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High Court decision on the right to mine

The High Court recently handed down its decision in Harvey v Minister for Primary Industries and Resources [2024] HCA 1. The case considered the meaning of mining activities under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth). 

The case involved an application for a mineral lease that Mount Isa Mines applied for in 2013 under the Mineral Titles Act 2010 (NT). The application was to process sediment from a channel to a dredge spoil emplacement area but did not involve any production of minerals. The applicant gave notice under section 24MD(6A) of the Native Title Act but the native title holders argued the notice should have been under section 24MD(6B) instead. 


Land Access Agreements for Petroleum Exploration in the Northern Territory: the Tanumbirini Station and Beetaloo Station Decisions

Bradly Torgan
BA (Duke), MRP (UNC), JD (UNC), MEL (Syd)
Special Counsel, Ward Keller, Darwin NT

The Tanumbirini Station and Beetaloo Station decisions, first before the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal and then on appeal to the Northern Territory Supreme Court, represent the first decisions under the land access agreement provisions of the Petroleum Regulations 2020 (NT). They establish jurisdictional boundaries under which the Tribunal can determine an access agreement, guidance on when the Tribunal will exercise its discretion to do so, and guidance on the terms of an access agreement. The decisions also provide a cautionary tale to landowners demanding compensation prospectively for anything other than the drilling of a well. The parties may agree to comprehensive prospective compensation in principle, but if negotiations fail and the matter goes to litigation the landowner stands to get nothing beyond compensation for the drilling of a well.

  1. Introduction

The Petroleum Regulations 2020 (NT) (the Regulations) came into force on 1 January 2021. Amongst the changes from the Petroleum Regulations 1994 (NT) that the Regulations replaced was the requirement for a land access agreement (access agreement) to undertake exploration activities:[i] a petroleum interest holder could no longer commence regulated operations on a particular area of land without having an access agreement in place with the landowner or occupier of the land holding a registered interest, referred to in the Regulations as the designated person.[ii] In the Northern Territory, the designated person is typically a pastoral lessee under the Pastoral Land Act 1992 (NT). While the Petroleum Act 1984 (NT) (the Act) provides for compensation to pastoralists or other owner/occupiers for any damages or deprivation of use of the land caused by the interest holder,[iii] access agreement guidelines prior to the Regulations had no force of law.

The requirement that an access agreement be in place prior to exploration commencing arose from a recommendation of the 2018 Final Report of the Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory (Fracking Inquiry),[iv] which the Northern Territory government had commissioned and whose recommendations it promised to implement in lifting a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing that had been in place since 2016. The recommendation was designed to level what was seen as an unequal negotiating structure between pastoralists and petroleum companies that disadvantaged the pastoralists. The enactment of the access agreement provisions brought the Territory more into line with other jurisdictions for which agreements are required before most petroleum exploration activities can occur.[v]

The Regulations contain twenty-five standard minimum protections (SMPs) that every access agreement is required to address.[vi] They include the minimum amount of compensation payable for the drilling of a well on the land,[vii] sometimes referred to as SMP 12, and a statement of whether it is anticipated that any of the exploration and related activities carried out on the land will lead to a decrease in market value of the land. If that question is answered in the affirmative, the agreement must provide a preliminary assessment of the amount of the decrease.[viii] This statement and assessment is sometimes referred to as SMP 13. What the SMPs do not mandate, however, is determinations of prospective compensation payable for anything other than a minimum amount for the drilling of a well.

The Regulations provide a multi-step negotiations process, including alternative dispute resolution.[ix] If negotiations fail, the interest holder can apply to the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (Tribunal) for determination of an access agreement.[x] Judicial review by the Northern Territory Supreme Court may be sought on questions of law for any Tribunal decision determining or refusing to determine an access agreement.[xi]

While most access agreements in the Northern Territory are the result of successful negotiations between the interest holder and the designated person, negotiations in two instances failed, with the interest holder seeking and securing determinations of access agreements by the Tribunal. The decisions in access agreement disputes before the Tribunal, Sweetpea Petroleum Pty Ltd v Rallen Australia Pty Ltd (Tanumbirini)[xii] and Sweetpea Petroleum Pty Ltd v Yarabala Pty Ltd & BB Barkly Pty Ltd (Beetaloo),[xiii] dated 7 February 2022, addressed access over two adjacent pastoral leaseholds in the gas rich Beetaloo sub-basin, Tanumbirini Station and Beetaloo Station. The decisions were similar, but consequential orders in Tanumbirini resulted in the determination of an access agreement over Tanumbirini Station,[xiv] while the decision in Beetaloo remained interlocutory. The Tanumbirini determination was upheld by the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Rallen Australia Pty Ltd v Sweetpea Petroleum Pty Ltd (Tanumbirini Appeal),[xv] issued on 20 April 2023. A ruling upholding the Beetaloo decision, Yarabala Pty Ltd and BB Barkly Pty Ltd v Sweetpea Petroleum Pty Ltd (Beetaloo Appeal),[xvi] followed on 9 June 2023.

