2017 – Certainty in Uncertainty: Navigating Environmental Impact Assessment Regulatory Processes

Geraldine Squires

There is increased pressure from stakeholders for projects to include evaluation of emerging broader development issues within the environmental assessment process. These emerging issues are not well documented or understood and at the forefront of untested preliminary government policy positions.

Agencies expect proponents to invest in evaluating these matters outside of typical assessment practices. Requests are made late in the evaluation and approval process.Assessmen involves matters not directly related to the project or within the proponent’s control and occurs late in the project development cycle.

The Lower Fitzroy River Infrastructure Project (LFRIP) was identified through the Central Queensland Regional Water Supply Study in 2006, as a solution to secure future water supplies for the Rockhampton, Capricorn Coast and Gladstone regions. The Gladstone Area Water Board and SunWater Limited, as proponents, propose to raise the existing Eden Bann Weir and construct a new weir at Rookwood on the Fitzroy River in Central Queensland.

The LFRIP environmental impact statement (EIS) was approved, subject to conditions, by the Queensland Coordinator-General in December 2016 and the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Energy in February 2017. Achieving conditions that will realise positive environmental outcomes while simultaneously achieving project objectives, particularly with regard to timeframes and costs, was not without its challenges.

The EIS was developed in accordance with the requirements of the State Development Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (Qld) and the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, including an extensive stakeholder consultation programme. These regulatory requirements are well understood and applied to projects as normal accepted practice. They ensured that potential project impacts and benefits were identified, that appropriate levels of effort were applied to investigations to establish baseline conditions and that risks to and impacts on environmental (including social and cultural) matters were adequately mitigated and managed.

The environment is not static. Emerging issues and perceptions results in regulation and policy changes in response to political and social drivers. During the development of the EIS both new legislation and new policies were imposed on the project.New legislation resulted in additional assessment around matters previously considered mitigated and managed (fish passage). New legislation introduced new matters for assessment (connectivity). Collaboration and engagement with stakeholders were key to understanding the applicability of these elements to the project and for developing an approach to address the legislative requirements late in the project’s development and assessment process.

In Queensland,policy is emerging to mitigate and manage impacts of development on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area’s universal values. The EIS was required to address the direct project impacts on water quality and the impacts arising because of the LFRIP (facilitated development). Water secured by the LFRIP is for urban, industrial and agricultural purposes. Urban and industrial developments are well regulated and subject to specific environmental approvals processes. Use of water for agricultural purposes, intensive irrigated agriculture in particular,is less regulated. Policies developed are reactive and require individual projects to address these impacts.In the absence of regulatory guidelines for assessment of consequential impacts, the project adopted a collaborative approach. The proponents established a working group, including State and Commonwealth technical agencies. This allowed for robust and scientifically defendable methodologies to be developed and agreed upfront. Streamlining the approach by including key decision makers assisted in managing expectations and focused the assessment on realistic and achievable outcomes relative to the project. The result was defendable outcomes allowing timely decision making and avoided rework as much as possible.

This paper describes developments in environmental assessment relating to new and augmented weirs.

Buy this resource