6.2 - Actions by other Commonwealth agencies, where accredited arrangements are not in place
6.2.1 - Actions on Commonwealth land and actions undertaken by Commonwealth agencies
In addition to matters of national environmental significance, other protected matters that are subject to development assessment and approval under Parts 7 to 9 of the EPBC Act include actions undertaken by Commonwealth agencies and actions on Commonwealth land.
As these actions do not require any State or Territory approval if they are being undertaken wholly on Commonwealth land, they require an assessment of the impacts to the ‘whole of the environment’. The issues considered vary greatly depending on the type of action. Although there are significant impact guidelines for Commonwealth actions (DSEWPC 2013), there are no clear standards to drive consistency around what must be considered if a significant impact is deemed likely.
Some Commonwealth agencies have their own processes for managing environmental impacts. However, this depends on the frequency of interaction with the EPBC Act or the need to assess environmental impacts as part of their day-to-day business.
For example, the nuclear MNES often triggers Commonwealth agencies undertaking nuclear transport, research or waste treatment. However, most referrals received do not require approval under the EPBC Act (and are often deemed not a controlled action – an ‘NCA’ – or not a controlled action if undertaken in a particular manner – an ‘NCA-PM’) because activities are conducted in accordance with the regulatory guidelines and protocols under the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (ARPANS Act) and regulated by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Authority (ARPANSA).
Composite actions (actions affecting both Commonwealth land and outside of Commonwealth land) often result in the need for multiple assessments with States and the Commonwealth Environment Minister (for example, involving the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority or the Sydney Harbour Heritage Trust) because they may also be subject to assessment under State or Territory processes.
6.2.2 - Reform recommendations – National Environmental Standards for Commonwealth actions and actions impacting on Commonwealth land
To provide for a clear and consistent set of rules for whole-of-environment assessments not covered by the National Environmental Standards for MNES, the Commonwealth should develop additional National Environment Standards for actions impacting on Commonwealth land and Commonwealth actions. This Standard should further develop the guidance provided in the Significant Impact Guidelines 1.2 (DSEWPC 2013) and include consideration of:
- ecosystem functioning and diversity
- impacts to natural and physical resources – for example, impact of chemicals such as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (also known as PFAS), impacts to air and water quality, impacts to non-listed wetlands and other important natural landscape features
- depletion of resources and intergenerational equity
- people and community impacts – for example, noise, tourism and fly-in fly-out business impacts
- heritage values, including Commonwealth heritage places, Indigenous and cultural heritage
This would set clear rules for the Commonwealth to make decisions on whole-of-environment matters where it has responsibility to do so. The National Environmental Standard could also provide a national benchmark for environmental protections more broadly, which could then be reflected by States and Territories to promote continuous improvement.
The National Environmental Standard would also allow for the accreditation model to apply to suitable Commonwealth agencies that can demonstrate consistency against these Standards. This would also help reduce the number of NCA/NCA-PM referral decisions (for example, the accreditation model could be applied to ARPANSA for specific nuclear actions that would otherwise have been NCA-PMs).
In the second tranche of reform, a National Environmental Standard for actions impacting on Commonwealth land and Commonwealth actions should be developed to provide a national benchmark for effective environmental protections. The Commonwealth should promote the broader application of this Standard by encouraging other jurisdictions to adopt it.