Marine oil and gas exploration and production
The 2009 Montara oil spill off the far north-west coast of Western Australia and the resulting commission of inquiry (Borthwick 2010) highlighted critical inadequacies in the management of oil and gas exploration and production activities. It also highlighted industry-wide and government challenges in ensuring that the best technologies, management practices and regulatory processes were in place to prevent an accident of this nature occurring again in Australia.
Regulatory reform resulting from the commission of inquiry led to the implementation of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), established in 2012 under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006. NOPSEMA is responsible for the regulation of safety, well integrity, and environmental management of oil and gas operations in Australian, state and Northern Territory waters, where relevant powers and functions have been conferred (see also Marine oil and gas exploration and production under Pressures affecting the marine environment).
The authority’s environmental management authorisation process was endorsed under the EPBC Act in 2014. Subsequently, the Minister for the Environment approved a class of actions that, if undertaken in accordance with NOPSEMA’s environmental management authorisation process, no longer required referral, assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. Titleholders seeking to undertake offshore petroleum or greenhouse gas activities in Australian waters in accordance with the EPBC Act must submit an environment plan to NOPSEMA for assessment and can only proceed with the activities once they are accepted by NOPSEMA.
With the implementation of NOPSEMA, there has been an increased level of scrutiny of offshore petroleum environmental management through assessment processes and compliance inspections. Industry environmental reports show that, although a small number of accidental releases of hydrocarbon vapour and liquid petroleum have occurred since 2012, there have been no hydrocarbon releases of a similar magnitude to the Montara oil spill in Australian waters (NOPSEMA 2016). Environmental management investigation and enforcement powers have also been strengthened, which has resulted in better understanding of the impacts of activities, greater focus on industry compliance and increased levels of preparedness for unplanned events.
NOPSEMA is subject to an independent operational review of its regulatory performance and review of the EPBC Act streamlining process every 5 years. The operational review considers NOPSEMA’s effectiveness in bringing about improvements in occupational health and safety, environmental management and well integrity, whereas the EPBC Act streamlining review assesses NOPSEMA’s compliance with the environmental management authorisation process endorsed under the EPBC Act.
The EPBC Act–endorsed environmental authorisation process carried out by NOPSEMA for petroleum exploration and production activities was independently reviewed 12 months after the Minister for the Environment’s endorsement. The review examined NOPSEMA compliance with the environmental management authorisation process endorsed under the EPBC Act, including associated objectives for matters protected under Part 3, and outcomes and commitments (ERM 2015). The review process identified several opportunities for improvement, including:
- greater collaboration between NOPSEMA and the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy
- improved provision of information to third-party stakeholders and titleholders, and on the environmental management authorisation process itself
- greater transparency in the authorisation process.
Future reviews of the EPBC Act streamlining process will be incorporated into the independent operational review. Opportunities for improvement identified by the first review have been, or are being, addressed (Christine Lamont, NOPSEMA, pers. comm., 22 February 2016).
Regulatory frameworks in place for oil and gas operations in state and territory waters vary, with some states having undertaken substantial revision of regulations associated with oil and gas activities in the past decade. Activities that may have a significant impact on the environment are referred to state or territory environment agencies under environmental legislation. Many agencies have bilateral agreements, whereby operations that may have an impact on matters of national significance under the EPBC Act are also referred to the relevant state or territory environment agency. Although most state and territory jurisdictions publish information about acreage releases, the accessibility of information on operations, environmental planning and incidents varies. Regulatory streamlining opportunities across Australian Government, and state and territory jurisdictions are currently being investigated, with the aim of reducing regulatory duplication and increasing consistency in industry oversight.
Development of a pragmatic decommissioning policy to address ageing infrastructure in the marine environment off Western Australia is one of the initial science priorities for the implementation strategy for Blueprint for marine science 2050 (Blueprint for Marine Science 2016). The strategy sets out a marine science collaboration between the scientific community, industry, and regulatory and government sectors in Western Australia, to support sustainable operations in the marine environment.
Marine mining and industry
Because of the low levels of activity in the marine mining and industry sector, and the emerging nature of marine mining and related industries within the Australian marine environment (AIMS 2014), there is currently a low level of understanding of the management strategies that might be required to address environmental pressures. Globally, the marine mining industry is more advanced, and is supported by a growing body of research investigating likely environmental impacts and mitigation strategies.
Legislation exists to regulate the exploration and mining of offshore aggregate resources across Australian Government, state and territory jurisdictions; however, no national or regional assessments exist of mining impacts or potential responses to these impacts. An environmental impact assessment is required under the EPBC Act for all projects that may have a significant impact on the Australian marine environment. A 3-year moratorium on sea-floor mineral exploration was formally implemented in the Northern Territory in 2012 (and extended for 3 more years in 2015), following local objections to potential marine mining around Groote Eylandt. In New South Wales, although not formally enacted, an effective moratorium has prevented exploration for building sands offshore of the Sydney Basin since 2000.
