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Rehabilitation of the Latrobe Valley Coal Mines: Integrating Regulation of Mine Rehabilitaion and Planning for Land and Water Use

Professor Alex Gardner, University of Western Australia Law School
Elda Poletti, Mining Law Consultant
Lauren Downes, Research Associate, University of Western Australia Law School
Laura Hamblin, Research Associate, 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 case study undertaken for the project “Mapping the regulatory framework of mine closure”. The support of the Australian Government through the Cooperative Research Centre Program is acknowledged. The article is current to March 2024.

This case study considers the challenges of implementing effective regulatory processes for rehabilitation of open cut coal mines in one of the world’s largest brown coal reserves, the Latrobe Valley, Victoria. The Latrobe Valley coal fired energy industry is experiencing a transition hastened by a serious coal mine fire in 2014 and climate change. The Latrobe Valley mines and their associated power stations either have closed (Hazelwood 2017) or are scheduled to close (Yallourn 2028 and Loy Yang 2035) with final rehabilitation to follow. The case study demonstrates the leading role of the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990 (Vic) in mine rehabilitation regulation. The MRSD Act was significantly reformed in 2019 to introduce important mine rehabilitation reforms and integrate mine rehabilitation regulation with land use and water use planning, all operating in the context of the Climate Change Act 2017 (Vic). The principal integrative instrument is the Latrobe Valley Regional Rehabilitation Strategy (2020, amended in October 2023). We suggest further research to improve the regulatory outcomes.

 

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How Good is Queensland's Law Reform Commission Inquiry into Mining Lease Objections?

John Southalan
Barrister (WA Bar Association), Mediator (NMAS), Adjunct / Clinical Professor (UWA, Murdoch, Curtin)

This article is written in personal capacity and does not represent the views of any organisation with which the author is associated. Grateful thanks for comments and feedback on earlier drafts from Prof Deanna Kemp, Julia Keenan, Prof Alex Gardner, Rodger Barnes and others who are not identified. Any errors remain the author’s responsibility.

 

The Queensland Law Reform Commission is reviewing the processes to decide contested applications for mining leases and associated environmental authorities in Queensland. The Commission has published several background papers, providing material and analysis of much broader use that just Queensland law reform. One paper explores key drivers shaping mining’s future: decarbonisation and critical minerals’ demand; rising focus on environmental, social and governance principles; and increasing recognition and respect for First Nations’ rights. Another paper summarises (and compares) the objections processes for mining leases and associated environmental authorities in six jurisdictions: Queensland, Western Australia, New South Wales, Northern Territory, British Columbia (Canada), and South Africa. The Commission’s papers provide excellent summaries and material for anyone wanting to understand mining law and policy processes – what currently exists in these significant mining jurisdictions, and what the future may hold.

 

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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. 

 

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PILBARA IRON ORE STATE AGREEMENTS AND MINE CLOSURE REGULATION

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.

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QUEENSLAND’S MINE REHABILITATION REQUIREMENTS FOR VOIDS: ENSHAM CASE STUDY

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.

 

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POWERING CONSUMER PROTECTIONS: WHY DECENTRALISED AND DISTRIBUTED ENERGY RESOURCES WARRANT A NEW LENS ON CONSUMER PROTECTION REGULATIONS

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. 

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COMMUNITY LEGAL RIGHTS IN MINE CLOSURE PLANNING; A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF THREE AUSTRALIAN STATES

Professor Alex Gardner, University of Western Australia Law School, and Laura Hamblin, formerly research associate at the UWA Law School, 2021

 

Why does the Mining Act 1978 (WA) not provide secure legal rights for community consultation in relation to mining lease proposals and mine closure plans? Addressing this question presents an important theme for this comparative review of some core features of the regulatory frameworks for mine closure in three Australian States. It also raises important questions for future legal research.

Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria have prominent but vastly different, and thus uniquely significant, mining industries. Western Australia’s mining industry has a long history of large and smaller scale mining of a diverse range of minerals by various methods that pose significant mine rehabilitation challenges.[i] Queensland’s mining industry is similarly large and diverse, dominated by export coal production, and planning future minerals development in a decarbonising world.[ii] Victoria has a smaller mining industry with a large historical legacy dominated by a coal mining industry for domestic electricity generation in the Latrobe Valley, which is closing as the State actively transitions to renewable power sources.[iii] These States also have significant differences in the regulation of their mining industries.

What all three States do have in common is the significance of their mining industries to both the State economy and the communities who depend on or live near mining operations. Importantly, all three States are confronting large legal and regulatory challenges in managing mine rehabilitation and closure. The key to addressing these challenges is effective mine closure planning: the closure of a mine site has ripple effects that are not merely environmental and economic, but social and cultural too.

