tandem with the EPA establishment, the government will also launch a new body designed to enhance access to environmental data for businesses and has committed to expediting environmental approval decisions on projects through a A$100-million investment.

Announcing the planned EPA, Plibersek said the watchdog would wield robust authority and penalties to enforce federal environmental laws. Similar to the Australian Police Commissioner, the EPA chief will be appointed as an independent statutory authority, safeguarding the agency’s enforcement activities from undue government influence.

Among its key powers, the EPA will have the authority to issue environment protection orders, commonly known as ‘stop-work’ orders, to individuals or entities found in violation of environmental regulations. Further, the agency will conduct audits of businesses to verify compliance with environmental approval conditions.

In a bid to deter environmental misconduct, penalties will see a significant escalation, aligning maximum fines with those imposed for serious financial offences such as insider trading and market manipulation. For egregious intentional breaches of federal environmental law, courts will have the discretion to impose fines of up to A$780-million or sentences of up to seven years in prison.

Crucially, the newly established EPA will prioritise guidance and education initiatives aimed at ensuring businesses are well-informed about regulatory requirements, facilitating adherence to environmental standards.

In tandem with the EPA's establishment, the government will launch Environment Information Australia (EIA), a new entity designed to enhance access to environmental data for businesses. The EIA will also release State of the Environment reports biennially and provide progress updates on national environmental objectives.

Similar to the EPA chief, the head of EIA will hold statutory office with independent functions.

Furthermore, Australia has committed to expediting environmental approval decisions on projects through a $100-million investment, with a focus on renewable energy and critical minerals initiatives.

“We’re delivering stronger protections for the environment, including Australia’s first ever independent national Environment Protection Agency.

“We’re also working to support faster, clearer decisions for business. That greater certainty for business will help drive investment in nation-building projects.

“When I first announced the Nature Positive Plan, I said it would take a bit of cooperation, compromise and common sense to deliver. That’s exactly how we’re approaching the rollout,” said Plibersek.

She noted that the forthcoming legislative measures to enact the second stage of the Nature Positive Plan underscored the government's dedication to environmental reform.

The initial phase, concluded last year, saw the passage of laws establishing the world’s first Nature Repair Market and expanding the ‘water trigger’ to assess the impact of all unconventional gas projects on water resources.

The federal government will deliver the third stage of environment law reform by continuing to consult with environment groups, business, states and territories, and others, on further updates to national environment laws, as outlined in the Nature Positive Plan.

As part of the third stage, there will be a comprehensive exposure draft of the new laws released for public consultation, prior to their introduction to Parliament.

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies welcomed the Minister’s phased approach to the Nature Positive reforms. However, the organisation stressed the need for thorough consultation to grasp the reforms’ implications fully.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA (CME) CEO Rebecca Tomkinson emphasised the importance of a balanced and enduring reform design, urging transparent consultation processes.

She highlighted the need for collaboration with industry experts to ensure the reform’s efficacy and sustainability.

“As I’ve said before, if the federal government gets it wrong, better environmental outcomes are at risk, and the ongoing economic contribution of the sector’s existing operations and A$93-billion in future WA investment projects and associated jobs are threatened.”

Tomkinson added that while the Minister’s announcement provided additional time to work through the detail of the complex reform, the timing for the establishment of the independent federal EPA was still tight. 

“We continue to hold reservations about the proposed decision-making model and will continue to advocate for a model that balances ecologically sustainable development considerations and includes the Minister as the decision maker.”

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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