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10.2 - The right information is not available to inform decisions made under the EPBC Act

10.2.1- Western scientific environmental information is the focus

To deliver ecologically sustainable development (ESD), decision-makers must weigh up information on the long-term environmental, economic, cultural and social impacts and benefits of their decisions.

The current focus of the EPBC Act is on western environmental science. There are currently clear structures and avenues for western scientific advice on the environment to be provided and considered. For example, the Act establishes the Threatened Species Scientific Committee for threatened species and communities listing advice and the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) for advice on the water impacts of these types of proposals. There is no corresponding avenue or expectation for Indigenous environmental knowledge, or economic or social information, to be explicitly included or considered in statutory processes. Decision-makers must weigh competing factors, yet the information they rely on to do so is not comprehensive or transparent.

The information base for development assessment decisions is heavily skewed to environmental information collected by the proponent. As discussed in Chapter 4, there is no requirement for the proponent to give comprehensive information on social, economic or cultural impacts, or for the assessment process to examine the veracity of that information. The avenues to seek expert advice (beyond that provided by the IESC) in the development assessment process are limited and rarely used in practice.

10.2.2 - There are some fundamental information gaps

The lack of distribution, condition and trend data for terrestrial biodiversity is a key information gap and a barrier to successful environmental management (TSSC 2020). Even if more proponent and research data can be shared and made accessible, systematic monitoring over a long enough time frame is needed to detect changes in the environment.

Systematic monitoring enables short-term project information to be put in the context of trends in condition, extent or abundance to support a meaningful understanding of development impact at the local scale, or the impact of government recovery and conservation activities. The collection of this type of information is a responsibility of governments, not individual projects.

Currently, this core information is often not collected or not authoritative. In recent decades the rate of collection of field data has declined, as shown by the 90% reduction in annual rate of records contributed to the Australasian Virtual Herbarium (Gallagher 2020). For example, at least one-quarter of all threatened vertebrate fauna species and almost three-quarters of threatened ecological communities are currently not monitored at all. The monitoring programs that do exist are generally under-resourced, poorly designed, do not make their data easily accessible, or lack coordination (Legge et al. 2018). Although new technologies mean that an incredible amount of information can be gathered remotely, these data still need to be verified with on-ground measurements.

10.2.3 - Cumulative impacts and future threats are not well considered

Environmental science and management have traditionally aimed to understand past environmental conditions, how and why conditions have changed, and what needs to be done to return the environment to some arbitrary past state.

As highlighted in Chapter 1, a key shortcoming of the EPBC Act is the focus on project-by-project decisions. These decisions are largely based on project-centric information, which is collected and collated for the purposes of conducting an environmental impact assessment. With limited exceptions (Box 33), the cumulative impacts of decisions on the landscape are not well considered. This is a key shortcoming of the Act.

Box 33 - Assessment of cumulative impacts of proposed coal seam gas or large coal mining developments

The analysis and advice provided by the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) is an example of a clear expectation and process for considering cumulative impacts in advice provided to the decision-maker.

The Information guidelines for proponents preparing coal seam gas and large coal mining development proposals outline the definition and requirements for the consideration of cumulative impacts and provide advice on the scale and nature of assessment.

The consideration of cumulative impacts and risks needs to take into account ‘all relevant past, present and reasonably foreseeable actions, programmes and policies that are likely to impact on water resources’. Consideration of local-scale cumulative impacts is undertaken by the proponent, informed by groundwater and surface modelling, bioregional assessments and other relevant regional plans. Advice on broader cumulative impacts may be provided by government regulators.

This focus on considering and providing advice on cumulative impacts is facilitated by several factors, including:

  • the broad definition of water resources (defined according to the Water Act 2007) supports a holistic view of impacts on the underlying processes that support species and ecosystem services, leading to more comprehensive and integrated scientific advice
  • significant focus on and investment in groundwater and surface water models over several decades
  • the more recent investment in the Commonwealth Government’s bioregional assessment programs to deliver independent, scientific assessments of the potential cumulative impacts of coal and unconventional gas developments on the environment
  • the IESC’s legislative functions, and its focus on developing a suite of resources to assist industry and regulators with environmental assessments, providing clarity around expectations and information needs.

The establishment of the IESC and the delivery of the Bioregional Assessments Program was part of a $150 million National Partnership Agreement announced by the Australian Government in 2012, with an additional $30.4 million in funding announced for the Geological and Bioregional Assessments Program in 2017. This highlights the significant investment required in data aggregation, analysis and expert advice required to underpin the consideration of cumulative impacts.

For more information, see the IESC and the bioregional assessments further reading at the end of the report.

In a changing climate, the past is no longer a useful guide to the future. Key threats to the environment, including biosecurity incursions and altered fire regimes, will be compounded by climate change. Although considering cumulative impacts is important now, this will become increasingly important as the predicted widespread and substantial changes to the environment manifest.