Globally, the International Seabed Authority has enacted a mining code to regulate prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the international seabed area (defined as the seabed and subsoil beyond the limits of national jurisdiction). The principal obligations include applying the precautionary approach, employing best environmental practice and conducting prior environmental impact assessments. The code has been augmented by the International Marine Minerals Society, which has developed a voluntary Code for Environmental Management.
Marine vessel activity
Environmental regulation of commercial vessel activity is regularly reviewed and amended to strengthen environmental protection and reduce the environmental impact of vessel activities globally through the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Recent amendments to international law of significance include:
- amendments to Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which tighten the controls on discharge of garbage at sea
- amendments to Annex VI of MARPOL, which introduce technical and operational controls on greenhouse gas emissions from international commercial vessels, especially sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority is responsible for ensuring that Australia meets its international requirements. This regulatory body is tasked with developing frameworks and standards for protecting the marine environment from environmental damage caused by vessels, including pollution preparedness and response, domestic commercial vessel reform, and navigation safety.
Empirical information that could provide insight into the commercial vessel industry’s approach to environmental performance is not available. However, community perceptions, and the commercial relationships between ship owner and ship charterer are among the strongest drivers of environmental performance. Environmental noncompliance can affect a shipping company’s bottom line, because charterers contract ships with a good environmental record to minimise risk and exposure. Companies will use their strong environmental record and beyond-compliance approach as a point of differentiation to attract charterers looking for high-quality operators.
The overall rate of vessel detentions (detention being the most severe form of immediate sanction when a deficiency is detected) fell from 9.2 per cent to 6.0 per cent of total inspections from 2011 to 2015 (AMSA 2016). During the same timeframe, inspections increased from 3002 to 4050 per year. The proportion of detainable deficiencies related to pollution increased from 6.5 per cent in 2012 to 11.2 per cent in 2015. Most of the deficiencies related to prevention, as opposed to a sanction, for a pollution offence.
Three significant changes to managing commercial vessel activity in Australian waters have been implemented since 2011 to increase environmental protection:
- designation of the Coral Sea Particularly Sensitive Sea Area
- review of the National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies
- development of the North East Shipping Management Plan.
The National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies (AMSA 2015) details Australia’s implementation of provisions set out under international conventions and agreements that Australia is party to, with respect to management of maritime environmental emergencies. In addition, vessel routing measures have been implemented off Ningaloo Reef, the southern Great Barrier Reef and south-western Western Australia, and the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service has been extended.
The International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships, which was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in 2008, prohibits the use of harmful organotin compounds in antifouling paints used on vessels involved in international shipping. It also establishes a mechanism to prevent the potential future use of other harmful substances in antifouling systems. The convention was implemented in Australian domestic legislation by the Protection of the Sea (Harmful Anti-fouling Systems) Act 2006 in 2008. Under this legislation, a ship complies with the antifouling requirements set out under the Act if it has no harmful antifouling compound applied on any designated external surface, or if the surface on which a harmful antifouling compound has been applied has a coating that forms a barrier to prevent the harmful antifouling compound leaching into the water.
Regulation of recreational vessels (registration, licensing, use of waterways) is the responsibility of state and territory authorities or agencies. Any incidents involving recreational vessels must be reported to these authorities or agencies under the relevant state or territory legislation. Mooring of vessels within state and territory waters is also regulated by these authorities or agencies (see also the Coasts report). International conventions relating to pollution are implemented through relevant state or territory legislation.
Currently, there are no management frameworks directly addressing biofouling or disturbance to, or vessel strike of, marine animals (see also Box MAR3). A series of voluntary guidelines for international and domestic vessels, and marine industries have been developed, with the aim of setting out a consensus view of effective biofouling management practices. A national vessel strike strategy is being developed by the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy (DoEE 2016). Regulations regarding human activity around whales and dolphins, including small-vessel activity, have been adopted by Australian Government, state and territory jurisdictions (Australian national guidelines for whale and dolphin watching 2005). The IMO has adopted measures to minimise vessel strike, including precautionary areas, areas to be avoided, re-routing measures and speed restrictions (Silber et al. 2012). In Australian waters, not enough is known at present about the spatial or temporal distribution of the risk of vessel strike and the scale of the issue to implement targeted management measures.
The problem of introduced species carried by vessels has intensified over the last few decades due to expanded trade and traffic volume and, since the volume of seaborne trade continues to increase, the problem may not yet have reached its peak (see also Introduced species under State and trends of the marine environment).
In response, the IMO, in consultation with member states, has developed 2 sets of international guidelines addressing introduced species:
- International guidelines for preventing the introduction of unwanted aquatic organisms and pathogens from ships’ ballast water and sediment discharges was adopted by the Marine Environment Protection Committee in 1991.
