Key Points:

The Northern Territory Government has announced a new process for land access agreements between the mining, petroleum and agriculture industries to create more certainty.

On 30 November 2015, Chief Minister Adam Giles announced a new process to establish land access agreements to achieve a balance between the rights of resource companies to explore and the rights of pastoralists to be advised, informed and consulted before exploration begins. This announcement follows other key measures and reforms being undertaken by the NT Government to allow mining and petroleum activities to continue in a way that ensures safety to the public and the environment.

Need for a new process for land access agreements

As the mining and petroleum industry expands in the Territory, so to have the calls for the NT Government to make it mandatory for mining and petroleum companies to negotiate land access agreements with pastoralists prior to any activity commencing. Concerns have been raised in relation to the existing voluntary system and, after consultation with key stakeholders earlier this year, the NT Government has now released its new process to achieve a more balanced system for land access.

The aim of the new process is to give pastoralists more control over things such as access, road use, water resources, biosecurity, soil erosion and other aspects relevant to entering a property to conduct resource activities. These arrangements aim to give certainty to both landholders for the future management of their properties and to resource companies for future mining and petroleum activities in the Territory.

The new process

Under the current regulatory process for the approval of mining and petroleum activities, Mining Management Plans (MMPs) and Environment Plans (EPs) (respectively) are to be approved before the relevant approvals under the Mining Management Act or Petroleum Act are given to allow those activities to commence.

The NT Government has now announced that the process will also include the following:

  • The establishment of a land access agreement for those exploration activities considered to create more disturbance and requires the lodgement of an MMP or EP.
  • If agreement over conditions for land access cannot be reached within 60 days by mutual consent, the matter will be referred to an arbitration panel to be made up of high level government and industry representatives.
  • The arbitration panel will arbitrate between the parties for a successful agreement within 21 days of the formation of the panel.
  • Once agreement has been reached, the Department of Mines and Energy may approve the MMP or EP as the case may be.

Implications

At this stage it is unclear whether this new process will be successful in striking the right balance between the competing rights of the mining and petroleum companies and pastoralists as some detail is missing. For example, it is unclear what occurs when a successful agreement is not reached within 21 days (or at all) once the matter is referred to the arbitration panel.

Concerns have already been raised that this new process may be introducing more red tape which could stifle the capacity for new investment in the mining and petroleum industry. However, in theory it appears to be a step in the right direction as it should allow all parties involved in land access arrangements to have meaningful engagement prior to mining and petroleum activities commencing.

By requiring land access agreements to be in place before mining and petroleum activities can commence, and setting time limits on the initial negotiating and arbitration processes, there should be more certainty in terms of the detail of the land access arrangements and the timing of finalising those arrangements.