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Assessment process

Offshore Project Proposals and Environment Plans are submissions that NOPSEMA use to decide an outcome for the assessment process completed as a regulatory function.

Offshore Project Proposal

For all offshore projects, a proponent (the company proposing the project) is required to submit an Offshore Project Proposal (OPP) to NOPSEMA for approval. The OPP process involves NOPSEMA’s assessment of the potential environmental impacts and risks of petroleum activities conducted over the life of an offshore project. The process includes a public comment period prior to approval and requires a proponent to ensure environmental impacts and risks will be managed to acceptable levels. Following approval, proponents still require environment plan(s) to be assessed and approved by NOPSEMA before activities can commence.

Any person (or company) planning to undertake an offshore project in Commonwealth waters is encouraged to contact NOPSEMA at environment@nopsema.gov.au to discuss the application of OPP requirements specific to their circumstances. 

You can view the petroleum projects and activities that are open for comment, under assessment or approved on NOPSEMA online. To provide comment on an offshore project proposal or environment plan visit our Consultation hub

Stay informed about Offshore Project Proposals by subscribing to NOPSEMA updates here

An offshore project is where one or more petroleum activities are planned for the recovery of petroleum. Petroleum activities that comprise an offshore project include the construction, commissioning, operations and decommissioning of facilities and pipelines as well as production drilling and any other activity undertaken for the recovery of petroleum. It does not include drilling for exploration or appraisal purposes, or any other petroleum exploration activities such as seismic surveys.

In 2014, NOPSEMA became the sole Commonwealth regulator for environmental management of offshore petroleum activities following streamlining of regulatory processes under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (OPGGS Act) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The effect of streamlining is that offshore petroleum activities only require approval by NOPSEMA under the OPGGS Act and no longer require separate approval by the Minister for the Environment under the EPBC Act.

To allow for streamlining to occur, a number of changes to the Environment Regulations administered by NOPSEMA were made. This included introducing the concept of an OPP to allow for public scrutiny and comment on offshore petroleum developments early in the project lifecycle. The OPP process reflects the level of transparency and opportunity for public comment that is provided for through the Environmental Impact Statement/Public Environmental Review process under the EPBC Act.

Unlike the previous EPBC Act process, the requirement for an OPP applies to all offshore projects regardless of the potential level of impact or risk to the environment that the project may present. An OPP for a project must be accepted by NOPSEMA before the proponent can submit environment plans for activities that make up the project.

Flowchart - Assessment for offshore project plans - April 2016

Assessment - Stage 1

During the first stage of the assessment process, NOPSEMA assesses an offshore project proposal for its suitability for publication against four acceptance criteria.

The criteria are set out in the Environment Regulations and require that an OPP:

  • identifies and evaluates the environmental impacts and risks of the project

  • presents environmental performance outcomes that are consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development and relevant to the impacts and risks identified

  • does not involve any part of an activity being undertaken in a World Heritage property

  • addresses the content requirements.

NOPSEMA’s decision to accept the proposal for publication relates to those acceptance criteria being met in that the document provides enough information to allow any member of the public to make an informed comment on the proposal. It is not a decision related to the acceptability or otherwise of the proposal, that decision occurs during stage two of the assessment.

Assessment - Stage 2

The second stage of the assessment process follows a minimum four week public comment period and the time it takes the proponent to incorporate the public comments into the OPP. During this stage, NOPSEMA assesses the OPP against five acceptance criteria to determine acceptability or otherwise of the OPP.

The criteria are set out in the Environment Regulations and require that an OPP:

  • adequately address public comments

  • is appropriate for the nature and scale of the project

  • identifies and evaluates the environmental impacts and risks of the project

  • presents environmental performance outcomes that are consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development and demonstrate that the environmental impacts and risks of the project will be managed to an acceptable level

  • does not involve any part of an activity being undertaken in a World Heritage property.

