Maryfield Station won approval in 2017 to clear 20,000 hectares of native vegetation. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
An environmental group has won a challenge to the Northern Territory’s largest ever land-clearing application, but the court has steered clear of the arguments put on climate change grounds.
- The contested land-clearing application seeks to clear 20,000 hectares of native vegetation
- The court ruled the EPA’s original decision to not implement a formal impact assessment on the project was not valid
- The ruling comes as the NT Government this month finalises its draft climate change strategy
The ruling means the NT’s environment watchdog — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — will have to reconsider its 2017 decision not to require a formal impact assessment be completed as part of a bid to clear 20,000 hectares of native vegetation on a cattle station south of Darwin.
The greenhouse gas emissions from the proposed clearing on Maryfield Station were estimated to equal 18.5 per cent of the NT’s annual emissions.
NT Supreme Court Justice Peter Barr found that NT EPA chairman Dr Paul Vogel wrongly declared the decision to not require an impact assessment had been made by a majority of the authority’s members, which is required by law.
Emails from a virtual meeting of the authority showed members voicing concern about the scale of the clearing, advocating for “a more transparent public process” and proposing potential conditions to be attached to any approval.
Justice Barr said no motion was put to the group that an environment impact assessment (EIA) was not required for the clearing proposal.
“That was a crucial shortcoming,” he said.
“It is extraordinary that it was left to [an Environment Department staffer], after the event, to examine the entrails of emails and divine (wrongly in my opinion) that the Authority by majority vote had decided that an [EIA] was not necessary.”
Justice Barr ruled that the EPA’s decision was not valid and referred it back to the authority for reconsideration.
Call for climate policy
The judgement did not address the climate change legal arguments raised against the EPA’s decision — Justice Barr said it was not necessary to consider other grounds given his finding.
In announcing its original decision, the EPA had said that the projected emissions did not “constitute a significant impact” on the environment if considered in the national context.
The land-clearing application has been referred back to the EPA for consideration. (ABC News: Daniel Fitzgerald)
The authority said the lack of climate policy in the Northern Territory meant it had no guidance for decision-making around emissions in the NT context.
Environmental Defenders Office lawyer Gillian Duggin, who brought the challenge on behalf of the Environment Centre NT, said the failings in the EPA’s decision decision-making process revealed by the court action “should concern everyone”.
But she said the NT Government had also failed to create a framework for climate change planning and decision-making.
“There remains considerable deficiencies in existing law and policy around environmental assessment, climate change and land clearing in the Northern Territory,” she said.
“The government must now pass its draft Environment Protection Bill, amended to include clear guidance and obligations about climate change.
“It must also progress its climate change strategy and offsets policy as a matter of urgency.”
A spokesperson for the NT EPA said in a statement that the authority “welcomed” the court’s decision.
“The NT EPA has already improved its administration around decision-making and will consider this matter further at its next board meeting in October,” the statement read.
The NT Government said this month it is “finalising” its draft climate change strategy.
Maryfield Station owner Colin Ross declined to comment.