Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Overview of mining laws

Introduction

Northern Territory mining laws are designed to encourage mining companies to explore and mine.  This is because resources on and under the ground in the Northern Territory are owned by the Crown (meaning the Northern Territory Government) not the people who own or occupy land.  The Northern Territory government receives money in the form of royalties from mining companies who mine resources.

Mining is controlled by different laws depending on what resource is being mined.

What are the mining laws?

Mining of minerals and extractive minerals (for example coal, uranium, sand, soil, gravel and rocks) is controlled by two main laws.  These are the Northern Territory Mineral Titles Act and the Northern Territory Mining Management Act.  The Mineral Titles Act is the law under which exploration and mining activities of these resources are approved.  Once approved, the Mining Management Act controls how exploration and mining activities are conducted and what obligations mining companies have to protect the environment.

Uranium mining is regulated under both Northern Territory mining laws (the Mineral Titles Act and the Mining Management Act) and under the Commonwealth Atomic Energy Act.

Oil and gas mining (called petroleum mining) on land and on inland waters is controlled under the Northern Territory Petroleum Act.  Other laws control petroleum mining at sea.

Pipelines for gas and oil are regulated under the Northern Territory Energy Pipelines Act.

How to make sense of mining laws

A good way to understand mining laws is to:

  1. work out what type of resource is being mined; and
  2. work out what type of land the mining is taking place on and which people have an interest in that land.

Our Fact Sheets can help you quickly find out about the laws that control what a mining company can do, what your legal rights are and what protection exists for the environment.

If you know what type of resource is being mined, you can use the Fact Sheet menu to go straight to the page on that type of mining.

If you want to know about what rights exist for people who have legal rights over certain types of land, you can use the Fact Sheet menu go straight to the page about that type of land.

Who regulates mining?

The Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy is responsible for approving exploration and mining operations.  The Northern Territory Government Department of Mines and Energy is responsible for administering mining laws and for environmental regulation of exploration and mining on mining sites.

Exploration and mining of offshore petroleum in Commonwealth waters, which lie beyond 3 nautical miles of the Northern Territory coast, are jointly approved by the Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy and the Commonwealth Minister for Resources and Energy.  There is also a separate regulator responsible for environmental management of offshore petroleum and pipelines in Commonwealth waters.  This is the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority.

Objector’s rights

Objecting and making submissions is a very important step in stopping mining activities that are likely to have adverse environmental impacts or to seek better environmental outcomes.  Even if objections do not stop mining activities, they could persuade the Minister for Mines and Energy to put conditions on the approval that limit how the mining is done to reduce adverse impacts on the environment.  If the Minister for Resources fails to properly consider objections and submissions, there may be a right to ask the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory to review the Minister’s decision.

There are different rights for people to object to proposed mining and exploration activities depending on what resource is being mined and depending on what type of land will be affected.  For example:

  • for proposed exploration and mining operations for minerals and extractive minerals:
    • landowners can object
    • any other people, such as members of the public or environment groups can make submissions
  • for exploration of petroleum:
    • people who have an estate or interest land in the exploration licence area can object
    • people who have an estate or interest land on adjoining land have the right to object
    • there is no right for any other people to object

To find out what your rights are to object to a mining or exploration proposal, read our Fact Sheet for the type of mine you are concerned about.  Be aware that even exploration activities can have significant environmental impacts.

Certain people may also have the power to refuse consent to a mining company to explore or mine.  Information about when consent is needed and who can give or refuse consent is included in each of our Fact Sheets.

What about appeal rights?

There are no rights in any of the mining laws for any third parties (for example, objectors, submitters, landowners, members of the public) to apply for a review of the merits of a decision to grant a mining approval (often called an appeal).

The only legal way for third parties to challenge an exploration or mining approval is to apply to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory for a review of the Minister of Resources’ decision. This type of legal case is called judicial review.  It is about whether or not the decision made by the Minister for Resources is legally valid.  It is not about whether the decision is good or bad or could be improved.

In order to apply for judicial review of any decision, you need to have grounds for believing that the decision is legally incorrect. You also need to have sufficient interest in a matter (called standing) as not everyone can bring a judicial review challenge.  For more information about judicial review, please read our Fact Sheet on Judicial review and merits review.

Judicial review is complex and can be costly. For these reasons, objecting or submitting to a proposal can give you the most opportunity to practically influence the outcomes of a proposal.

You should always seek independent legal advice before taking legal action because there is a risk that if you are unsuccessful you might have to pay the costs of the other parties’ legal fees.  Contact us if you wish to discuss your legal options to challenge a decision.

What is the role of the Lands, Planning and Mining Tribunal?

The Lands, Planning and Mining Tribunal has two types of powers in mining law.