- International guidelines for the control and management of ships’ biofouling to minimize the transfer of invasive aquatic species was adopted by the committee in 2011.
Although adherence to the guidelines is voluntary, they provide a basis on which to further promote a best-practice approach to ballast water and biofouling management to prevent introduced species incursions.
The International guidelines for preventing the introduction of unwanted aquatic organisms and pathogens from ships’ ballast water and sediment discharges was further developed into a resolution adopted by the IMO Assembly in 1997, and then the International Convention on the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments in 2004. Because of a range of concerns about technical feasibility and efficacy of the available technology, the required entry-into-force criteria (ratification by 30 states, representing 35 per cent of the world’s merchant shipping tonnage) have only recently been met, and the convention will enter into force in September 2017. Following entry into force, all vessels will need to fit a ballast water management system by their first MARPOL Annex I (International Oil Pollution Prevention) renewal survey. This will have a significant impact on the environmental performance of vessels involved in international shipping with respect to the ongoing translocation of species around the globe and around the Australian coast.
The difficulty and expense of eradicating introduced marine species have focused national management efforts on reducing initial introductions to Australia, detecting introductions early and limiting the spread of species once established. Australia introduced voluntary ballast water management arrangements in 1991 for vessels entering Australian waters, and Victoria introduced comprehensive ballast water arrangements for vessels entering its ports in 1994. It is now compulsory for all international vessels to manage their ballast water according to Australian ballast water management requirements.
The black-striped mussel outbreak in Darwin in 1999 highlighted the need for an integrated approach to managing marine pest incursions in Australia. A national taskforce recommended the establishment of the National System for the Prevention and Management of Marine Pest Incursions. Established in 2005, the system focuses on the prevention of, emergency preparedness for, response to, and ongoing management and control of, marine pests. Emergency response elements are governed by the National Environmental Biosecurity Response Agreement. Components of the national system—which include guidelines and information on monitoring, biofouling and ballast water—continue to be implemented under the guidance of the Marine Pest Sectoral Committee, a national technical and advisory committee made up of representatives from the Australian, state and Northern Territory governments. The national system applies the biosecurity principles and framework outlined in the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity to the marine pest sector.
In the event of a marine pest incursion of national significance, the Consultative Committee on Introduced Marine Pest Emergencies would be convened. This national technical forum, comprising members from the Australian, state and Northern Territory governments, would provide advice on the feasibility and coordination of a national response, as per the Emergency Marine Pest Plan.
A recently concluded review of Australian Government policy on introduced species, together with implementation of the new Biosecurity Act 2015, should provide an improved and more nationally consistent approach to domestic policy and legislation relating to marine vessels.
Environmental regulation of noise associated with, for example, oil and gas, military, vessel activity and port-related (e.g. dredging, pile-driving) activities is currently largely addressed at the sector level. However, national, and state and territory environmental regulators are now considering the results of international and national research on marine noise, with a view to applying management strategies to avoid noise sources affecting the marine environment.
Regulation of marine noise from oil and gas activities in Australian Government waters is addressed under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 and associated environmental regulations. Environmental management authorisation processes under this Act and associated environmental regulations have been administered by NOPSEMA since 2012, and were endorsed by the Minister for the Environment under Part 10 of the EPBC Act in 2014 (see Marine oil and gas exploration and production).
Through environmental impact assessments, military activities are assessed for potential impacts associated with noise. Procedures have been developed to mitigate and manage associated impacts on the environment, and are outlined in the Maritime Activities Environmental Management Plan. Under procedures detailed in this plan, potential areas of higher marine mammal abundances and locations with specific sensitivities (e.g. feeding, resting areas) are avoided for activities generating high noise levels. More generally, cetacean exclusion zones are used around noise sources, and known nesting beaches for marine turtles are avoided (see the specific planning guides set out in the plan). If a marine mammal or other marine fauna is sighted within the exclusion zone, activities are curtailed until the vessel can move. Operations and activities that require regulation under the EPBC Act must be approved by the minister and, depending on the activity, meet environmental guidelines set out under the approval process. Reviews of the Maritime Activities Environmental Management Plan are conducted with the assistance of the Defence Science and Technology Group.
Dredging activities are regulated under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981, which regulates the loading and dumping of waste at sea within Australian waters. The Act also considers the implications of such activities (including noise generated) under the EPBC Act. Few processes are in place for the management of noise generated in other sectors, beyond those that might be defined under EPBC Act approval processes. Through the IMO, nonmandatory guidelines for reducing underwater noise from commercial vessels have been developed: Guidelines for the reduction of underwater noise from commercial shipping to address adverse impacts on marine life. Some initial work has commenced within the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy on developing similar guidelines for managing commercial vessels and associated noise at the domestic level.
