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New independent, national environment watchdog unveiled

Uncertainty in Australia's energy policy would endanger investment, as one in five approval requests are for renewable projects, the environment minister says.

Uncertainty in Australia's energy policy would endanger investment, as one in five approval requests are for renewable projects, the environment minister says. Photo: AAP

Australia will soon have its first national, independent environment watchdog that can issue hundreds of millions in penalties to anyone breaching federal environmental law.

Details about the much-anticipated Environment Protection Agency were revealed on Tuesday by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.

The body will be given powers to issue Environment Protection Orders, also known as stop-work orders, to those in breach of the law, and audit businesses to ensure they are compliant with environmental approval conditions.

Maximum fines for extremely serious intentional breaches of federal environment law have also been increased to $780 million or a jail term of seven years.

The agency’s chief will be an independent a statutory appointment, similar to the Australian Federal Police Commission, to ensure government cannot interfere with the agency’s work.

“Our government is doing more than ever to protect our country’s natural treasures, native plants and animals, so Australians can continue to enjoy our lifestyle in the great outdoors,” Plibersek said in Sydney.

The Environment Protection Agency will also be responsible for enforcing other federal laws such as recycling, hazardous waste, wildlife trafficking, sea dumping, ozone protection, and air quality.

Plibersek also announced a body that will provide businesses with easier access to the latest environmental data, release State of the Environment reports every two years instead of five, and report on progress on national environmental goals.

Through these functions Environment Information Australia is aimed at boosting accountability and transparency.

These two bodies will be complemented by a $100 million commitment to speed up environmental approval decisions by providing more support for staff to assess project proposals, increased funding for research into threatened species, and more support to help businesses comply with environment law.

However, environment groups were expecting the government to reveal its reforms to the nation’s main environment law the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, after the 2020 Samuel review found it was failing.

The draft laws were originally supposed to go before parliament by the end of 2023, but that was later pushed back to some time in 2024.

– AAP

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