On 6 March 2012, the NT Government announced a three year moratorium on granting titles permitting exploration for minerals or mining and on issuing authorisations permitting mining activities within the coastal waters of the NT until a review of actual or potential impacts of seabed mining has been undertaken. This moratorium does not include petroleum exploration and production and port development.
The Moratorium was subsequently extended on 5 March 2015 for a further three years to allow for the review to be completed and considered by the NT Government. The then NT Government's go-slow approach was aimed at ensuring that the unique Territorian lifestyle is looked after and marine flora and fauna are protected.
The Moratorium has now been further extended until March 2021 to allow further time for the review to be completed as there is much more scientific analysis that needs to be done to fully understand the potential risks and impacts of seabed mining before it can be considered by Government.
How the Moratorium on seabed mining works
The Moratorium provides that the Minister administering the Mineral Titles Act and Mining Management Act (the Minister) will not for a period of three years from the date of the Moratorium (or any extension of it by the Minister) grant any mineral exploration licence, mineral exploration licence in retention, mineral lease, or mineral authority or issue any authorisation in respect of exploration for minerals or mining within the coastal waters of the NT.
For the term of the Moratorium the Minister will be precluded from:
- exercising any functions in respect to assessing, granting, or reviewing mineral titles relating to exploration for minerals or mining within the coastal waters of the NT; and
- exercising any functions in respect to assessing and issuing authorisations in relation to any activities for or associated with exploration for minerals or mining within the coastal waters of the NT.
The Moratorium clarifies that this means all applications for mineral titles, authorisations, or both, in respect of any area or activity within the coastal waters of the NT which were lodged prior to, or after, the commencement of the Moratorium, will not be assessed during the term of the Moratorium.
The status of mineral titles and authorisations in effect during the Moratorium is as follows:
- each granted mineral title will be retained on the register of titles in the form and to the extent of the title as at the commencement of this Moratorium. The Minister will not require a mineral title holder to comply with the requirements of the Mineral Titles Act or regulations in respect to such matters as those relating to annual reporting, reduction of the title area and the like; and
- each authorisation issued will remain on the register of authorisations in the form and to the extent of the title as at the commencement of this Moratorium. The Minister will retain all security deposits paid by appointed operators in respect of any authorisations issued. In respect of an authorisation permitting exploration or mining activities to be carried out within the coastal waters of the NT the Minister will not:
- review or assess an original, revision or amended version of a Mining Management Plan; or
- review a security calculation submitted by a person in connection with a security deposit required for an authorisation or any conditions imposed on an authorisation to review the security amount.
Comprehensive review of seabed mining practices and impacts
As stated in the Moratorium, the review is to:
- examine practices adopted or applied in seabed mining both internationally and within Australia, and identify which of these are considered as environmentally best practices;
- identify the likely impacts of seabed mining on the environment and other resources, including commercial and recreational fishing, including identification of impacts which have occurred as a result of, or in association with, seabed mining;
- examine the mitigation strategies that have or could be used to manage the impacts of sea based exploration and seabed mining on the environment and other resources; and
- include consideration of advice from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) on appropriate measures to ensure the avoidance of sacred sites and protection of sacred sites as a part of any exploration and/or mining of seabed mineral resources.
The aim of the review will be to:
- identify the appropriate standards for acceptance by the NT which will adequately address the needs of the community in respect of industry “best practice”, protection of the environment, protection of social and cultural impacts, mitigation strategies and community involvement; and
- permit the development of regulations, guidelines, or both, for the assessment of applications (received but not assessed due to the moratorium and future applications) to ensure consistency of assessment procedures and appropriate determinations, taking into account the relevant factors.
To inform its review in accordance with the Moratorium, in 2012 the then NT Government requested that:
- the former Environment Protection Authority (former EPA) undertake a comprehensive assessment of the actual or potential impacts of seabed mining activities on the environment and other resource industries and methods for managing the impacts; and
- the AAPA undertake a review of the appropriate measures to ensure the avoidance of sacred sites and protection of sacred sites as a part of any exploration and/or mining of seabed mineral resources.
In November 2012, the former EPA delivered its Interim Report: Seabed Mining in the Northern Territory which was an incomplete review given the limited research available with respect to social, cultural and economic matters. The Interim Report recommended the seabed mining review be continued, given the:
- novel and technically innovative nature of seabed mining;
- limited seabed mining knowledge and experience presently available within the NT and nationally;
- many unknown problems likely to be encountered in securing sound environmental management and effective impact mitigation strategies;
- increasing public expectations that new developments will be both economically and environmentally sustainable;
- importance of identifying methods and processes for adequate protection of cultural heritage values;
- benefits and certainty that specific policies and regulatory frameworks will provide for government, industry and the wider community; and
- scope for better-informed natural resource management within NT coastal waters to deliver social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits.
Next steps for the regulation of seabed mining
The Acting Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Eva Lawler, has stated that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources aimed to submit a draft report to the NT EPA for its consideration in the second half of 2018, with public consultation on the draft report to follow before a final report is provided to the NT Government.