The Protection of the Environment Operations Act (POEO Act) has been amended to include three new activities in the list of activities for which an environmental protection licence is required.  Those activities are:

  1. coal seam gas (CSG) exploration,
  2. coal seam assessment and production activities, and
  3. electricity generation activities by means of wind turbines on wind farms.

Which CSG exploration, assessment and production activities are covered?

Environmental protection licences were previously required for CSG production under the scheduled activity of ‘natural gas / methane production’.  That scheduled activity only applied, however, to the production of natural gas or methane where annual production was over 5 petajoules (PJ) and did not apply to CSG exploration or assessment.  That category has now been amended to specifically exclude CSG production.

The two new categories are:

  1. CSG exploration, which is defined to mean prospecting for CSG for which a petroleum exploration licence is required under the Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991, but not if the prospecting involves the extraction of groundwater; and
  2. coal seam assessment and production activities, which are defined to mean:
  1.  prospecting for CSG for which a petroleum exploration licence, assessment lease or production lease is required under the Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991, if that prospecting involves the extraction of groundwater; or
  2.  the commercial production of CSG for which an assessment lease or production lease is required under the Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991.

CSG is defined to mean petroleum that:

  1. consists of naturally occurring hydrocarbons, or a naturally occurring mixture of hydrocarbons and non-hydrocarbons, the principal constituent of which is methane, and
  2. is in a gaseous state at standard temperature and pressure, and
  3.  is extracted from coal beds.

Licences are not required for the following activities (provided that they are not carried out on land within an environmentally sensitive area of State significance within the meaning of SEPP (Mining, Petroleum Production and Extractive Industries) 2007):

  1. geological mapping and airborne surveying,
  2.  sampling and coring using hand-held equipment,
  3. geophysical (including seismic) surveying and downhole logging,
  4.   accessing of areas by vehicle that does not involve the construction of an access way such as a track or road,
  5. soil sampling by machinery,
  6.  the construction, maintenance or use of equipment for the monitoring of weather, noise, groundwater or subsidence,
  7. the construction, maintenance or use of roads consistent with best practice industry standards as outlined in the document entitled Managing urban stormwater: Soils and construction (Volume 2C: Unsealed roads), published by the Department of Environment and Climate Change, dated January 2008,
  8.  the recovery, obtaining or removal of coal seam gas in the course of coal mining.

Which wind farms are covered?

Environmental protection licences were previously required for ‘general electricity works’, which were defined to specifically exclude the generation of electricity by the means of electricity plant that was based on wind power or solar power. 

A new category of ‘general electricity works’ has now been added so that an environmental protection licence is now required for works that involve the generation of electricity by means of wind turbines.  The intention is to ensure that only ‘large scale’ wind farms are regulated.  As a result, environmental protection licences will only be required for wind farms that fall within one of the following categories:

  1. wind farms that are the subject of an approval under the now repealed Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act) (including transitional Part 3A wind farms);
  2. wind farms that are the subject of a development consent granted by the Minister (being State significant development) under Part 4 of the EP&A Act (this would apply to development consents granted before the commencement of Part 3A on  1 August 2005 and after the repeal of that Part on 1 October 2011); or
  3. wind farms that were being carried out immediately before 1 December 2012 with a capacity to generate more than 30 megawatts of electrical power.

Large scale wind farms that are under construction will need to obtain a licence as work done at premises to enable a schedule activity to be carried out must also be licenced. 

When must a new licence be obtained?

All CGS activities which are now required to hold an environmental protection licence will until 28 September 2013 to apply for their new licence.

All large scale wind farms (whether operational, under construction or about to start construction) will have until 28 March 2014 to apply for their new licence. 

Issues to consider

Applicants for new environmental protection licences should consider the following:

  1. generally, the first environmental protection licence must be consistent with an existing development consent (if State Significant Development) or Part 3A approval – the EPA may, however, alter licence conditions after that;
  2. licence fees are payable, including load based licensing fees for CSG activities (there are no load based licensing fees for wind farms);
  3.  licensees are required to publish monitoring data if their environmental protection licence requires pollution monitoring to be carried out – this is something to be aware of when draft licence conditions are proposed;
  4.  licences are publically available documents and can be viewed by any person on the EPA’s website;
  5. it is an offence under the POEO Act to fail to comply with environmental protection licence conditions; and
  6. environmental protection licence holders are required to prepare and make available pollution incident response management plans in accordance with the requirements of the POEO Act.