The Environment Regulations detail the required content for an OPP, this includes:

  • a description of the project, including location and proposed timetable

  • a description of the environment that may be affected by the project, including details of the particular relevant values and sensitivities

  • sets out environmental performance outcomes for the project

  • a description of any feasible alternative to the project, or an activity that is part of the project

  • a description of the legislative and other requirements that apply to the project

  • details and an evaluation of the environmental impacts and risks of the project, appropriate to the nature and scale of each impact or risk.

  • a summary of any public comments made and how they were evaluated and addressed

  • a demonstration of any changes made to the proposal as a result of public comment.

The public has the opportunity to review and provide comment on an OPP once NOPSEMA has determined the OPP is suitable for publication. All public comment is provided to NOPSEMA who will forward a copy of the comments received to the proponent for their consideration. Following the public comment period, the proponent must prepare a consultation report and final OPP for assessment by NOPSEMA. In the report, the proponent must summarise the comments received with an assessment of the merits of each comment, a statement of their response to each comment, and an outline of any changes made to the OPP as a result of the comment. See the offshore project proposals - public comment page for more information.

NOPSEMA can only accept an OPP once it has determined the proposal meets all of the acceptance criteria as set out in the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Regulations 2009 (Environment Regulations). This includes whether the final OPP adequately addresses the comments received during the public comment period. If the OPP meets the criteria set out in the Environment Regulations and the OPP is accepted, NOPSEMA will publish the final OPP in full on its website.

If NOPSEMA determines the proponent has not evaluated and addressed public comment adequately or the final OPP does not meet all the requirements of the Environment Regulations then NOPSEMA will refuse to accept the proposal. In the instance of a refusal decision, NOPSEMA will publish on its website a Statement of Reasons.

If NOPSEMA accepts the final OPP then that acceptance does not provide the necessary approval for an offshore petroleum activity to begin. Each activity within an accepted OPP must also have an accepted environment plan in place before it can begin. For more information about environment plans see the Environment plans page.

Inherent within the acceptance criteria and explicit in the Environment Regulations is the requirement to address impacts and risks to protected matters under part 3 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

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Environment Plans

By law, a petroleum or greenhouse gas activity cannot commence before NOPSEMA has assessed and accepted an environment plan for that activity.

NOPSEMA will only accept an environment plan once it has determined the plan meets all the requirements of the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Regulations 2009.

Titleholders are encouraged to contact NOPSEMA at environment@nopsema.gov.au with any questions or queries relating to preparing an environment plan.

You can view the petroleum projects and activities that are open for comment, under assessment or approved on NOPSEMA online. To provide comment on an offshore project proposal or environment plan visit our Consultation hub

The Environment Regulations provide eight acceptance criteria that NOPSEMA must assess each environment plan against. These criteria are that the environment plan:

  • is appropriate for the nature and scale of the activity

  • demonstrates that the environmental impacts and risks of the activity will be reduced to as low as reasonably practicable

  • demonstrates that the environmental impacts and risks of the activity will be of an acceptable level

  • provides for appropriate environmental performance outcomes, environmental performance standards and measurement criteria

  • includes an appropriate implementation strategy

  • does not occur in a World Heritage Property (with the exception of environmental monitoring or responding to an emergency)

  • demonstrates that appropriate consultation has been, and will continue to be, undertaken

  • complies with the OPGGS Act 2006 and its associated regulations.

Inherent within the acceptance criteria and explicit in the Environment Regulations is the requirement to address impacts and risks to protected matters under part 3 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The scope of an environment plan is determined with regard to the nature and scale of the proposed activity and the identified impacts on and risks to the receiving environment. The Environment Regulations also detail required content for an environment plan, this includes:

  • a description of the activity, including location and proposed timetable

  • a description of the environment that may be affected by the activity, including details of the relevant values and sensitivities

  • a description of the legislative, and other, requirements that apply to the activity

  • details and an evaluation of the environmental impacts and risks of the activity

  • details of the control measures that will be in place to reduce the environmental impacts and risks of the activity to a level that is acceptable and as low as reasonably practicable

  • environmental performance standards (and associated measurement criteria) to set the required performance of control measures

  • environmental performance outcomes (and associated measurement criteria) that the activity must achieve to have an acceptable impact on the environment