There will always be inherent uncertainty about how future pressures will affect the environment, but it is possible to better understand different future scenarios to help inform decisions. There is a clear need to enhance capability to consider a dynamic environment and a changing future.

The recommended reforms, including the setting of National Environmental Standards and the making of regional and strategic national plans, will enable cumulative impacts to be better considered over long time frames. A substantially improved information base and a broader suite of information tools, including the capacity to model the outcomes of alternative scenarios, will provide greater precision and efficiency.

10.2.4 - Advances in modelling capability are not being used

New information tools are needed. Despite being proven and long used in many areas of environmental management (such as climate modelling, fisheries, management of the Great Barrier Reef and for water resources), the modelling capability to predict the impacts of threats and management actions on land-based biodiversity is still relatively immature in Australia.

New technologies and increased computing power are fundamentally shifting the questions that environmental science can address using existing data sources. The technologies to analyse and gain insights from diverse and very large datasets are not broadly used, but these insights are essential to develop and refine predictive models. This contrasts to other areas of national policy, such as the economy and health, where predictive modelling is a mainstream and widespread tool used to inform decision-making. There are examples of how models are being used to solve complex environmental problems (Box 34). This approach could be used more broadly.

An impediment to the further uptake of new modelling and analytical approaches is a lack of the necessary staff expertise. The Department, and other agencies, have pockets of excellence in these areas. However, a broader uplift in skills is needed to make the most of emerging technologies and effectively translate analysis and science into decisions, including knowledge brokering. There is a tendency for data, digital and science skills to be viewed as niche, rather than skills that are relevant across the broader agency in many applications. Modelling efforts often lack the broader governance and long-term funding to support maintenance, communication, training and support for more general uptake.

Box 34 - Practical application of models in management of terrestrial ecosystems

This box contains examples of how models can be applied to the management of terrestrial ecosystems from the Biodiversity Knowledge Projects (CSIRO n.d). The projects aimed to improve the knowledge base and long-term research infrastructure to support biodiversity conservation and natural resource management, and the techniques are now underpinning projects such as pilot ecosystem accounts (Box 40, Chapter 11). CSIRO and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment collaborated closely so that the models could be practically applied to departmental decision-making, reporting and enhanced internal capability. However, there are still challenges with broader uptake and consistency with other approaches used by States and Territories.

Restoration thresholds for the Ranger Uranium Mine

Full ecosystem restoration of mine sites can take many decades. To support the achievement of long-term restoration outcomes after the Northern Territory Ranger Uranium Mine ceases to operate in 2021, Energy Resources of Australia and scientists from CSIRO and the Office of the Supervising Scientist collaborated to develop a set of restoration trajectories. These will help predict when the rehabilitated site will move to a sustainable ecosystem without further management intervention.

The Australian Ecosystem Models Framework was used to develop a dynamic ‘state and transition model’ of rehabilitation that drew on expert input to interpret and synthesise the extensive scientific research undertaken in the region, and analyse the uncertainties in rehabilitation trajectories. This work will enable the revegetation rehabilitation pathways, risks, contingencies and monitoring to be more clearly articulated.

Identifying areas of high biodiversity in Australia

An approach known as generalised dissimilarity modelling brings together millions of species observations at particular locations with fine-scale, continuous layers of information on soil, topography and climate to compare grid cells across the Australian continent.

This provides an automated, repeatable and improvable layer that shows where the ecological environment is more or less unique. When integrated with other datasets, it can be used to explore the representative nature of the national reserve system in a changing climate, the implications of climate change for biodiversity, the location of climate refugia, potential offset areas, areas of depleted biodiversity, and gap analyses for targeted surveys.

Modelling habitat condition from remotely sensed data

Assessing habitat condition using field-based surveys is an established technique but is costly. Remotely sensed data can be combined with information on other environmental characteristics to simulate habitat condition, which can be validated against the data from on-ground condition assessments. This generates a nationally consistent view of the condition of habitats and how this is changing over time, but is at a scale that means it can be used for more local decisions.

10.2.5 - The Department’s information management systems are antiquated

The EPBC Act was developed in the last century, when the use of paper was standard and the internet was not yet central to the effective delivery of government services. The way the Act is administered has not kept pace with the rapid transformation in how government, business and people interact with technology. In essence, the Department uses systems that are insufficient to deliver its regulatory functions efficiently.

The online systems that support the EPBC Act are cumbersome, duplicative and slow. They do not meet expectations for an easy, tailored, digital experience. As discussed in Chapter 6, the Department’s systems for managing assessment documentation result in the need to manually handle files, leading to mistakes and delays. Interactions with proponents are not easily recorded, which results in duplication and a lack of structure.

There is no system for efficient case management and it is not easy for the Department, the proponent or the community to determine the status of a proposal in the assessment process or track a project after an approval has been granted. Departmental systems do not link with State and Territory systems and there is no single user portal.

