New simplified method for EPBC Referrals promises increased efficiency and transparency

Claire Smith, Alice Brennan and Lauren Parnaby
12 May 2022 Time to read: 2 MIN

All proponents, regardless of whether they wish to make a new application, hold an existing assessment or approval, or wish to make a request under or vary an existing assessment or approval will need to create a new EPBC Act Business Portal account before accessing the system.

After extensive consultation with stakeholders, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) has changed the way EPBC Referrals are processed with the launch of its new EPBC Business Portal on 7 April 2022. The new EPBC Business Portal streamlines the referral process and complements their new EPBC Public Portal, which launched earlier in March.

Changes to the processing of referrals and environmental assessments

There are four key changes to the way referrals and environmental assessments are processed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act):

  1. A new online EPBC Act Business Portal together with a new referral form for assessment applications. For proponents, this will mean more oversight as to the progress of the application through the assessment process, as well as enabling the receipt of notifications, provision of further information to the Department, and online payments.
  2. A new online EPBC Act Public Portal, allowing the public to follow a project's progress and comment directly on the project. This will replace the prior "Have your say" system and the EPBC Act Public Notices.
  3. A digital environmental assessment system. This system will integrate the Business Portal and the Public Portal with assessment and other government data sources, enabling individuals and businesses to make better-informed environmental decisions.
  4. A joint assessment system pilot with Western Australia's Environment Online. This will enable proponents to lodge and track applications across State and Commonwealth jurisdictions.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment states that the changes will improve the process by:

  • reducing the time to complete referrals by simplifying and automating processes;
  • increasing transparency by allowing proponents to track progress and provide information when requested, while also allowing the public to track and directly comment on referrals;
  • improving department processing times by delivering a user-friendly assessment process; and
  • reducing duplication between the relevant Commonwealth and State departments through the trial of the single application process in Western Australia.

Implementing the Digital Environment Assessments Program

The changes to EPBC referrals are part of the Australian Government’s Digital Environment Assessments Program (DEAP) and maps onto the broader deregulation agenda to remove inefficient and outdated regulatory processes. Government held environment and spatial data are integrated with the new application form, itself. Where proponents were previously required to answer each question manually, causing duplication in the information provided, the new form is linked to a biodiversity data repository that is capable of pre-populating protected species information and other controlling provisions tailored to the action’s location. The same pre-population is available for documents supplied previously. Further, checkboxes will now feature with additional dropdown questions conditional to a proponent’s responses. This removes the need to respond to questions that are irrelevant to the particular action, while also allowing the provision of targeted answers. An assessments workflow management system supports oversight by allowing proponents to track the progress of their application, receive notifications and provide information, as requested. The new features are intended to cut time and complexity surrounding the referrals and assessment process and promote consistency across the scheme. The DAWE has stated that it will continue to improve the Online Portals over the next three years to deliver a digital environment that is fit for purpose, efficient and transparent for both proponents and the Public to interact with.

All proponents, regardless of whether they wish to make a new application, hold an existing assessment or approval, or wish to make a request under or vary an existing assessment or approval will need to create a new EPBC Act Business Portal account before accessing the system.

For more information on how to access the new EPBC Business Portal, sign up for a new account, or access the dashboard, the DAWE has published a User Guide.

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