One of the major obstacles to creating a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals is that Australia’s federal system of government is more like a scrambled egg than a neatly layered cake.
Within this scrambled egg relatively few day-to-day decisions about development that will affect the environment are made by the Commonwealth government. The vast bulk of decisions are made by local, state and territory governments.
The EPBC Act approval process has three stages: referral, assessment and approval.
At the referral stage the Commonwealth decides whether a proposed action triggers the Act and requires approval under it. This has proved to be a very efficient process of screening out many projects and providing certainty to proponents that their projects do not trigger the Act. On very rare occasions, projects have been refused as “clearly unacceptable” at this first stage, thereby avoiding further costs and delay in carrying out an assessment.
Experience over the first decade of the Act’s operation showed that over 75% of projects referred under it were decided within weeks and dropped out under this first stage. This fact is normally omitted by individuals and organisations such as the Business Council of Australia, who rail against the costs and delays caused by EPBC Act. Only around 22% of referrals are determined to be controlled actions that proceed through the assessment and approval stages. For these actions the EPBC Act has mechanisms to avoid duplication with state and territory assessments known as “bilateral agreements”.
There are two types of bilateral agreements.
Assessment bilaterals allow state and territory assessment processes to be used under the EPBC Act but the final decision on whether to approve a project remains with the Federal Environment Minister. Assessment bilaterals have been in place with all states and territories for years and have proved to be effective in reducing unnecessary duplication and delay.
In contrast, approval bilaterals delegate the final decision on a project to the state and territory government. While this mechanism has existed in the Act from the outset, it has been virtually unused.
An example of how efficiently the existing assessment bilateral system works to avoid duplication or delay due to the EPBC Act is the Alpha Coal Mine. That project began its assessment under Queensland law in 2008 and has not yet been approved, despite claims to the contrary in 2012 by the Queensland Premier. The project was referred under the EPBC Act in 2009, assessed under the bilateral agreement and approved by the Commonwealth in 2012. The state approvals are unlikely to be granted before early to mid-2014. That is, state approval may come some 18 months after the Commonwealth approval.
Chris McGrath Senior Lecturer at University of QueenslandTo read this article in full at The Conversation, go to - Explainer: one-stop-shop for environmental approvals
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