In June 2020, the Federal Government announced it would work with the states and territories to reduce the assessment and decision timeframes for 15 major projects. Other than road infrastructure the projects include, rail and airport upgrades, water, gas, electricity and mining projects.
These major projects were identified to have national or strategic significance, estimated to contribute more than $72 billion in public and private investment as well as supporting tens of thousands of jobs.
While still subject to the same requirements under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) as all referred projects, the Federal Government will work with the states and territories to establish joint assessment teams for the progression of these projects.
It is hoped the teams reduce duplication in assessment processes between the two levels of government and subsequently reduce decision times.
Following these changes, Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley announced a new set of national environmental standards is set to be developed with state governments. This was in response to the release of an interim report into Australia’s environmental laws.
Professor Graeme Samuel’s interim report established that the existing EPBC Act has become cumbersome and does not serve the interests of the environment or business.
“Not surprisingly, the statutory review is finding that 20-year-old legislation is struggling to meet the changing needs of the environment, agriculture, community planners and business,” Ley said.
“This is our chance to ensure the right protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects to strengthen our economy and improve the livelihoods of every-day Australians. We can do both as part of the Australian Government’s COVID recovery plan.”
On the basis of the interim report the Federal Government will commit to priority areas starting with the development of national environmental standards that underpin new bilateral agreements with State Governments.
It will also discuss, with willing states, entering agreements for single touch approvals. This would remove duplication by giving states the power to carry out environmental assessments and approvals on behalf of the Federal Government.
Alongside this the Federal Government will run a national engagement process to modernise the protection of indigenous cultural heritage, starting with a round table meeting of state indigenous and environment ministers.
Finally, it will explore market based solutions for better habitat restoration, which is hoped to significantly improve environmental outcomes while providing greater certainty for business.
In line with the interim report findings existing framework for greenhouse gas and other emissions will not be expanded.
The Federal Government is also not considering the establishment of an independent regulator.
With infrastructure projects set to be a major economic boost during the recovery of COVID-19, cutting environmental approval times and getting projects underway faster could provide a further boost to jobs.
In his CEDA speech in June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison set a 30 day target for the final stage of approval decision in the hope it is achieved by the end of this year.