In November 2011, we provided an update on Queensland's Greentape Reduction Project, which focused on the proposed amendments to the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld) (EP Act) through the introduction of the Environmental Protection (Greentape Reduction) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill (EPOLA). As we outlined in the update, the Bill is a product of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection's (DEHP) Greentape Reduction Project, which is comprised of key initiatives that substantially change the environmental approvals and assessment process in Queensland.
Although the Bill lapsed prior to the state election, it was revived under the same name by the new Queensland Government (Government) with only minor amendments and clarifications, including:
- The inclusion of the term 'eligible environmentally relevant activity'. This type of activity will need to meet set eligibility criteria, which will then allow the applicant to make a standard application.
- The removal of the requirement to provide statutory declarations in standard applications, allowing lodgement of online applications.
- Minor amendments to ensure that the suitable operator register is centrally maintained by the DEHP.
The Bill was subsequently passed on 31 July 2012.
The EPOLA seeks to simplify and streamline regulatory requirements with a view to ensuring that Queensland's regulatory framework reduces costs to industry and government while maintaining environmental standards. In particular, it creates a single approval process for environmentally relevant activities (ERAs) and develops a licensing model that is proportionate to the risk the activity poses to the environment, providing flexible operational approvals for ERAs under the EP Act.
Proportionate approval processes
The amendments to the EP Act will separate environmental authorities from development permits by removing ERAs from the definition of 'material change of use' in the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 (SP Act). Instead, ERA approvals will be assessed under the EP Act. The approval process will be similar to the SP Act, and include application, information, notification and decision stages.
Three types of applications are prescribed in the amendments. The type of application applied for will depend upon the risk that the ERA poses to the environment, with the level of assessment being proportionate to the environmental risk of the activity.
The three applications that may be made are:
- Standard applications: operators are able to make a 'standard application' for lower-risk ERAs. These are assessed against the eligibility criteria prescribed in the EP Regulation by the DEHP (the eligibility criteria are yet to be prescribed), and will be subject to the standard conditions (also prescribed by the DEHP, although the standard conditions are yet to be prescribed). Standard applications will not be required to complete the information and notification stages of the approval process.
- Variation applications: where the operator cannot meet all the standard conditions, flexibility is afforded through a 'variation application' to change some of the conditions. The applicant is required to complete all stages of the assessment process, and is only assessed on the basis of the variation to the standard approval.
- Site-specific applications: for all ERAs not subject to a standard or variation application, operators will be required to make a 'site-specific application'. The process is similar to the current ERA approval process under the SP Act, and therefore requires completion of all stages for approval.
The environmental authority is a separate approval from the development permit, and therefore both the permit and the authority will have conditions attached to their approval. The EPOLA appears to be silent as to how conflict or inconsistency will be reconciled between the two sets of conditions, should the issue arise.
While a development permit attaches to the land, the authority is held personally by the operator and does not attach to the land (therefore, registration certificates will no longer be required). This allows for multiple environmental authorities for resource activities that are held by one operator to be amalgamated into a 'single project authority' where the ERAs are proposed to be carried out as a single integrated operation.
An 'amalgamated corporate authority' has also been introduced whereby a company holding environmental authorities on multiple sites can amalgamate its licences into a single operation under a single environmental authority. The separation of the environmental authority and development permit also allows amendments to be made to the authority conditions without requiring a change to the development approval.
Who is benefiting?
The Government claims the changes will bring about significant savings for both government and industry, with small-to-medium-sized businesses expected to benefit the most. The environmental approvals system in Queensland has not been reformed in 15 years, and has grown to be a complex and difficult system. The purpose of the EPOLA is to make it easier and less costly for businesses to obtain environmental approvals, while the Government continues to uphold the environmental standards expected by the community.
The Government states that the environment will not suffer at the expense of industry as a consequence of the new assessment and approval process. While Environmental Minister Andrew Powell has explained that the changes simplify the process and in no way lower environmental standards, the EPOLA has been criticised for not providing adequate notification periods, and thereby reducing the opportunity for affected stakeholders to express their concerns about the activity.
How can we help?
The EPOLA is scheduled to commence in March 2013. If you have questions about the new ERA approval process and how you or your clients can prepare and take advantage of these changes, please contact Mark Baker-Jones, the environmental and planning specialist in our Brisbane Real Estate Team.
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