Key Points:

The Northern Territory Government is preparing to roll out a series of consultation briefings and workshops across the Territory after adopting a recommendation to restructure the existing environmental assessment and approvals process.

On 18 November 2015, the Northern Territory Government announced that following on from an independent review on the environmental assessment and approvals processes, a new range of measures would be developed to ensure that this process is comprehensive and transparent.

Environmental management reforms

Over the last few years, the NT Government has been committed to taking steps to reform environmental management in the Northern Territory, the first of which occurred in January 2013 with the establishment of the Northern Territory Environmental Protection Authority (NT EPA).

In 2014 the Government commissioned Dr Allan Hawke AC to conduct an independent inquiry into the use of hydraulic fracturing as a method to extract oil and gas resources in the NT. During the Inquiry, it was recommended that the NT Government review the Environmental Assessment Act and in light of this, the NT Government commissioned Dr Hawke to conduct a review of the Northern Territory’s environmental assessment and approvals processes (the Hawke II Review).

Hawke II Review

In May 2015 Dr Hawke delivered his report Review of the Northern Territory Environmental Assessment and Approval Processes which recognised that the Territory’s existing environmental regulatory framework has been in place for many years and had not kept pace with changes in modern technology or project methodology. The Hawke II Review Report provided three options for restructuring this framework:

  • Option 1: retain the current system with incremental improvements; or
  • Option 2: create a single stand-alone environment approval process with the Environment Minister as decision-maker; or
  • Option 3: strengthen the "sectoral one-stop-shop" model, supported by enhanced transparency and independent performance monitoring. A "sectoral one-stop-shop" refers to project authorisation based on approvals issued under various legislative instruments (such as the Minister for Mines and Energy or Minister for Planning) which are brought together under a primary sectoral approval.

The Hawke II Review Report recommended that the NT Government adopt Option 3, the key features of which include:

  • setting performance standards and benchmarks (for example skills of the agency, its capacity to undertake and enforce an integrated approval and the capacity of its legislation to allow a wide range of whole-of-Government conditions to be imposed) against which sectoral integrated approval processes can be accredited;
  • requiring responsible decision-makers to publish a statement setting out how EPA recommendations have been translated into specific approval conditions;
  • reinforcing requirements for publishing Statements of Reasons when EPA Recommendation Reports are not implemented;
  • establishing the Environment Minister as decision-maker for projects not subject to approval under an accredited approval process;
  • requiring proponents to report annually and publicly on compliance with environment-related conditions of approval; and
  • requiring the NT EPA to undertake regular assurance monitoring and reporting on the system’s operations.

The Hawke II Review Report also provided 22 recommendations (which could be applied irrespective of which option was chosen) to strength the NT environmental management system's operations, build community confidence and improve decision-making efficiency. The 22 recommendations were under the following headings:

  • Establish an Accountable Environmental Approval System;
  • Major Projects Facilitation;
  • A Robust Best Practice System EPA Operations and the Assessment Process;
  • Completeness and Equity ‒ the Need to Cover the Field;
  • Create a Tiered Risk-Based Environmental Assessment System;
  • When to Refer?
  • EIA Adequacy Tests and Currency;
  • Building Trust and Confidence;
  • Environmental Policy Development;
  • Environmental Offsets;
  • Land Development and Strategic Planning;
  • Integrated Approval for Minerals Developments;
  • Mine Site Water and Waste Management; and
  • Lawful Considerations.

After consideration of Dr Hawke's Review, the NT Government prepared and released its response this month. The Territory Response to the Review of the Northern Territory Environmental Assessment and Approvals Processes confirms the Government's adoption of Option 3 and its in-principle support of the 22 recommendations. It is understood that the Government’s longer term goal is to move towards a model for a single environmental approval, which is consistent with Option 2 in the Hawke II Review Report.

Moving forward

The NT Government has stated that between now and September 2016, it will be engaging with the community and industry on the proposed reforms in the Hawke II Review Report. In particular, engagement with a wide range of stakeholder groups (including formal advice from the EPA) will cover the following to determine the final model that should be adopted:

  • the immediate task of implementing Option 3; and
  • how the Government should build on Option 3 and continue to improve its regulatory system into the future.

The implementation of the proposed reforms will incorporate feedback from stakeholders, and will be completed by 1 January 2017.