The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013 (the Bill) was introduced into Parliament on 13 March 2013 and proposes to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC). The purpose of the Bill is to establish a new matter of national environmental significance (NES) in relation to the impacts coal seam gas and large coal mining development (together, the Developments) have on water resources.

According to the explanatory memorandum, the Bill proposed two major changes by:

  • Implementing civil penalties and offence provisions (similar to those that already existing the EPBC for existing NES) for taking an action involving the Developments that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on a water resource, without obtaining an approval or an exemption from approval under the EPBC; and
  • ensuring the impacts that the Developments have on water resources are assessed at a national level, in accordance with the assessment process under Part 8 of the EPBC.

The type of Developments that will be affected by the Bill are those that include “activities involving extraction”. Consequently, any part of the Developments that do not form part of the extraction process will not fall within the ambit of the Bill. For example, the definition of Coal Seam Gas Development would not generally include infrastructure used to transport coal seam gas, as this does not form part of the extraction process.

A ‘Water Resource’ includes surface water, ground water, a watercourse, lake, wetland or aquifer (whether or not it currently has water in it). A Water Resources includes all aspects of the water resource, including water and organisms.

Should the Bill be passed by Parliament and receive Royal Assent, the new provisions may apply to projects where development assessment or EPBC approval has already commenced. However as much as possible, the transition provisions are designed to minimise disruption to the assessment of existing projects.

The Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities also intends to develop guidelines which set out the criteria to assist decision makers assessing whether a proposed action will have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significant and subsequently require assessment and approval under the EPBC. The proposed guidelines will not be legally binding.