Overcoming scientific uncertainty and oil spill preparedness challenges

Article published in the Regulator | Issue 3: 2018

A common concern for titleholders is the length of time it takes to get an environment plan accepted by NOPSEMA. In response to this concern, NOPSEMA completed a review of its assessment outcomes to highlight and address challenges titleholders often face in getting their plans accepted.

NOPSEMA's review found that on the first submission NOPSEMA commonly required titleholders to improve the content of their environment plan and to implement more effective consultation with stakeholders. The time it took to address these requirements often extended the timeframe for acceptance of the plan and/or constrained the location, time or management of the activity. Most of the challenges titleholders faced in meeting the regulatory requirements for environment plan content and consultation with stakeholders fell into two broad topics: 1) scientific uncertainty in predicting environmental impacts and the effectiveness of their control measures — which informs the environmental impact assessment and 2) the appropriateness of oil spill preparedness arrangements. The specific nature of these two topics varied depending on the type of activity and, in some cases, the location of the activity and the level of understanding about the environment at that location and how the activity will impact that environment.

To address these challenges, NOPSEMA has developed a list of environmental management priorities on the following page for consideration. If these priorities are addressed through appropriate study and action they have the potential to greatly improve regulatory efficiency and effectiveness and environmental management outcomes. It is NOPSEMA’s vision that the offshore petroleum industry, research community, or government seek out initiatives to address these priorities in discussion with the regulator. Initiatives already taken to address these priorities are beginning to deliver results. For example, the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences North West Shoals to Shore Research Program (aims.gov.au/nw-shoals-to-shore) which aimed, in part, to reduce the scientific uncertainty in the environmental impact assessment and management for the interaction of seismic surveys with migratory and commercially important marine species in the North West. A range of funding sources for other initiatives may be available including those arising from research grants, for example, through the National Environmental Science Program or Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) and matched funding sources such as those facilitated by National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) or from a Good Standing Agreement under the Australian Government’s exploration policy.

While a failure to address these priorities does not necessarily mean an environment plan can’t be accepted, it may be necessary for a higher degree of the precautionary principle to be applied. NOPSEMA’s Environment plan decision making guideline (GL1721) outlines how the precautionary principle is applied. For more information on the environmental management priorities, NOPSEMA encourages stakeholders to contact the regulator at environment@nopsema.gov.au.