  • an implementation strategy describing the titleholder's environmental management system, roles and responsibilities for implementing the environment plan and the monitoring, recording and auditing that will be undertaken to review environmental performance

  • an Oil Pollution Emergency Plan that provides adequate arrangements for responding to and monitoring oil pollution

  • a report detailing the process undertaken to consult with relevant persons, any objections or claims made by relevant persons and how they were addressed, and plans for ongoing consultation

  • the titleholder's corporate environmental policy

  • details of a nominated liaison person

NOPSEMA's interpretation of the content requirements for an environment plan as specified in the Environment Regulations is detailed in the Environment plan content requirements.

Industry initiatives to develop pieces of standardised content for environment plans, such as reference cases, represent opportunities to efficiently meet the content requirements of the regulations and promote consistent levels of good environmental management across the industry. NOPSEMA is able to support these initiatives by providing a regulatory advice statement to complement published standard content, communicating the regulator's views on how these references can be used in environment plans and giving titleholders confidence to refer to them in submissions.

To view the Marine Biosecurity Reference Case for Offshore Vessels and Maritime Industry Australia Ltd and accompanying Regulatory Advice Statement visit the Maritime Industry Australia Ltd website.

NOPSEMA makes assessment decisions based on the requirements of the law and the merits of the proposed management of environmental risks and impacts. NOPSEMA has published a decision making guideline describing how it considers environment plan submissions against the decision-making criteria for acceptance specified in the Environment Regulations.

NOPSEMA publishes the status of assessments on the under assessments page for environment plans, and the OPP page for offshore project proposals.

The Environment Regulations require NOPSEMA to publish the environment plan submitted by the titleholder for assessment, and to publish the final accepted version of an environment plan. Environment plans are published in full, with the exception of sensitive information from the consultation process and transcripts of correspondence between stakeholders and the titleholder. This information is used by NOPSEMA during the assessment, but is not published for wider review.

Environment plans currently undergoing assessment by NOPSEMA are available on the Under assessment page. Environment plans that have been accepted and are in force are available on the Underway offshore page.

NOPSEMA assesses proposed offshore petroleum or greenhouse gas activities by determining if the titleholder has correctly identified the environmental risks and impacts of the activity and if the proposed environmental management will ensure those risks and impacts will be acceptable and reduced to ALARP.

The activity may only commence when a titleholder has demonstrated it will be undertaken in a manner that meets the acceptance criteria of the Environment Regulations.

When NOPSEMA completes an assessment, our decision is published on the Activity status and summaries web page. If an environment plan is not accepted, NOPSEMA will provide the titleholder detailed reasons as to why the plan did not meet the acceptance criteria.

Environment - Titleholder FAQ

When will NOPSEMA make a decision to either accept or refuse to accept an environment plan? What does it mean if NOPSEMA provides an opportunity to modify and resubmit a plan or requests further written information?

During the assessment of an environment plan NOPSEMA may make a number of assessment decisions before it makes a final decision to either accept or refuse to accept an environment plan.

If NOPSEMA requires clarification on information in the environment plan, or more information on a particular aspect, then NOPSEMA will make a decision to REQUEST FURTHER WRITTEN INFORMATION from the titleholder.

NOPSEMA will make a decision to provide a titleholder an OPPORTUNITY TO MODIFY AND RESUBMIT the environment plan if it determines the plan is yet to meet regulatory requirements for acceptance. In fact, NOPSEMA is required by law to provide a titleholder a reasonable opportunity to modify their environment plan before making a final decision to either accept of refuse to accept. NOPSEMA will typically offer two opportunities to modify and resubmit; however, NOPSEMA is not restricted to only offering two such opportunities.

NOPSEMA will make a final decision to REFUSE TO ACCEPT an environment plan when it has provided the titleholder a reasonable opportunity to modify and resubmit the plan but determines that the plan still does not meet the regulatory requirements for acceptance. When NOPSEMA refuses to accept an environment plan it is not a rejection of the type of activity proposed, rather it is a rejection of the titleholder's proposed environmental management for that activity. An activity may not begin without an accepted environment plan in place, therefore a titleholder must prepare and submit a new environment plan and begin the assessment process again.