This article first analyses the Tanumbirini decision because of the similarities between it and the Beetaloo decision, although differences between the two are noted, before turning to the Tanumbirini Appeal. The article then reviews major differences between the Tanumbirini Appeal and Beetaloo Appeal before discussing the impacts of the decisions.


[i]      Petroleum Regulations 2020 (NT), reg 12(1).

[ii]      Above n 1, Regulations, regs 3, 13(1)(b).

[iv]     Hon Justice Rachel Pepper (Chair), Final Report: Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory (NT Government, 2018), Rec 14.6, 394-395.

[vi]     Above n 1, Regulations, reg 14, sch 2.

[viii]    Above n 1, Regulations, reg 14, sch 2, cl 13(1).

[ix]     Above n 1, Regulations, regs 14, 25-26.

[x]     Above n 1, Regulations regs 14, 29.

[xiii]    Sweetpea Petroleum Pty Ltd v Yarabala Pty Ltd & BB Barkly Pty Ltd, NTCAT File no 2021-02699-CT (7 February 2022). As of the date of the writing of this article, Beetaloo has not been published.

[xiv]   Above n 12, [2022] NTCAT 1,Tanumbirini, n 1.

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Recent State legislative updates

Both Victoria and South Australia have recently progressed significant legislation focused on renewable energy. 
The Victorian Government’s Climate Change and Energy Legislation Amendment (Renewable Energy and Storage Targets) Bill 2023 has had its second reading in the Legislative Assembly. The Bill is intended to reduce the cost of power bills, create tens of thousands of jobs and encourage investment in the State’s renewable energy industry. 




Dr Natalie Brown

Lecturer, University of Western Australia Law School

The research presented in this article was supported by CRC TiME. The content of the article is a revised version of a report for the CRC. The support of the Australian Government through the Cooperative Research Centre Program is acknowledged. The article is current to August 2023.

This article discusses mine closure regulation under the Western Australian State agreement regime; specifically, Pilbara iron ore mines authorised by State agreements. Not all Pilbara agreement mines are subject to Western Australia’s legislative mine closure requirements. Pilbara agreement mines are only subject to mine closure planning requirements in three situations: if the Environment Minister has imposed an implementation condition following an environmental impact assessment under Part IV of the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA); the Mining Act 1978 (WA) applies to the mine; or an agreement term imposes an obligation to do so. Some Pilbara mines slip through these regulatory gaps because of the unique interaction of State agreements with other legislation. While the focus of this article is on the Pilbara agreement mines, the same propositions apply to all mines authorised by State agreements in Western Australia.



The State of Queensland reformed its mine rehabilitation legislation, namely the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld) (EP Act), in 2018 through the Mineral and Energy Resources (Financial Provisioning) Act 2018 (Qld) (MERFP Act). A case study of the Ensham open-cut coal mine[i] in central Queensland highlights three issues for the efficacy of this regulatory framework.

The first issue concerns an available exclusion of rehabilitation requirements for existing mining voids (the area of excavation created by open cut mining) in flood plains. Under the EP Act, as amended by the MERFP Act, a holder of an environmental authority (EA) may, in its Progressive Rehabilitation and Closure Plan (PRCP) and PRCP Schedule, identify land as a Non-use Management Area (NUMA).[ii] This is land that would not be rehabilitated “to a stable condition” and not have a post-mining land use. This rehabilitation exception as a NUMA is not applicable to mining voids wholly or partly in flood plains – these must be rehabilitated to a “stable condition”,[iii] as defined in the EP Act. This is the “section 126D(3) rehabilitation obligation”.[iv] However, the transitional provisions of the mining rehabilitation reforms differentiate the rehabilitation obligations of pre-existing mines (those existing at the time of the reforms, such as the Ensham Mine) and new site-specific mines.[v] Pre-existing mines with a “land outcome document” that presents an outcome similar to a NUMA can establish criteria for rehabilitation or management of a void in a flood plain that supersede this section 126D(3) rehabilitation obligation.[vi]

