The Petroleum (Submerged Lands)(Management of Environment) Regulations 1999 No. 228 (Cth) (Environment Regulations) are designed to ensure that any relevant ‘activity’ (as defined in the Regulations) in Commonwealth waters is carried out in a manner consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development and according to an ‘environment plan’ which has been agreed in advance with the relevant regulator.

On 17 December 2009, the Environmental Regulations were amended by the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) (Management of Environment) Amendment Regulations 2009 (No. 1) 2009 No. 383 (Cth) (Environment Amendments).

The Environment Amendments will impact on the way in which future environmental risks are analysed and the increased scope of matters to be covered in ‘environmental plans’ should help lessen the risk of disasters such as the West Atlas oil spill.

The content of the Environment Amendments can be summarised as follows:

  • the Environment Regulations have been renamed the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act (Environment) Regulations 1999
  • ‘greenhouse gas activities’ (as defined in the Regulations) have now been brought within the scope of the Environment Regulations so as to create dual purpose regulations for both ‘petroleum activities’ and ‘greenhouse gas activities’. This means that an environment plan is now required for ‘greenhouse gas activities’. The ‘Regulator’ for the approval of the plan is the responsible Commonwealth Minister. Once an environment plan for ‘greenhouse gas activities’ has been approved, the Regulations apply to the continued operation of the plan on a day-to-day basis, the contents, revision and withdrawal of the plan and the reporting of any ‘reportable incidents’ (as defined in the Regulations) including incidents relating to ‘greenhouse gas activities’
  • the definition of ‘petroleum instrument’ has been expanded to include an ‘infrastructure licence’ (i.e to cover facilities relevant to production but which are outside the area of a production license)
  • the relevant person must now report all incidents in relation to an ‘activity’, not only those incidents related to matters referred to in the environmental plan
  • references to the ‘emergency response manual’ in the Regulations have been substituted with references to an ‘oil spill contingency plan’, which must be submitted as part of any new environment plan. This is not a substantive amendment though because oil spill contingency plans were previously submitted as part of the emergency response manual under the original regulations
  • the Environment Amendments make clear, that an oil spill contingency plan must be kept up-to-date, must include emergency response arrangements and must be tested when new location, a new facility or a new structure is added to the environment plan
  • the scenarios in which an environment plan must be revised have been expanded to include the case where there have been a number of incidents, risks or environmental impacts which, when taken together amount to the occurrence of a significant new environmental impact or risk or the increase of an existing impact or risk, and
  • an operator who undertakes a substantial revision to an environment plan close to the end of the five-year cycle, is no longer required to revise the entire plan once more at the end of the cycle.