Since NOPSEMA was established on 1 January 2012, 3% of all environment plans submitted for assessment have been refused.

If NOPSEMA determines an environment plan has met all regulatory requirements for acceptance then by law NOPSEMA is required to make a final decision to ACCEPT the plan. If NOPSEMA accepts an environment plan the proposed offshore petroleum activity is approved to begin. Once the activity begins, it will be subject to inspection by NOPSEMA to ensure it is undertaken in accordance with the accepted plan and the requirements of the law and NOPSEMA may take enforcement action if any non-compliance is found.

For an overview of the assessment process for environment plans see Flowchart - Assessment process for environment plans - April 2016

The law allows NOPSEMA to take as much time as required to ensure a professional and rigorous assessment can be undertaken. Less than 10 per cent of plans are accepted by NOPSEMA on first submission. Plans that are not accepted on first submission can be modified by the titleholder and resubmitted to NOPSEMA for further assessment.

Under the statutory assessment timeframes in the Environment Regulations, NOPSEMA has 30 days from the date of submission to determine whether it meets the criteria for acceptance in the Environment Regulations. After reviewing the plan and its complexity, NOPSEMA may determine that extra time is needed to complete its assessment. If this is the case, NOPSEMA will extend the timeframe at its discretion to ensure that there is enough time to complete a comprehensive assessment.

If NOPSEMA decides to give the titleholder an opportunity to modify and resubmit, the titleholder is given a specified amount of time based on an estimate of the time that it may take for the titleholder to address the points raised (often in the order of 4-8 weeks). The titleholder can also request for an extension of time to complete this work should it require additional time.

Where an environment plan is resubmitted, NOPSEMA then undertakes a further assessment on the revised environment plan.

NOPSEMA publishes average assessment timeframes for environment plans according to the proposed activity types each quarter. See the Median environment plan assessment timeframe page.

NOPSEMA relies on scientific evidence and a team of highly qualified experts to ensure high quality decision making and high quality advice to industry and other stakeholders.

NOPSEMA's Environment Division is staffed by personnel with extensive experience in environmental sciences and offshore oil and gas (over half of this number hold PhD’s or Masters degrees).

Environment specialists generally have a range of previous experience related to environmental disciplines such as marine research, baseline studies, monitoring and modelling; environment impact assessments; preparation of environmental policy guidance related to marine parks, water quality, protected species, conservation and recovery plans; and environmental management systems. NOPSEMA also has a team of dedicated experts with backgrounds in oil spill and emergency response arrangements who have experience within the Australian and international context.

The information that NOPSEMA uses to support assessment decisions comes from a variety of sources, both national and international, including peer-reviewed published scientific literature, industry publications, published government management planning documents and species advice and information sought through relevant forums and conferences. The authors of this information range from university academics, scientific and industry experts and government departments and agencies such as CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). If a situation arose where NOPSEMA’s technical staff were unable to assess scientific information provided in a submission due to the technical nature of the information provided, NOPSEMA is able to seek advice from external scientific experts.

The performance history of oil and gas companies is taken into account through the acreage release and title grant process administered by the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator (NOPTA).

NOPSEMA is not involved in making decisions on which oil and gas companies should be allowed to operate in Australia, only on how they operate.

NOPSEMA's decisions focus exclusively on the technical and scientific merits of environment plans. During an assessment, NOPSEMA will consider the compliance record of the titleholder where it relates to matters considered in the environment plan.

Stakeholders may subscribe to be notified by email of any changes to NOPSEMA's assessment of an environment plan on the Activity status and summaries page.

On this page, NOPSEMA publishes information regarding the status of environment plan submissions and decisions in order to keep stakeholders up-to-date on the assessment processes.

Details of the proposed offshore petroleum or greenhouse gas activity and its location are published on submission to NOPSEMA. From 1 January 2016, NOPSEMA began publishing expected assessment timeframes and decision notices. If an environment plan is accepted, a summary of that plan is also published.

