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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
21/05/2018
Estimates
ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY PORTFOLIO
Clean Energy Regulator

Clean Energy Regulator

[18:15]

CHAIR: Welcome, officers. In particular, welcome, Mr Parker. Thank you for joining us. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Parker : No, Mr Chairman. We're at your disposal.

CHAIR: We'll go straight to questions.

Senator URQUHART: In recent reports, it's been reported that the CER believes the 2020 Renewable Energy Target will be more than met; is that correct?

Mr Parker : Yes, that's right.

Senator URQUHART: What's your best estimate of how much renewable capacity will be built by 2020 above the 330 gigawatt hours RET?

Mr Parker : We tend to track this in terms of capacity, and we put an update out to the market on Friday a week ago—not last Friday but the Friday before that. We have been keeping the market informed on the degree of build. That was against the context that, at an earlier point time, there was some scepticism about whether the build would be sufficient to meet the target in 2020. In January, we said we thought that there was enough build in the pipeline, so to speak, to meet the target. In February, we said that there was enough in the pipeline to more than meet the target. On Friday a week past, we said there's enough build that has either already been built or is actually being built at the moment to meet the target. So we've seen a bit more solar than had earlier been expected. I'll talk in round numbers. The precise details are all available on the web. We said in the latest update that the build pipeline—that is, what is actually being built—was about 6,500 megawatts.

Senator URQUHART: Is that above what you expect?

Mr Parker : No. That is the total build that is necessary to go to meet the targets. So we said that amount of the build is enough to meet the target. Beyond that, we were expecting at that point in time that about 1,500 megawatts of potential build was still in the pipeline—these are projects which have been announced but may not have got to the point of final investment decision, be fully financed and so forth—making a total of about 8,000 megawatts that we think, on the basis of present information, could be built by 2020 to meet that target.

Senator URQUHART: How much renewable energy was built in the last two calendar years—that's 2016 and 2017—under the RET?

Mr Parker : I can give you the broad number for 2017. We'll get one of our officers to look at the 2016 number. Last year—that is, for the 2017 calendar year—there was a little over 1,000 megawatts of large-scale renewables and a similar amount of small-scale renewables. This year, broadly speaking, we're expecting around 2,600 megawatts of—

Senator URQUHART: 2,600?

Mr Parker : Yes. It could be a little more or it could be a little less. It depends on precisely when a large-scale installation gets to closure. The year might tick over or it might be just before that. So there's uncertainty around that precise number when we look in terms of calendar year. That's the broad number. For 2016, it was a substantially lower number because the pipeline was just building up at that point in time. We'll ask one of the officers to check that number for you, and then we'll come back to you.

Mr Williamson : I can give that now. It was 494 megawatts in 2016. And last year's number that Mr Parker mentioned was a record for the scheme—the highest ever installed capacity at a little over 1,050 megawatts.

Senator URQUHART: 1,050 megawatts. Okay. Does the CER have a view of the likely renewable energy build in future years?

Mr Parker : Do you mean beyond the Renewable Energy Target—

Senator URQUHART: You have just talked about 2016-17. You have given me 2018 so far. What's your view of the likely renewable energy build in future years?

Mr Parker : The further out you go, the less precise these numbers become, obviously, so I'll ask my colleagues to correct me if I get the round numbers wrong. For 2019, I was broadly expecting 3,500 megawatts—in that range.

Senator URQUHART: You got a nod of approval there. So that's 2019.

Mr Parker : That's good!

Senator URQUHART: Yes. Is that as far as you go out? You don't have any other years?

Mr Parker : We don't predict in terms of detail, but I'll ask my colleague Mr Williamson to give a sort of broad perspective.