The MERFP Bill Explanatory Notes for the transitional provisions reveal that this exemption from section 126D(3) “does not retrospectively breach existing rights and provides certainty to industry on the transitional process”.[vii] However, this grandfathering is arguably disconnected from environmental risks of such residual voids, creating two classes of mines based on the timing of a mine’s existence (pre-existing versus new). This Ensham case study provides an example of a pre-existing mine’s use of a “land outcome document” to exempt rehabilitation of residual voids in a flood plain but without clarity around the non-use management status of the area of the residual voids.

The second issue discussed in this case study is progressive rehabilitation. The design of a financial assurance system to increase progressive rehabilitation was “a clear objective of the EPA’s work in 2004”, yet the EP Act fell short by failing to clearly outline criteria for certification of final rehabilitation for industry, and a scheme of refunding financial assurances at the termination of mining activity.[viii] These issues remained unaddressed until the 2015 State election when the then Labor Opposition ran on the campaign “[to] investigate the expansion of upfront rehabilitation bonds for resource companies to fully fund long-term rehabilitation activities”.[ix] Thereafter, the Queensland Treasury Corporation published a number of discussion papers advising of the shortcomings of the current financial assurance framework and that, in 2017, there were “220,000 hectares of disturbance, with an estimated rehabilitation cost of $8.7 billion”.[x] Queensland’s 2018 mining regulation amendments concerning progressive rehabilitation were intended to ensure “rigorous” review of NUMA approvals in PRCPs, “through an objective public interest evaluation” for future or newly established mines.[xi]

However, the reforms may not effectively address instances in which progressive rehabilitation has been lacking in large, open-cut, mature mines in operation at the time of these legislative changes. As of 2021, approximately 33% of the Ensham Mine’s 4,944.7 ha of scheduled rehabilitation areas had been progressively rehabilitated.[xii] According to Ensham’s PRCP, this level of progressive rehabilitation exceeds that of other open-cut mines in Queensland.[xiii] For established mines, such as Ensham, that are approaching closure and have large voids that have not been substantially progressively rehabilitated across their mine life, the most economical rehabilitation option may be to rehabilitate residual voids to accord with legislated requirements. Under Queensland’s legislation, “rehabilitation” does not necessarily mean these voids will be re-filled. This may be contrary to community understanding of what rehabilitation is.

Thirdly, this case study highlights areas in the regulatory framework in which information transparency could be improved – particularly public access to information – which raises issues of accountability, quality of community engagement and, ultimately, social licence on the part of mining companies and government. Information transparency is also relevant to community engagement and expectations for rehabilitation, such as the meaning of “rehabilitation” of residual voids (i.e., refilling to establish a pre-mining state versus the legislated “stable condition” standard).

This article is structured as follows. Part 2 presents the legal and operational context of the Ensham Mine. It also describes the operational history of flooding and its relevance to rehabilitation and management of post-mining residual risks, which leads to a discussion of the rehabilitation legal reforms. Part 3 discusses the reform of Queensland’s rehabilitation legislation framework as it concerns residual voids, including the transitional provisions of the EP Act. Part 3 also explores Ensham’s Residual Void Project (RVP) for the development of the rehabilitation criteria for residual voids and considers the community engagement process. Part 4 comments on the transitional regulatory design issues in Queensland’s framework, issues concerning progressive rehabilitation of pre-existing open-cut mines such as Ensham, as well as transparency of information and community consultation. Part 5 concludes and suggests future research.




Recent years have seen distributed energy resources usher in a new era of self-generation and reduced reliance on traditional centralised energy networks. Australian customers are increasingly enabled to access unconventional “behind the meter” energy sources and contribute to a two-way flow of energy back to the grid. 

Chilean Committee Launch Event

On 8th November in Chile (9th Nov in Australia), the Chilean Committee of the Energy and Resources Law Association was officially launched. The event took place at the office of the Sustainable Minerals Institute International Centre of Excellence Chile (SMI-ICE-Chile). The event started with opening words by the Mr. Ambassador of Australia in Chile, His Excellency Todd Mercer, the Executive Director of the SMI-ICE-Chile, Doug Aitken, and Gordon Bunyan , Executive Director of the Energy & Resources Law Association.