Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Environmental assessment of mining activities

Overview

The laws that control if, when and how an environmental impact assessment takes place are separate from the exploration and mining approval process.  The exploration and mining approval laws themselves do not have any requirement for there to be an assessment of environmental impacts before exploration or mining starts.

When is environmental impact assessment needed?

For exploration and mining on land or within 3 nautical miles of the Northern Territory coast, environmental impact assessment of a proposal takes place only if the Northern Territory Minister of Lands, Planning and Environment is of the opinion that the exploration or mining could have a “significant” environmental impact.

What is a significant environmental impact?

There are no laws that explain what a “significant” environmental impact is. However, the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority website has a list of the types of works that may require environmental assessment.  These are:

  • Proposals which could affect areas of high conservation value, endangered species, including wetlands, coastline, marine, arid areas, estuaries, and areas containing important or unique flora and fauna communities.
  • Proposals which could affect important historic, cultural, archaeological, scenic, scientific or educational sites.
  •  Proposals involving significant land disturbance, e.g. land clearing for agriculture or forestry; urban and industrial sites; dredging; large extractive industries; surface paving; transport facilities.
  • Proposals involving resource extraction, e.g. drilling; mining; blasting.
  • Proposals involving modification of natural regimes, e.g. alteration of groundwater hydrology; drainage patterns; fauna movement; vegetation patterns.
  • Major engineering works, e.g. power stations; transmission lines; roadworks; bridges; dams and impoundments; irrigation works; recreational structures.
  • Establishment of: of major agro-industrial facilities, e.g. large piggeries; poultry farms; abattoirs; rendering plants; and manufacturing and industrial process, e.g. oil refining and cement plants.
  • Proposals involving waste treatment and disposal, or have the potential to pollute e.g. ocean dumping; landfill; disposal of tailings, spoil and overburden; cooling water discharge; spray irrigation; liquid effluent discharge; stack and exhaust emissions.
  • Proposals which are likely to have a major impact on the social environment of surrounding or nearby communities.
  • Proposals which may involve a significant risk or hazard to public safety and the environment.

The Environment Protection Authority makes the decision about whether environmental impacts could be “significant”.  The Environment Protection Authority therefore has a lot of discretion about whether or not the environmental impacts of a proposed action should be assessed.   Very few exploration and mining operations go through the formal environmental assessment process under the Environment Assessment Act.

What happens if a proposal is not considered to have a significant environmental impact?

If the proposal is not considered to have a significant impact, it is possible that no formal environmental impact assessment will take place.  If no environmental impact assessment takes place, the Minister for Mines and Energy only has to consider environmental impacts before granting exploration and mining approvals in very limited situations.

When do national environmental laws apply?

Australia also has national environmental laws that require environmental assessment and approval of proposed actions that are likely to have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance, such as nationally threatened species.

If the proposed mining activity is within the Northern Territory, the assessment may occur under Northern Territory environmental assessment laws according to a bilateral agreement between the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory governments.

The Commonwealth Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities must approve the proposed action before it can be undertaken. This is the case even if the assessment process occurs under Northern Territory environmental assessment laws.

Mining activities in Commonwealth waters, beyond 3 nautical miles of the Northern Territory coast, may require environmental impact assessment under Australia’s national environmental laws if those activities are likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance.

Australia’s national environmental laws are the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Regulations.  For more information about the Commonwealth environmental impact assessment process and how to participate, read or Fact Sheets on Environmental impact assessment.

What is the environment impact assessment process for mining?

If there is an environmental impact assessment, the Northern Territory Environmental Assessment Act and the Environmental Assessment Administrative Procedures are the laws that set out the legal process for environmental assessment of proposals.

The assessment process is:

  • The Minister of Mines and Energy must give the Environment Protection Authority written notice about the proposed exploration or mining as soon as practicable after he or she has been informed about it.  The notice must tell the Environment Protection Authority about the proposed exploration or mining and the name and address of the mining company.
  • The Minister for Mines and Energy must tell the Environment Protection Authority about a proposal when he or she is informed about the “formulation of a proposed action”.  A proposed action includes:
      • the carrying out of works and other projects
      • the making of, or the participation in the making of, decisions and recommendations
      • the formulation of proposals
      • the incurring of expenditure
      • the negotiation, operation and enforcement of agreements and arrangements (including agreements and arrangements with, and with authorities of, the Commonwealth, the States and other Territories).
  • When a mining company applies for a mineral title or mining Authorisation, or a petroleum exploration permit or mining approval, the Minister for Mines and Energy has been informed about a proposed action.  The Minister must refer the proposed action to the Environment Protection Authority.
  • If the Minister for Mines and Energy does not refer the proposed action, the Environment Protection Authority has the power to request that the Minister for Mines and Energy refers a proposed action to him or her.
    • The Department of Lands, Planning and Environment has an Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Mines and Energy which sets out the situations in which the Department of Mines and Energy will refer proposed actions to the Environment Protection Authority.  These are:
      • Projects where Commonwealth involvement is anticipated (e.g. uranium mining) or Commonwealth assessment is required;
      • All petroleum development proposals;
      • All pipeline construction projects that fall outside an existing pipeline corridor;
      • Projects where the magnitude of production rate or a change of production rate exceeds 200 000 tonnes per annum of ore;
      • Projects which exceed 1 million tonnes extraction per annum of waste plus ore;
      • Projects located within:
      • 1 km of a major river or coastline;
      • 2 km of a gazetted town boundary or recognised regional community (note: this is intended to apply to nearby population centres, not all municipal or shire boundaries);
      • National Parks, Marine Reserve, Conservation Reserves or areas of known environmental significance; excluding exploration activity on Exploration Licences;
      • Mining projects where total disturbance exceeds 100 hectares;
      • Energy or Geothermal projects where total disturbance exceeds 10 hectares; and
      • Projects where ground or surface water may be placed at significant risk.
  • The Environment Protection Authority has to decide whether or not an environmental impact assessment is required.  Environmental impact assessment of a proposal takes place only if the Environment Protection Authority is of the opinion that the exploration or mining could have a significant environmental impact.
  • People have a right to participate in the environmental impact assessment process. For more information about environmental impact assessment process and community rights to participate, read our Fact Sheet on Environmental impact assessment overview
  • At the end of the environmental impact assessment process, the Environment Protection Authority must provide its recommendations for the protection of the environment to the Minister for Mines and Energy.
  • The Minister for Mines and Energy makes the decision to approve or refuse the proposed exploration or mining.