The oil spill images often used in media reporting are produced from is what is called 'stochastic' or 'probabilistic' oil spill modelling. The images generated show areas that are many times larger than what would actually be affected in the event of a real spill and are not an accurate picture of what an individual oil spill would look like.

The images are generated by overlaying a large number (often hundreds) of computer-simulated oil spills, each starting at a particular location, under different sets of wind and weather conditions. The models also assume that nothing is done to control the spill or to capture spilt oil. Stochastic oil spill modelling is a good tool for understanding oil spill variability and planning to respond to an oil spill because it shows where oil may go under a large number of different conditions.

NOPSEMA has recently published an animation on oil spill modelling. You can view the animation here.

Under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Regulations 2009, an environment plan must describe the proposed petroleum activity and its operational details, describe the relevant environmental features of the activity's location, undertake an assessment of all the potential environmental impacts and risks of the activity, and provide appropriate controls and mitigations to reduce those risks to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). It is through this process that a company will provide NOPSEMA with a risk-based justification for their chemical selection processes and discharge proposals.

To be accepted, the environment plan must demonstrate that the environmental risks associated with the intended use of chemicals is ALARP. For further information on how to a company may provide this demonstration within environment plan, see NOPSEMA's Environment plan content requirements guidance note (GN1344).

NOPSEMA is frequently contacted by suppliers regarding regulatory pre-approvals of drilling fluids, mud additives, oily water separation additives and treatment equipment. NOPSEMA does not provide approvals for specific products or treatment equipment outside the context of an accepted environment plan. The proposed use of a product and its subsequent treatment and disposal must be described within an environment plan and demonstrated to minimise impacts and risks to the environment to ALARP. This demonstration is assessed in the context of the proposed petroleum activity.

Please note that the above information is relevant to regulation under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Regulations 2009 and doesn't provide guidance in relation to other regulatory requirements in Australia such as product registration and chemical import requirements.

Ultimately, a titleholder has to decide when to submit an environment plan. NOPSEMA strongly advises titleholders to check their environment plan against the requirements of the Environment Regulations prior to submission. The decision making guidelines are likely to be useful for those reviewing the submission in this manner that also has sign-off authority for the environment plan. If a titleholder can confidently say that the environment plan has addressed each of the ‘making a decision’ points in each guideline then the environment plan should be ready for submission.

NOPSEMA makes a distinction between environmental impacts and environmental risks. Understanding this distinction is critical to demonstrating environmental impacts and environmental risks will be reduced to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) and will be of an acceptable level.

An environmental impact, as defined in the Environment Regulations (Regulation 4), means ‘any change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, that wholly or partially results from an activity’. An ‘environmental risk’ is not defined in the regulations, or indeed in any AS/NZS, it is considered by NOPSEMA to mean ‘any change to the environment, whether adverse of beneficial, that wholly or partially may result from an activity’.

Accordingly, the difference between ‘impact assessment’ and ‘risk assessment’ is that environmental impact assessments are concerned with events* that are reasonably certain to occur, while environmental risk assessment is concerned with events that may possibly occur.

Acoustic emissions, lighting, planned fluid/air emissions, benthic habitat disturbance etc. are examples of environment impacts because they generally cannot be completely avoided when undertaking petroleum activities. Unplanned fluid/air emissions, oil spills, introductions of invasive marine species etc. are examples of environmental risks because they can be prevented when undertaking petroleum activities.

If a titleholder assesses an impact as a risk, or a risk as an impact, in their environment plan then it is unlikely that the environment plan will meet the criteria for acceptance specified in the Environment Regulations.

*Event means the occurrence or change of a particular set of circumstances [ISO 73:2009, definition 3.5.1.3]

Only by including a sufficient level of detail in the environment plan will NOPSEMA be able to determine if the environment plan meets the criteria for acceptance. The environment plan must be a stand-alone document that is sufficient to meet the content and level of detail requirements of the Environment Regulations without the need to refer to other documents external to the environment plan.*

Overall, a well-structured, coherent environment plan will facilitate a titleholder’s ability to demonstrate to others that they have a clear understanding of the factors that influence environment impact and environmental risk, and the controls that are critical to reduce them to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) and to an acceptable level.

