The Commonwealth Government has just released its response to Deloitte's 2008 Review of Regulatory Efficiency in Uranium Mining, which suggests the possibility of major changes to the environmental regulation of uranium mining.
In summary, it raises the question of whether the Commonwealth may remove its specific environmental approval requirements for uranium mining.
The Deloitte review and the Government's response
The Deloitte Review was commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Resources, Energy & Tourism, in conjunction with South Australian and the Northern Territory resources agencies, on behalf of the Uranium Industry Framework Regulation Working Group.
The Deloitte Review report is dated December 2008. The Commonwealth Government released the report, and the Government's response, this week. It follows the announcement last week of a radioactive waste facility in the Northern Territory.
Removal of uranium mining trigger from EPBC Act
The Deloitte Review recommended that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) be amended to remove uranium mining and milling from the definition of "nuclear actions".
The removal of uranium mining from the definition of "nuclear action" would cause uranium mines to be treated in the same manner as other mining developments, and not automatically be classified as "controlled actions" requiring environmental Commonwealth approval under the EPBC Act.
This would mean that proposed uranium mining activities would not require approval unless they are likely to have a significant impact with respect to one of the listed matters of national environmental significance, such as world heritage sites, wetlands of international importance, or listed threatened species or they are likely to have a significant impact on the environment on Commonwealth land.
Notably, the Government has not rejected this recommendation, as it did with the recommendation to override State bans on uranium mining discussed below, but has said that its policy on this issue will be released as part of its response to the recommendations of the Hawke Review into the EPBC Act (which also raised the issue). This response is due later this year.
State laws on uranium mining to remain
The Commonwealth Government has rejected the recommendation to negotiate with State governments to remove any legislative or other barriers to the exploration for, and mining of, uranium.
It will, however, continue to investigate opportunities with States and Territories for improving and streamlining regulation of uranium mining.
Environmental approvals and uranium mining
The Review also recommended that the Government consolidate all Commonwealth environmental responsibilities in relation to uranium mining under the responsibility of the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts.
The Government has agreed to do this, saying that:
the environmental responsibilities applying to new uranium mines, or to extensions of existing mines, will be applied through approval conditions under the EPBC Act and therefore be the responsibility of the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts.
it intends to move the environmental requirements for existing mines under the EPBC Act so that they will also be regulated by the Environment Minister.
It does warn that the second objective might be a challenge, as "the legislative process for achieving this … requires careful consideration."
The Government also gave in-principle support to the recommendation that all environmental requirements on uranium export permits be removed for those uranium mines approved under the EPBC Act.
If the recommendations of the Deloitte Review to eliminate the uranium mining trigger and consolidate environmental regulation of uranium are accepted, this would mean:
uranium mining would be treated no differently from other types of mining, at least in terms of legislative controls;
if none of the other approval triggers of the EPBC Act are activated, then no Commonwealth environmental approval will be needed, leaving environmental approval to the States and Territories; and
the remaining Commonwealth controls for uranium mining will be streamlined under the administration of the Commonwealth Environment Minister.