Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) refers to any process that seeks to assess the likely or possible impacts of a development or project before a decision is made as to whether or not the development or project should proceed, and if so, under what conditions. These days, it is to be hoped that almost every decision made by governments, companies and individuals will include some component of EIA. Some forms of EIA are required by law (such as an Environmental Impact Statement i.e. EIS under the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016 (SA) or an Environmental Impact Report under the Petroleum and Geothermal Energy Act 2000 (SA)). In other cases, the requirement of a government department to take the environment into consideration when making decisions is purely a matter of policy and not set out in any Act of Parliament.
The two main Acts covering EIA are the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016 (SA) (also discussed in LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND PLANNING) and the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth). The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 requires that a controlled action must be assessed before it can be approved. Controlled Actions are defined as actions that are likely to have a significant impact on a matter or national environmental significance (MNES). The Act sets out the process to be followed, which includes consultation with the responsible State or Territory Minister as well as public consultation. Not all environmental impacts of the action are considered by the Commonwealth when choosing the appropriate level of assessment. Only the relevant impacts of a matter of national environmental significance that trigger the EIA process in the first place are considered. Once an action is declared to be a controlled action, the Minister can assess the matter in one of five ways:
An Accredited Process (or "one-off accreditation") This process is carried out under some other Commonwealth or State law. For the purposes of the EPBC Act, the Minister can accredit that other process if he or she is confident that the relevant impacts will be assessed. At the conclusion of the process, the Minister will receive a report on the outcome of the EIA so that an informed approval decision can be made. This is the process most likely to be used by the Commonwealth in assessing an action where a State EIS is also required. It avoids the need for two EISs to be prepared.
Assessment on Preliminary Documentation Under this process the Minister assesses the proposed action on preliminary information provided by the developer. The Minister can approve the proposed action if he or she believes on reasonable grounds based on this preliminary documentation that the impacts are properly identified and will be properly managed. There is also a requirement for the Secretary to the Department for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) to prepare a report to the Minister.
A Public Environment Report (PER) This process involves the Minister preparing guidelines and the developer preparing a draft PER that is published and made available for public comment. Any public comments are submitted to the Minister along with a report from the Secretary of the DSEWPaC, before the Minister makes a decision.
An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Under this process, guidelines are prepared, a draft EIS is prepared and published and public comment is invited. The level of documentation required is extensive and will normally consist of hundreds of thousands of pages. The EIS will pass through a number of stages before a final copy is submitted to the Minister for approval. A report by the Secretary of the DSEWPaC is also required.
Public Inquiry Under the EPBC Act, an office of Commissioner is established. This person is empowered to undertake a public inquiry into the environmental and other impacts of a proposed action. This provision was rarely used under the old legislation and it is not expected to be widely used under the EPBC Act. A public inquiry provides the most thorough process of EIA. On completion of the inquiry, the Commissioner must report to the Minister.
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act resources The EPBC Act is the first major environmental legislation where both government and non-government information can be found extensively on the internet. As well as the DSEWPaC links identified elsewhere in this chapter, there is a wide range of material on sites administered by conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Humane Society International and the Australian Conservation Foundation. For other relevant links, visit the Environmental Defenders Office web site at http://www.edosa.org.au.