In a welcome move this week the Department of Mines and Petroleum of Western Australia (DMP) announced its plans to reform the environmental regulatory approvals process that currently apply to onshore minerals and oil and gas operations.  The DMP announced the commencement of the Reforming Environmental Regulation Program (RER Program), with the aim to increase effective application of environmental standards within the resources industry, reduce duplication in the approvals process and create a more responsive regulatory agency.

Background

The mining industry has long awaited reforms to the environmental approvals process in Western Australia. Despite the mining boom, the Western Australian environmental approvals process is difficult and time consuming with lengthy delays in project development and implementation caused by what is considered to be an inefficient, overly detailed, overlapping and duplicated environmental approval process.  As a result, key industry bodies such as the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy have been calling for reform.1

Summary of RER Program

The RER Program to be undertaken by DMP will consider the environmental impact assessment (EIA) and monitoring compliance with EIA approvals under the onshore mining and oil and gas legislation in Western Australia, being the:

  • Mining Act 1978;
  • Petroleum and Geothermal Energy Resources Act 1967;
  • Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act 1982; and
  • Petroleum Pipelines Act 1969.

As the first step in the reform process, DMP has released an objectives and implementation plan for its RER Program.

A copy of the plan can be obtained here.

The DMP's objective in developing the RER Program is to implement the principles of best practice regulation of the resources sector to ensure environmental integrity is maintained. A dedicated implementation team will be established within DMP to coordinate delivery of the RER Program. 

The plan also foreshadows the establishment of a ministerial advisory committee with the objective of establishing the scope and functions of working groups to progress the reforms.  Specific stakeholder workshops will be held for detailed input and collaboration on particular projects.

The DMP has advised that the RER Program will establish a risk and outcome based regulatory framework which will ensure DMP's regulatory effort protects environmental values in an effective and  efficient manner. DMP will be properly resourced to undertake ongoing monitoring and evaluation of key performance indicators to complement this risk based approach.  DMP's enforcement capacity will also be strengthened by the reforms.

The RER Program is also set to achieve a long sought after outcome for the industry – to remove intra-departmental duplication in the environmental approvals process.  The RER Program will directly address the delivery of DMP's environmental regulatory services and its interface with other regulators. The reforms will align with and complement environmental approvals reform at the Commonwealth level and in other states.

Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act

As you may be aware, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act) is currently under review by the Commonwealth Government. In August 2011 the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (Minister) released a response to an independent review of the EPBC Act. The Minister's response outlined a proposal for a streamlined national environmental approvals process which is currently being developed by the Council of Australian Governments.  DMP has announced that the RER Program will be developed in line with and will complement any proposed changes to the EPBC Act.

How will you be affected

The proposed reforms, if implemented, can only advance the current system in Western Australia.  The DMP, together with the industry, hopes that the RER Program will deliver greater certainty, confidence and clarity surrounding the DMP's environmental regulatory system.  Indeed, an environmental approvals process which is streamlined and with limited to no duplication between government departments will be a significant improvement for the Western Australian mining industry. It is hoped that the RER Program will result in some of the overall improvement of the environmental regulation in Western Austrlaia.  In particular:

  • reduce the costs, including eliminating those costs which would previously be incurred due to duplication;
  • reduce the current delays in the approval process;
  • simplify what is currently a complex process; and
  • improve transparency in government decision making.

These reforms, however, are only just now being developed and at the moment it is business as usual for resource companies seeking environmental approvals in the Western Australia. 

Timeframes

The ministerial committee established under the RER Program will operate from June to December 2012.  Reform itself, however, is still at least 9 months away with DMP aiming to identify the procedural, policy and legislative reforms to be implemented by February 2013.

Conclusion

The reforms proposed by DMP in its RER Program are a long time coming for the industry in Western Australia. While it remains to be seen how these reforms will be implemented and what the reformed approvals processes will entail, we remain cautiously optimistic that the reforms will be a significant improvement for the industry.

We will continue to monitor developments in this area and keep you informed of progress made, including whether there is any scope for industry to be involved in the development of the proposed reforms through submissions or stakeholder consultation processes.