Could strategic assessments be a tool to debottleneck critical mineral approvals in Western Australia?
Strategic assessments are landscape scale environmental assessments which, unlike individual project approvals, consider a broad set of issues beyond a single project area of influence. They may address multiple future projects or activities that individually or collectively could have a significant environmental or social impact.
In Australia, strategic assessment provisions are in place under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 and the Western Australian Environmental Protection (EP) Act 1986. They have been used across the country on everything from residential and industrial precincts, regional management plans (Great Barrier Reef) and offshore aquaculture developments. Countries like Canada also have incorporated regional and strategic environmental assessments as part of their impact assessment legislation.
While the state and federal strategic assessment approach has had only limited application to the resources sector, BHP did secure approval under both Acts for their future Pilbara iron ore mining operations. These approvals cover 14 potential mining hubs within a 400 x 200 km area.
Could a similar approach be applied for critical minerals on a regional basis? Could a large scale, risk-based approval be used as the basis for outcome-based conditions aimed at protecting key environmental and cultural assets?
At face value, the BHP approval may not look appealing given it took several years to deliver and was developed for a single proponent. Similarly, the use of strategic assessment for the failed Browse LNG Precinct also left a bitter taste around the process. The BHP approval has however given us a solid template to work from and there are some key learnings out of both cases that can be used to streamline both regulatory and proponent processes. The use of the Federal process by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) for offshore petroleum development assessment can also provide some further insights.
Whilst some process amendments may be required, there is a clear opportunity to look at whether a regional strategic approval covering ‘typical’ mining operations could be delivered to provide an up-front approval. Individual proponents would then need to validate (through a derived proposal under the EP Act) that they can meet the outcome-based conditions designed to protect important areas. This two-step process ensures that project related studies target key relevant issues and that the right checks and balances are in place to deliver the desired environmental and social outcomes.
The use of readily available spatial science technology, ever improving environmental data sets and faster, more accurate and higher quality methods of field data capture (for example the work being undertaken by the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute (WABSI)) along with targeted stakeholder engagement could be combined to provide a rapid and robust regional assessment that will not only consider cumulative impacts, but will enable a consistent, landscape scale approach to the application of the mitigation hierarchy.
A concerted and coordinated effort led collectively by Government and the industry could deliver a strategic mechanism that not only speeds up delivery of critical mineral projects by taking a whole of precinct approach, but provide the community, proponents, investors and all levels of government with a clearer roadmap to securing our part in the decarbonisation agenda.
Something worth a serious look I would have thought.
About the Author
Strategic Advisor – ESG, Strategic planning and environmental approvals
Bryce is a highly experienced environmental practitioner with three decades of experience in the delivery of environmental and social strategy, governance, impact assessment and approvals, research, community engagement and strategic environmental planning. He has worked as a specialist technical advisor, part of integrated project delivery teams and in corporate environmental leadership roles throughout Australia and internationally. He is focused on developing practical, strategic sustainability solutions to address growing stakeholder expectations of environmental and social performance.