On 10 February 2022, Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley made the decision to elevate the status of koalas under the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act). Effective from 12 February 2022, the conservation status of koalas in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory was lifted from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’.
What are the consequences of the change in koala conservation status?
An immediate consequence of the elevated status is that referral guidelines and policy documents relevant to the status of koalas as vulnerable are no longer current. However, the Minister has published the Conservation Advice for Phascolarctos cinereus (Koala) combined populations of Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. This advice must be taken into consideration when making a decision under the EPBC Act.
A less immediate consequence is the likely elevation of the status of koalas in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. While not automatic, the States and Territory can make use of the Commonwealth’s ‘common assessment method’ to update the status of koalas in those areas.
What does this mean for current projects under assessment?
An important point to note is that the elevation of the conservation status of koalas does not impact projects that are currently being assessed or that were approved before 12 February 2022. However, any new project that is determined to be a ‘controlled action’ under the EPBC Act because it has a significant impact on koalas will be assessed on the basis of the elevated endangered status.
Current advice from the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment is to request a pre-referral meeting with the department to better understand the specific implications of the endangered status of koalas for individual projects. We think that it is certain such projects will be subject to a higher level of scrutiny resulting in longer assessment timeframes and the need to ensure that mitigation measures and other obligations are carefully considered and addressed in any application material.