Science and evidence informs best-practice environmental management

Article published in the Regulator | Issue 1: 2019

In-house scientists who have dedicated most of their working lives to understanding the diverse intricacies of marine ecology are among the highly-qualified experts advising NOPSEMA on next generation environmental monitoring and management practices.

NOPSEMA’s Environmental Effects Team is comprised of six specialists who play an important role in considering the scientific evidence that underpins the environmental impact assessment, monitoring and management aspects of offshore oil and gas activities. The Environmental Effects Team also plays an integral role in securing industry’s compliance with Commonwealth environmental legislation, for activities that have permission to proceed, through inspection and enforcement activities. Team Manager, Dr Christine Lamont says staff have mixed disciplinary backgrounds with specialist skills and advanced qualifications in areas such as fish and coral ecology, whale communication and behaviour, sea turtle ecology, marine plant ecology, water and sediment quality monitoring, threatened species recovery, marine biosecurity, seabird ecology and terrestrial biology in addition to considerable experience in the field of environmental impact assessment.

“When the team was set up in 2012 we made a point of making sure that we had people with the range of necessary disciplines and skills to bring to the table. This make up allows us to dig deep into our individual disciplines but also share information across the team to foster consistent understanding and knowledge application. Each member is responsible for maintaining NOPSEMA’s knowledge base for their particular discipline and new disciplines that they’re picking up along the way so that we make sure that we’re staying on top of the latest research and keeping abreast of new scientific developments from Australia and overseas,” Dr Lamont said.

Dr Lamont explains that the Environmental Effects Team at NOPSEMA has a focus on ensuring that high levels of protection are afforded to all aspects of the marine environment, particularly those matters protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 like whales and turtles. “What we’ve been working on over time is making sure that titleholders are using scientific evidence, from published literature and from environmental monitoring programs, to support their impact predictions and then once operating, demonstrations that the marine environment is being protected. Recognising that the broader community is becoming more and more engaged and informed about the technical details of oil and gas activities, we believe that providing scientific evidence to support their conclusions will give the community greater confidence that the right environmental outcomes will be achieved”.

In line with changes announced by the Australian Government to improve the transparency of offshore petroleum environmental management, the regulatory regime is being amended to provide greater opportunity for this community involvement and understanding of proposed exploration activities and their interactions with the marine environment. Under the changes, environmental regulations will be broadened to include the full publication of environment plans and there will be an avenue for the public to comment on environment plans for seismic and exploratory drilling activities. This is in addition to current requirements for titleholders responsible for proposed offshore petroleum activity to consult with ‘relevant persons’ throughout the planning, decision-making and implementation stages of their project. A ‘relevant person’ includes anyone whose functions, interests or activities may be affected by a proposed activity.

NOPSEMA supports measures to ensure greater transparency of the regulatory regime it administers, as disclosing more information about assessment processes will allow for improved community understanding of NOPSEMA’s assessments and decisions, which are informed by contemporary science and research.

NOPSEMA has been advocating regulatory change in this area since 2015 and continues to strive to improve outcomes and increase community confidence in the offshore petroleum regulatory regime by requiring improved stakeholder consultation, facilitating transparency and ensuring that environmental impact assessments are based on credible science and the principles of ecologically sustainable development. To prepare for the transparency changes that will take effect from 25 April 2019, NOPSEMA is establishing a new online public comment platform to allow the public to review and comment on seismic and exploratory drilling environment plans, and amending guidance for titleholders to understand new requirements.