The Department’s internal systems do not support simple extraction of information when making key decisions. Instead, systems rely on the informal transfer of information between staff. This can lead to duplicated information requests when staff change. Data exchange between systems is manual and often labour intensive. Underinvestment in information systems over many years has translated into fixes that rely on manual processes or upgrades of aging IT systems that are costly to maintain.

The EPBC Act requires archaic methods of communication, such as newspaper advertisements and publishing in the Government Notices Gazette. The focus on meeting statutory requirements often comes at the expense of efforts to use more modern forms of presenting and communicating information in an easily accessible way and supporting better engagement with the community in decision-making.

10.2.6 - The current information system will not allow the full benefits of EPBC Act reform to be realised

Good information on the environment and the outcomes from management interventions is a fundamental requirement for successful reform. Reforms recommended by this Review will increase demand for quality information, as better information will improve efficiency including for:

  • the precision and refinement of the National Environmental Standards
  • scrutiny of the adequacy of information available for decisions by the Ecologically Sustainable Development Committee
  • the accreditation model
  • regional planning
  • the mechanisms to attract private sector investment in restoration
  • the monitoring and evaluation framework for the EPBC Act.

As noted in Chapter 4, for business time is money. For approval processes, better information and systems could significantly reduce the time taken for decisions to be made and provide greater confidence in the outcome. There is a high cost to industry and government in relying on the existing data and information system. Some examples of the potential time and cost savings from improving the information system are shown in Box 35. Another benefit of improving the information system supporting the EPBC Act is improving the adequacy and transparency of the evidence underpinning advice and decisions (Chapter 4).

At present, the management of environmental information and the advice that draws on it falls well short of public expectation and government commitments for sharing, re-use and transparency. In 2015, the Commonwealth Government released the Public Data Policy Statement, which recognises that the data held by the Australian Government is a strategic national resource. The statement commits the Government ‘to optimise the use and reuse of public data; to release non-sensitive data as open by default; and to collaborate with the private and research sectors to extend the value of public data for the benefit of the Australian public’. The Australian Government is also committed to open government and engagement through the Open Government Partnership, with a set of actions around enhancing information access and public accountability, and the technology and innovation to support those aims. Consistent with these whole-of-government commitments, both the frameworks and data – and how these have been applied in the development of advice for decision-makers (for example, in making a National Environmental Standard, regional plan or decision on a development application) – should be publicly available information. The Government’s systems should have the capability to efficiently support the preparation, consideration and publication of this information.

The management of environmental information has failed to keep step with increasing recognition of the need for greater respect and awareness when dealing with Indigenous knowledge and data. The movement towards open data has often focused on the ‘FAIR’ principles – that data is findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. This creates a tension for Indigenous Australians, who are increasingly asserting their right to have greater control over how their data and knowledge are used. To complement the FAIR principles, the Global Indigenous Data Alliance has developed the CARE principles for Indigenous data governance – collective benefit, authority to control, responsibility and ethics (GIDA 2019).

Box 35 - Cost efficiencies and benefits of improvements to the information system

Benefits for large developers

The 2019 Digitally Transforming Environmental Impact Assessment report, prepared by the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute, identified significant financial benefits to proponents and the government from developing systems to improve the flow of information into the environmental assessment process (WABSI 2019).

The report found that reducing the time and effort involved in sourcing data could save proponents $1 million per year. It also considered the potential for improved information to increase confidence and allow decisions to be made earlier. Reducing assessment times can save industry-led projects up to $72 million per year and State government infrastructure projects up to $100 million per year. Accelerated private and public project development would deliver a benefit of more than $150 million every year.

Benefits for landholders and smaller businesses

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has highlighted the benefits of a nationally consistent and clear method for vegetation and ecosystem mapping. Divergence in mapping products and regulatory instruments between jurisdictions is a significant frustration for landholders. The NFF submission (2020) to the Review’s Discussion Paper highlighted an example in Queensland where mismatched mapping and requirements between levels of government led to ambiguous signals for landholders and a high level of uncertainty. Unsure of their rights, landholders have delayed or shelved development plans and haven’t undertaken fuel reduction burning and regrowth management.

While the NFF recognised the challenges associated with data collection and access, the message was that the benefits of a nationally clear and consistent method would exceed the cost of the investment, delivering more certainty to farmers and building greater trust in regulators.

Benefits for government

Mapping of fire severity and extent for the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires was vital to inform the government response to the fires. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment led this effort, aggregating data collected across multiple jurisdictions with different processes and for different purposes. The effort was slowed by having to find the relevant agencies, understand the different data structures and negotiate individual licensing agreements to make the information public.

The mapping effort took 4 months, 6 staff and cost $600,000. This time and money could be halved for similar events by implementing improvements such as data sharing agreements and generating approaches for automated data exchange.