Insight into the public comment process for exploration environment plans

Article published in the Regulator | Issue 1: 2019

 On 26 March, the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Matthew Canavan announced changes to the Environment Regulations that will take effect from 25 April 2019. The changes will introduce a public comment period for seismic and exploratory drilling proposals. Members of the public will now have the opportunity to have their say on the proposed environmental management of seismic and exploration drilling activities, before NOPSEMA’s environment plan assessment process commences.

The public will be able to submit comments via NOPSEMA’s online platform, which will be accessible via the homepage of NOPSEMA’s website. NOPSEMA will publish guidance to assist stakeholders with making public comment submissions and will also issue guidance outlining how titleholders should take public comments into account. When the public comment period is underway, seismic and exploratory drilling environment plans will be published in full on NOPSEMA’s website, along with a summary of key information, maps of the proposed activity and contact details for the titleholder.

Members of the community who submit a public comment will be strongly encouraged to provide contact information. By providing this information, commenters will contribute to the transparency and accountability of the public comment process while also providing a direct avenue for NOPSEMA and/or the titleholder to follow-up with individuals who raise issues that require further discussion or clarification. The public comment process provides an opportunity for members of the commuity to raise any environmental management issues they think should be considered by NOPSEMA and the titleholder in planning for the proposed activity. The titleholder will have the opportunity to change the environment plan after considering information received from the public, and will also need to prepare a report responding, in general terms, to the comments received. This report, along with a new version of the EP, will be published on NOPSEMA’s website when the EP is submitted for assessment and neither NOPSEMA nor the titleholder will be obliged to respond to each comment individually.

If a relevant consideration is raised through the public comment process, the issue must then be addressed within the environment plan regardless of where it comes from. If thousands of individuals supply exactly the same comment, it will be regarded as one matter for consideration, and does not gain priority through repetition. Information that is irrelevant to NOPSEMA's decision making criteria cannot be considered, this includes statements of fundamental opposition to oil and gas activity, submissions containing profanities and personal threats to NOPSEMA personnel. After NOPSEMA has completed its assessment of the environment plan, NOPSEMA will publish a report describing how information received during public comment was taken into account. This report will be published on NOPSEMA’s website. NOPSEMA will continue to provide more information to explain how the transparency amendments will be implemented, and any questions regarding the public comment process can be directed to environment@nopsema.gov.au.

NOPSEMA in collaboration with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science hosted an information session on 27 March in Perth to explain the transition to transparency in more detail. A copy of the presentation is available on NOPSEMA's website at nopsema.gov.au/presentations for interested stakeholders.