The initial approval of a mine closure plan occurs before any mining has begun and, with the life cycle of a mine often spanning decades, regulatory bodies are approving hypothetical closure scenarios, potentially subject to vast changes. Regulatory bodies may then seek to enforce closure requirements enshrined in a plan that may wane in relevance as mining operations progress, the updating of which may depend on the miner. Yet remedying the regulatory system so that it creates adaptable but consistently effective mine closure outcomes for affected communities still begins at planning. Although that planning is an iterative process across the life of the mine, it is very important at the initial stage of approval. Recent legislative reforms in all three States are adding to the regulatory rigour and adaptability of mine closure planning, though there are very different legal requirements for community consultation. This article aims to explain and assess the regulatory reforms by undertaking a comparative analysis of mine closure planning across Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria, with a focus on the initial approval stage and how stakeholders and communities are brought into that process. The facilitation of continuous and comprehensive community engagement is critical to ensuring that mine closure planning accounts for environmental, economic, social, cultural and safety outcomes after mine closure, but it has not been possible to consider here the process of ongoing mine closure planning, especially for amending mine closure plans and determining satisfaction of mine closure plans leading to resource tenure relinquishment.[iv]

The article begins by considering core concepts of mine closure planning and the regulatory goals that inform it. It then provides a comparative overview of each State’s mine closure planning requirements under the mineral resources, environmental and land use planning laws and draws out some of the different regulatory structures and processes for mine closure within each State. The third step in our analysis compares the ways in which those laws provide for local communities’ participation in mine closure planning, with specific attention to whether the regulatory provisions create legally enforceable rights for effective community engagement. The article concludes with a summary of the key points from the discussion of three themes in our analysis: (i) the importance of clear definitions of core concepts and key goals, (ii) mine closure planning as an essential part of a mining proposal, and (iii) the legal definition of community engagement and consultation rights.

Mine closure planning and implementation is necessarily influenced by many other spheres of law including taxation law, investment law, water law, and the rights of traditional owners, to name a few. A potentially directly relevant Commonwealth law is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth), which may require environmental impact assessment of a mining proposal and closure plan and lead to approval conditions supplementing State requirements.[v] Whilst acknowledging the importance of these adjacent spheres of the regulatory frameworks for effective mine closure planning, this article does not attempt to address their impact. In particular, the rights of Traditional Custodians are a crucial part of mine closure planning that are only briefly noted here and that would benefit from future research.

 
  1. WA Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, Major Commodities Review 2022-23”.
  1. Qld Government, Department of Resources, Queensland Resources Industry Development Plan, June 022.
  1. Vic Government, Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, Latrobe Valley Regional Rehabilitation Strategy.
  1. See L Hamblin, A Gardner, Y Haigh, Mapping the Regulatory Framework of Mine Closure, May 2022, CRC TiME, for a broader exploration of the full life cycle of mine closure regulation.
  1. In Buzzacott v Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities [2013] FCAFC 111; (2013) 214 FCR 301, [144], [227]-[230], referring to the range of approval conditions, which included mine closure. In setting conditions under the EPBC Act, the Commonwealth Minister must consider any relevant conditions under State or Territory law: at [80] citing Lansen v Minister for Environment and Heritage (2008) 174 FCR 14.
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SANTOS V TIPAKALIPPA: JUDICIAL GUIDANCE ON THE REQUIREMENTS FOR OFFSHORE PETROLEUM EP CONSULTATION

In the Santos v Tipakalippa decision, the Full Federal Court has given guidance to offshore petroleum titleholders in respect of the consultation obligations that they need to satisfy in order to obtain NOPSEMA’s acceptance of environment plans that they submit for the purposes of conducting their respective petroleum activities. The Full Federal Court’s decision may, however, have wider impacts, including on the consultation that may be required to be undertaken by a project proponent under the Commonwealth Offshore Electricity Infrastructure legislation in order to develop an offshore renewable energy project.

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SHARMA v MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

More than a year on from the overturning of Sharma v Minister for the Environment by the Full Federal Court, Justice Bromberg’s original judgment continues to occupy the minds of the Australian legal community. Although the current position in Australia is that the Minister owes no duty of care in such cases, the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia stressed that the expert evidence regarding the threat of climate change and global warming was largely uncontested, perhaps foreshadowing the cornerstone of cases to come. Globally, climate litigation is showing no signs of slowing down. As outlined below, despite numerous defeats in various jurisdictions, climate litigants have secured a small number of hard-won victories, fuelling the pipeline.