  1. It has the power to make binding decisions about certain types of disputes that are referred to it.  For example, it has the power to decide whether or not someone is unreasonably withholding consent from a person who wants to do preliminary exploration (read our Fact Sheet on Mining for minerals and extractive minerals for more information).
  2. It also has the power to make recommendations and hold hearings on certain matters.   For example, the Tribunal can hold a hearing and make a recommendation if the Minister for Mines and Energy refers an application for exploration or mining to the Tribunal.  This is an optional process that the Minister for Mines and Energy may choose to do before he or she decides whether or not to grant a mineral title.  The Tribunal’s function is to be an independent body to hear the evidence and make recommendations to the Minister for Mines and Energy about whether the mineral title should be granted, and if so, on what conditions.

People who are objecting to a proposal have a right to be parties to the Tribunal hearing. Contact us if you would like help with presenting your objection to the Tribunal.

It is important to note that when the Tribunal makes its recommendation, the Minister for Mines and Energy may or may not follow the recommendation of the Tribunal when making his/her decision about whether or not to grant a mineral title.

The Tribunal can also hold a hearing and make a recommendation if a person who has a native title right or interest applies to the Tribunal in relation to an objection he or she has made about an exploration or mining application.  For more information, read our Fact Sheet on Mining and native title rights.

Dispute resolution

The Tribunal also has powers to resolve certain disputes about mining.  Any person may apply to the Tribunal for a decision about a dispute relating to preliminary exploration, a mineral title, a title area, a proposed title area or fossicking.  For example, the Tribunal can resolve disputes about:

  • the area, dimensions and boundaries of land being surveyed for a proposed title area or title area
  • the entry onto land to conduct preliminary exploration or fossicking, to conduct authorised activities under a mineral title or to construct, maintain and use infrastructure under an access authority
  • the use of a landowner’s water by a person who is conducting preliminary exploration or fossicking or by the holder of a mineral title
  • the entry onto a title area by a person other than the holder of the title
  • contractual obligations relating to mineral titles
  • mineral rights interests

Concerns about mining laws and the environment

The obligations of mining companies to protect the environment are varied and depend on what resource is being mined.  Whilst the different laws create criminal offences for certain types of environmental harm at mining sites, mining companies are allowed to cause a certain amount of harm to the environment if mining activities have been approved.

Mining can have bad impacts on the environment.  However, the Northern Territory does not have a strong regulatory regime for environment protection.  This is because:

  • None of the mining laws in the Northern Territory include the principles of ecologically sustainable development.
  • Public participation in decision-making is very limited. Public notification of an application to explore or mine is limited to the newspaper.  The rights to object depend on what resource is being mined and are limited to certain stages of exploration and mining.  There are no rights under any laws for objectors to apply for the merits of a decision to grant an exploration or mining.
  • At the stage that mining companies apply for an approval to explore or mine (called a mineral title), the Minister for Mines and Energy does not have to consider the environmental impacts of a proposal.  The Minister for Mines and Energy is only required to consider the outcome of an environmental impact assessment (if any) when he or she decides whether or not to grant an Authorisation, which takes place later in the approval process.  The public are not notified about Authorisations.  There are no rights to make objections or submissions at the Authorisation stage, when environmental effects are being considered.
  • The regime for environment protection from mining activities is fragmented.  Some mining activities are not subject to any environmental protection requirements.  For example, fossicking on land.  Some mining activities have only very limited environmental protection obligations.  For example, petroleum mining on land is not subject to the Mining Management Act and so is only subject to limited environmental obligations and prosecution only in circumstances where significant environmental harm has been caused.

Water impacts

Exploration and mining activities have special rights that other types of developments don’t have.

Mining companies have a right to use water in the title area and are not subject to water allocations under the Northern Territory Water Act. The right to use water includes the right to take or divert water in the title area.  It includes the right to sink a well or bore.

Protected areas

Areas that are parks and reserves can be mined.  Just because an area is protected as a park or reserve, wilderness area, does not prohibit mining (although there are some additional considerations that have to be taken into account by the Minister for Mines and Energy when deciding whether to grant mining in these areas).  For more information, read our Fact Sheet on Mining in parks, reserves, wilderness zones and on reserved land.

How can I report my complaints or concerns?

The Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy has Mining Officers responsible for receiving complaints and investigating complaints about mining sites. Complaints are confidential.  The Mining Officers are not allowed to disclose your name to anyone.

Concerns or complaints about operational mineral or extractive mineral mines can be reported to:

Director of Mining Environmental Compliance
Department of Mines and Energy
GPO Box 3000
Darwin
NT 0801

Or by email to: mineral.info@nt.gov.au.

It is helpful to include the following details about your complaint:

  • Your name
  • Your contact information
  • Details of the complaint including:
    • the mine(s)
    • what happened
    • where
    • when
    • who was involved
    • How long has it been going on
    • copies of any supporting documentation that may assist the Department of Mines and Energy to resolve the matter (for example photographs, GPS coordinates)
  • what you would like to see happen as a result of the complaint

Concerns or complaints about petroleum mining sites should be reported to:

Director of Energy
Department of Mines and Energy
GPO Box 3000
Darwin
NT 0801               

How to find out information about mining activities

To find out more information about mining operations and what information is publicly available, please read our Fact Sheet on Access to information.