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Referral to the Australian Government

If a project has the potential to have a significant impact on a 'matter of national environmental significance' (MNES), the project proponent must refer it to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). MNES are currently:

  • World Heritage properties
  • National Heritage places
  • wetlands of international importance (e.g. Ramsar sites)
  • listed threatened species and ecological communities
  • listed migratory species
  • Commonwealth marine environments
  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
  • nuclear actions, including uranium mining
  • water resources, in relation to coal seam gas and large coal mining development.

If the Minister determines that a project may have an impact on MNES, it is deemed to be a

'controlled action'. If a project is deemed not to be a controlled action, it does not require assessment under the EPBC Act.

Assessment options

If an environmental impact assessment of a controlled action is required, the assessment may be conducted under the Queensland environmental assessment bilateral agreement with the Australian Government. This eliminates unnecessary duplication.

The most recent assessment bilateral agreement was signed between the Queensland and Australian governments on 18 December 2014.

If the bilateral agreement is not applied to a project, the Queensland process may be accredited especially for a particular project; or the Australian and Queensland governments conduct separate assessment processes. Such separate processes are generally conducted in parallel.

Not all controlled actions are assessed through a full environmental impact statement (EIS). For example, assessment under the EPBC Act may be by submission of 'preliminary documentation' by the proponent. The alternative impact assessment report (IAR) process under the SDPWO Act falls within the scope of assessment options defined in the EPBC Act and is incorporated within the assessment bilateral agreement.

Regardless of the assessment process, the Australian Environment Minister retains the approval powers and has the final say on whether or not a 'controlled action' can be undertaken.

Referral of coal and coal seam gas projects to a scientific committee

Under the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) National Partnership Agreement on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (NPA), projects of sufficient scale in this sector that may have a significant impact on water resources must be referred to an Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC).

The NPA was given force by amendments to the EPBC Act that came into effect in October 2012.

Decision-making process

Under the assessment environmental agreement and accredited processes, the Coordinator-General provides the EIS evaluation report to the Commonwealth Minister.

After receiving the report, the Minister has 30 business days to:

  • inform the proponent of the proposed decision to approve with conditions or refuse the controlled action
  • consider the proponent's written comment on the proposed decision (which must be provided to the Minister within 10 business days), and
  • issue the decision on the controlled action.

This timeframe may be extended and is suspended if and while the Minister seeks further advice or information about the project.