‘Fundamental reform’ of EPBC Act needed, says Samuel

A federal environmental protection law review has suggested a greater assessment and approvals role for the states and territories.

In an interim report into the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act published this week, Professor Graeme Samuel says delays caused by the complexity of current processes could be reduced if the Commonwealth devolved more decision-making powers to the states and territories.

Professor Samuel was appointed in 2019 to lead a year-long review of the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act with a brief to “tackle green tape and deliver greater certainty to business, landholders and conservation groups”.

“Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat,” Mr Samuel warns in his report. “The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.”

He describes the current Act as ineffective, particularly in enabling the Commonwealth to play its role in protecting and conserving nationally important environmental matters.

The Act is also distrusted by industry and the community, Professor Samuel says, owing in part to the perceived duplication of state and Commonwealth processes and the time it takes to receive an approval.

“Fundamental reform … is required, and new, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be the foundation.”

Professor Samuel also calls for a compliance and enforcement regulator “not subject to actual or implied political direction from the Commonwealth Environment Minister”.

Responding to the interim report, Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the Morrison Government will commit to developing Commonwealth-led national environmental standards and begin talks with “willing states to enter agreements for single touch approvals (removing duplication by accrediting states to carry out environmental assessments and approvals on the Commonwealth’s behalf).

“It will not, however, support additional layers of bureaucracy such as the establishment of an independent regulator.”

The EPBC Act review process now moves to consultations, with interested parties invited to provide feedback via an online survey closing on 17 August.