The Environment Regulations are very clear where a titleholder is to supply descriptions of elements in the environment plan, as opposed to referencing other documents. The description of an element should:

  • distil the points of value and the relevant features of the element

  • outline its potential deficiencies and how these may be overcome

  • outline the reasoning or the background thinking to the development of the element

  • explain how it is connected to, or supports, other elements.

When referencing supporting studies, the environment plan should summarise the key findings of the study and explain their significance. Any assumptions made in the environment plan should also be specifically noted, for example the description of the supporting study should demonstrate an understanding of any assumptions made and limitations these may create.

Generally, listing elements or referencing other documents will not provide a sufficient level of detail for NOPSEMA to determine if the environment plan meets the criteria for acceptance. Examples of this include:

  • details in relation to higher order environmental impacts and risks limited to either a reference to a study performed or, in some cases, simply a commitment to conduct a study

  • details provided in relation to the summary of a titleholders environmental management system limited to the listing of internal policies and procedures

  • activity descriptions limited to the physical facility or vessel, with little or no detail on the activities that will, or are likely to, interact with the environment

  • only partial details of the control measures identified as a result of the environmental assessment.

During NOPSEMA’s assessment of an environment plan, a request for further written information may be made with regard to the description of a reference document, but the document itself would not typically be requested.

The nature and scale of the activity proposed in the environment plan is the primary factor that will determine the level of detail required. This is because the nature and scale of the activity will determine the evaluation method(s) selected to assess environmental impacts and risks which will then determine the level of detail necessary to be provided in the environment plan. For higher order environmental impacts and risks, a more rigorous and thorough evaluation method may be required in which will generally necessitate greater level of detail and extent of analysis to be provided. The detail provided should include:

  • inherent features of the method(s) that underpin its operation and suitability for the circumstances of its use

  • the assumptions made and their influence on the method(s) and the outcomes generated

  • the known strengths and weaknesses of the method(s)

  • relevant inherent aspects of the activity and its environment

  • any precautions applied in the evaluation.

The extent of the detail provided in an environment plan should be considered in regard to the relative significance and uncertainty associated with the environmental impact or risk, and the amount of interest expressed by relevant persons in that impact or risk.

*Except where a titleholder specifies information already provided to NOPSEMA under Regulation 31.

The methods a titleholder selects to evaluate environmental impacts and risks demonstrate the processes a titleholder undertakes to determine the comparative magnitude of an impact or risk and the control measures necessary to reduce the impacts and risks to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) and to an acceptable level. NOPSEMA expects a titleholder to apply their preferred evaluation method(s) consistently throughout the environment plan. NOPSEMA has noted titleholder evaluation of environmental impacts and risks is usually undertaken using a mix of the following methods:

  • the application of an environmental standard / method / code or document of standing

  • good practice and professional judgement

  • qualitative discussion and analysis

  • semi-qualitative basic empirical analysis

  • quantitative analysis such as prediction modelling

  • application of the precautionary principle.

Higher order environmental impacts and environmental risks are likely to require greater study and evidence that are aligned with quantitative methods whereas lower order environmental impacts and environmental risks are when qualitative methods are more likely to be acceptable.

The evaluation method(s) used should generally be consistent with methods of international repute. There is no preference for which method(s) are used however some more typically seen by NOPSEMA include Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA), Best Available Technology Analysis (BAT), Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA), ENVID/HAZID Hazard Identification, and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The UKOOA risk-based decision framework is commonly used in Australia and ISO 17776:2000 describes some of the methods (called structured review techniques by the standard) used in safety and environmental contexts. Whatever method is used, the quality and ultimately utility of the output(s) generated depends on the quality of input information. Where the volume and availability of information, and confidence in the available information is low, additional studies may be required to inform the impact and risk evaluations or to test assumptions made.

Page last updated: June 15, 2021 5:39pm