The Federal Government has introduced new regulations aimed at increasing the transparency of offshore resource exploitation activities, and exploratory drilling and surveying activities. The regulations, which create a number of different consultation requirements for environmental plans and exploratory permits, come into force on 25 April 2019.
The Federal Government has promulgated amended regulations under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (Cth) aimed at increasing the transparency of the environmental review process and modifying the public consultations that are required to take place before approvals are granted for certain classes of offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas activities.
The Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Amendment (Consultation and Transparency) Regulations 2019 (Cth) make a number of refinements and alterations to the existing offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas environment plan submission and assessment processes that will come into force on 25 April 2019.
Public consultation process and initial review
When an applicant submits an environment plan to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (“NOPSEMA”), prior to publication for public comment, the environment plan will now be subject to a preliminary assessment (taking no longer than 5 business days) that ensures the application includes material addressing the statutory and regulatory requirements for an environment plan. While NOPSEMA will review the environmental plans, its preliminary assessment will not explore the substance of the environmental plan nor indicate the likelihood of the plan being approved. If NOPSEMA determines that the submitted environment plan contains the required information it will publish the plan for public comment.
Seismic Surveys and Exploratory Drilling
The amendments to the regulations also provide for a new 30 day public comment period for seismic surveys and exploratory drilling. This process is intended to grant the public an additional opportunity to comment on pending environment plans prior to NOPSEMA making a formal determination as to whether the environment plan is to be approved. The new regulations require that any comments NOPSEMA receives from the public during these consultation periods will be considered prior to its formal determinations, and NOPSEMA has confirmed its support for this.
Prior to the amendment of the regulations, there was no requirement for a public consultation period for seismic surveys or exploratory drilling applications. While there was an existing requirement to consult with specific classes of individual, the public comment period is intended to increase transparency surrounding activities in exploratory licences. The publicised purpose of the amended regulations is to ensure that those who would normally be excluded from providing input (as they fall outside of the required consultation classes) have an opportunity to provide their input on the environmental management of seismic or exploratory drilling activities.
An additional compliance obligation, as a result of these changes, is the need for an applicant for a petroleum or greenhouse gas activity to consider the comments it has received as part of the public consultation process. The applicant must provide NOPSEMA with a response to the public comments the regulator has received and indicate whether any changes were made to the environment plan as a consequence. While the regulations will not require applicants to engage directly with those commenting, if a person commenting is found to fall within the class of individuals who should have been consulted, the applicant is required to engage with them as part of the ongoing consultation obligations under both the legislation and regulations.
NOPSEMA is also required directly to consider the public comments prior to making a determination on seismic surveying or exploratory drilling applications.
These amendments do not vary the existing public consultation periods in place for other applications under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 or associated regulations.
Guidance Notes Feedback
NOPSEMA has prepared new and revised guidance notes to assist stakeholders with the processes and is seeking feedback on the documents by no later than COB 10 April 2019.
The Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Amendment (Consultation and Transparency) Regulations 2019 are primarily designed to improve public engagement in the evaluation of environmental plans and increase the transparency of the NOPSEMA assessment processes. If you have any questions or queries about the impact of these regulations or the draft guidance notes may have on you or your business operations, please contact Susan Robertson.