Australia: Reducing green tape in Queensland - Proposed reforms to environmental licensing

Queensland's environmental licensing framework could be substantially reformed if proposed changes are accepted. The Department of Environment and Resource Management is currently undertaking a review of the licensing framework under the Environmental Protection Act 1994, the "Greentape Reduction Project", in response to industry and government concerns about the ever-increasing complexity of the environmental regulatory system in Queensland.

As part of the review, the Department has released a discussion paper, "Greentape Reduction - Reforming licensing under the Environmental Protection Act 1994", proposing a number of reforms which, if implemented, would have widespread implications for mines, petroleum activities and industry.

Developing a licensing model that is proportionate to the risk of the activity.

Currently, the environmental licensing system for Chapter 4 activities (ie. environmentally relevant activities other than agricultural, mining and petroleum activities) regulates lower risk environmentally relevant activities (ERAs) to the same extent as higher risk activities.

In order to achieve a proportionate licensing system, the paper proposes four "assessment tracks":

  • Statutory rules: to apply to ERAs where the risks to the environment can be managed with a common set of accepted practices. The statutory rules would be structured as a list of "performance outcomes" and "acceptable solutions".
  • Standard approvals: a form of self-assessment where standard codes would be developed for well established activities.
  • Site specific assessment: to apply to ERAs where the environmental risk may not be well known, the risk varies according to the location and material, or serious environmental harm is likely to occur if the risk is incorrectly managed. This is the approach currently used for the majority of Chapter 4 ERAs and level 1 mining and petroleum ERAs.
  • Environmental impact statements: the existing EIS process will be maintained.

Operator licences

Currently development approvals for Chapter 4 activities contain conditions relating to the operation of the activity (operational conditions) as well as conditions relating to land use. The discussion paper concludes that this limits the opportunity to amend operational conditions without also having to reconsider land use issues.

To address this, Government has proposed the introduction of operator licences, which will set out all the operational conditions for an activity separate to a land use approval. An operator licence will not be restricted to a particular parcel of land and will allow multiple sites with similar activities to be managed as a single project under one operator.

In order to facilitate these changes, the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 would be amended to ensure that only those aspects of an ERA that relate to a change of use will require a development approval. Proponents would therefore be able to apply directly to the administering authority for changes to operator licences.

There are two other proposed new types of licences:

  • Corporate licences: to allow companies who hold one or more ERA (whether Chapter 4, petroleum or mining) on different sites to obtain a single "corporate licence". The licence would contain conditions for all of the sites.
  • Bubble licences: to allow for all emissions under the licence to be considered as a whole, enabling emissions to be traded between sites.

Streamlining the resources approvals process

The following measures are proposed to streamline the approvals process for petroleum and mining activities:

  • Introduction of a single approvals process: this would be organised into various stages of the assessment process, similar to the IDAS process under the Sustainable Planning Act.
  • Changes to the level of information required for applications: this would remove the unnecessary replication of EIS documents in subsequent applications. The requirement for environmental management plans may also be removed and replaced by a straightforward application document process.
  • Streamlining transfer of EAs: it is proposed that EAs attach to tenure so that a holder of an EA and tenure only needs to apply under a single process to transfer the tenure.

Streamlining information requirements

The discussion paper proposes a number of measures to reduce the costs of providing information to support applications, including:

  • Third party certification: to incorporate independent third party certification into the assessment and approval of Chapter 4 and resource activities. This aims to reduce assessment timeframes.

  • Reducing the information to be assessed: currently the assessment process requires that an application be reviewed against standard criteria. The discussion paper proposes to reduce the standard criteria, ensuring that only the information needed for assessing the application is clearly indicated.

How does this affect you?

The discussion paper contains a number of proposed reforms to the environmental regulatory system that will have widespread implications for industry.

While the reforms are in their infancy, now is an opportune time for industry to provide input into the setting of the reform agenda for Queensland environmental law.

Written submissions on the paper can be made up until 1 July 2011.

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