Assessing the impact of Australian activities

Under the Madrid Protocol, protection of the Antarctic environment is a ‘fundamental consideration in the planning and conduct of all activities in the Antarctic Treaty area.' Proponents of activities must consider the environmental aspects of their activity and seek environmental advice at the earliest planning stages.

Environmental impact assessment of Australian activities in Antarctica may be required under two Commonwealth laws. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) applies throughout the Australian jurisdiction, including the Australian Antarctic Territory, and to Australian citizens and residents, Australian corporations, the Commonwealth and Commonwealth agencies, and Australian aircraft and vessels and their crews, anywhere in the world. EPBC requires that actions which are likely to have a significant impact on specific matters of national environmental significance are subject to a rigorous assessment and approval process. These matters include: Commonwealth marine areas, listed threatened species and ecological communities, listed migratory species and World Heritage properties. The EPBC assessment and approval process also applies to actions on Commonwealth land which are likely to have a significant impact on the environment, actions outside Commonwealth land which are likely to have a significant impact on the environment on Commonwealth land, and actions by the Commonwealth which are likely to have a significant impact on the environment anywhere in the world.

The Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act (ATEP) implements Australia’s obligations under the Madrid Protocol. Under this act, an assessment is required for any activity proposed to be undertaken in the AAT or by an Australian in Antarctica. For activities in the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands, Australia is following the Antarctic assessment model.

The ATEP assessment process is three-tiered. A preliminary assessment is required for all activities: the activity will be authorised if its likely impacts are determined to be less than minor or transitory. If the preliminary assessment determines that the activity is likely to have a minor or transitory impact, an initial environmental evaluation (IEE) will be necessary, considering in more detail the elements of an activity, likely environmental impacts and possible alternative activities. There is a public consultation phase, and IEEs are made available to other Antarctic Treaty Parties on request. The IEE process may take three months.

If it is determined that the impact of an activity will be more than minor or transitory, a comprehensive evaluation will be required. This demands a thorough examination of the activity, the receiving environment and alternatives. The process is subject to wide public consultation and drafts are circulated to other Antarctic Treaty Parties and tabled at a meeting of the Committee for Environment Protection. The process may take up to two years to complete.

The AAD’s Environmental Management and Audit Unit (EMAU) was established so that environmental issues could be managed at arm’s length from proponents of activities, found mainly in research and operational areas. Unit staff provide advice on compliance and best practice during planning of activities, and on receiving an environmental impact assessment advise the Minister’s delegate on matters to be considered before approval is given.

Guidelines for assessing activities in the Antarctic, produced by the Committee for Environmental Protection, have been adapted by the AAD for Australian legislation and regulations. The legislation and guidelines, with proforma for preliminary assessments, are available from Environmental Impact Assessment, Approvals and Permits.

Tom Maggs
Environmental Management and Audit Unit Manager,
Australian Antarctic Division