Environment plans associated with oil and gas activities, and management plans covering activities conducted by the military and involving dredging activities requiring EPBC Act approval must assess all potential risks and impacts arising from activities that generate underwater noise, including cumulative impacts. Although regulation processes for each of these activities vary, in principle, environmental plans must demonstrate that all reasonably practical controls will be implemented to reduce impacts to acceptable levels. Demonstrations of acceptability must be supported by relevant scientific literature, industry standards, government policy documents, species recovery plans and management plans, and must consider stakeholder input. Where scientific evidence to support environmental impact conclusions is lacking, precautionary approaches to management and decision-making are applied. These may result in additional control measures, such as exclusion of sensitive environments from operational areas, as specified by the minister.
Several sanctuaries in Australian and state waters have been implemented with the express purpose of controlling disturbance (e.g. seasonal closure of part of the Great Australian Bight for southern right whales, and the Port Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary).
The international community is encouraging the establishment of a Global Ocean Acoustical Observing System, building on platforms and capability such as IMOS in Australian waters (Boyd et al. 2011). Such a system would allow the ocean soundscape in Australian waters to be established, consider spatial and temporal variance, and provide direct input into processes to regulate activities generating noise in the marine environment.
The Australian Government has recognised marine debris as a key threatening process under the EPBC Act since 2003. A threat abatement plan was developed in association with the listing (DEWHA 2009a). The plan aims for consistency in evaluating the impacts of marine debris across Australian Government, state and territory jurisdictions, and therefore aims to reduce the impacts of marine debris on marine life.
At the end of the first 5 years of the plan, the achievements against the objectives of the plan, and the effectiveness of the plan in preventing and mitigating the impacts of marine debris on marine vertebrates were reviewed (DoE 2015b). The review found that significant progress on parts of the plan had been made, including:
- amendments to Annex V of the IMO’s MARPOL, which provided in-principle support for actions defined by the plan
- research on the scale and distribution of marine debris in the marine environment, including the development of national databases categorising marine debris and its sources
- national education and community action programs
- education and outreach programs involving neighbouring sources of marine debris
- greater engagement with AFMA for removing marine debris from the ocean.
Despite progress in these areas, several identified actions had not been met. Based on measurements against 2 key criteria, it was concluded that the key threatening process being addressed by the plan had not been abated and the objectives of the plan had not been met. It was recommended that the plan be either retained for another 5 years or revised, allowing for actions and objectives to be updated, and emerging issues such as microplastic ingestion to be incorporated. Revisions of the plan are under way, and it is expected that the revised plan will be released in early 2017.
Following the DoE (2015b) review, the Australian Senate in June 2015 referred the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia and Australian waters for inquiry and reporting by April 2016 (ECRC 2016). The Environment and Communications References Committee conducting the inquiry was tasked with:
- reviewing current research and scientific understanding of marine plastic pollution
- identifying sources of marine plastic pollution
- identifying the impacts of marine plastic pollution on species, ecosystems, fisheries, small business and human health
- identifying measures and resourcing for mitigation.
The inquiry drew on information provided in submissions from researchers, environmental groups, local councils, industry and government departments. Contributions were also made through several public hearings. The inquiry made 23 recommendations in its findings, including:
- supporting research into marine plastic pollution, and its impacts on species, ecosystems and human health to ensure that policies aimed at mitigating threats are based on sound information
- continuing support of the national databases that are in place
- facilitating industry, jurisdictional, regional and community support for research, education and clean-up programs
- establishing a working group for facilitating a comprehensive and coordinated response to threats imposed by marine plastic pollution
- assisting jurisdictions with implementing improved stormwater management and a range of options to reduce the release of plastic pollution into the marine environment.
The report is currently under consideration by the Australian Government.
The Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981 regulates the loading and dumping of waste at sea across Australian Government jurisdictions. The Act requires permits for all ocean disposal activities, including dredging operations; creation of artificial reefs; dumping from vessels, platforms or other human-made structures; and burials at sea. The Act fulfils Australia’s obligations under the 1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972, also known as the London Protocol. The areas selected as disposal sites for dredged materials and the nature of disposal of dredged material at sea are highly regulated to minimise the risk of marine organisms being exposed to toxic materials. This regulation also ensures that the sites chosen are the most likely to be minimally affected by the application of additional sediment (Ports Australia 2014).
In 2015, the Australian Government established a new regulation under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983, which ends the disposal of dredge material from capital dredging projects (e.g. port developments) in the marine park. Complementary legislation introduced by Queensland in 2015 means that the disposal of dredge material from capital dredging projects no longer occurs throughout the remainder of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. A dredging science node has been established within the Western Australian Marine Science Institution, which aims to address key areas of uncertainty in the prediction and management of impacts associated with dredging.