Mr Williamson : We are still seeing announcements happen. We are still hearing about companies going to the market, looking for power purchase agreements. Certainly, as Mr Parker said, we think the 8,000 megawatts we're tracking, as firmly announced, will be under construction by the end of this year or early in 2019. So there will be some build which gets to the point of first generation and commissioning in 2020. But we will really know more later this year as we see whether or not announcements continue to happen on top of that—that we've put out in market updates. If there are continued announcements, and we are expecting some, then there will be more build which gets completed in 2020.

Mr Parker : We track that point quite closely, obviously. It's possible that some of those projects in the pipeline bit before us get built, but not all of them actually happen. But we're reasonably confident.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Would it be fair to say we're likely to see a continuation of the pace of renewable energy investment?

Mr Parker : Well, as I said, the further out you go, the less certainty attaches to that. We're presently going through a very substantial period of investment. There are a range of new projects which are coming into that pipeline. Since we made the announcement last Friday week, there have been another couple of hundred megawatts of projects that have got to the 'this looks quite likely' stage. So we're not seeing a slowdown happening imminently, at this point in time.

Senator URQUHART: Are we likely to see a continuation or a fall in the pace of renewable energy investment?

Mr Parker : It's hard to predict. It's not just policies which have a bearing on that, of course. There are a range of other things, including the declining cost of solar in particular now. That's the new frontier, if you like—large-scale solar installation. That happens fairly quickly. It's probably fair to think, in terms of the influence of policy—if I get the direction that you're heading in—that the stimulus to investment from the RET goes away; it still rests at the level of that point. The scheme doesn't shut down. But I wouldn't imagine that people that are thinking about renewables build, at the early stages of investment decisions or investment planning, are factoring in any substantial stimulus coming from the RET. Nevertheless, they are still doing it.

Senator URQUHART: Yes. Do you know how much renewable energy investment would need to occur from 2020 to 2030 to meet the government's emission reduction target of 26 per cent on 2005 levels for the electricity sector? That's assuming that Liddell is the only large coal closure to occur over that period of time.

Mr Parker : I'm not certain what the Liddell factor is—how that is important to the arithmetic calculation you've asked about. We don't track that number very closely. It depends on a whole range of other things. We don't do the modelling. That is more something which falls under the purview of the department and various consultancies and so forth.

Senator URQUHART: You don't look at how much renewable energy would need to occur in that period of time to meet that target?

Senator Birmingham: Mr Parker has indicated that the regulator doesn't necessarily do that modelling. A question, the nature of which you're asking, depends a lot then upon the assumptions that you would put into that as to what the rest of the mix of the energy generation actually was and what the emissions profile from the mix of those other generation activities was. In terms of modelling as it relates particularly to the NEG and the targets that have been developed, questions can be asked and pursued tomorrow. But, in terms of the regulator, their remit is defined by statute in terms of delivering the terms around the Renewable Energy Target.

Senator URQUHART: Is the department able to answer that?

Mr Archer : As the minister has alluded to, it's a question that needs to be directed tomorrow to the energy program, program 4.1.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Mark Williamson from the CER was quoted at the recent Australian Energy Week conference as saying:

We do think everybody is underestimating the pace of (renewable energy development).

Is it the case that the CER as well as other observers have been surprised at the pace of renewable energy investment over the last few years?

Mr Williamson : Yes, I did say that, and we have been. We've said all along that the target, we believe, could be met but have tried to quantify what that meant in the context of most analysts saying that no, it couldn't be met. I must say at this stage we are surprised on the upside that we're in the position that Mr Parker spoke about before, and we do still believe there are further announcements coming.

Senator URQUHART: Would you say that, as a general rule and based on past experience, we—whether that be politicians, experts, industry, media, the CER or the country as a whole—tend to underestimate our ability to invest and bring renewable energy online?

Mr Williamson : That's a really difficult question to answer. As Mr Parker said before, you have to factor in things such as that we have had very high wholesale electricity prices. There have been a number of factors that have probably contributed to this, and they're factors that are hard to forecast out as to where wholesale prices and certificate prices will be. There's been a very large incentive through those.

Senator URQUHART: Based on past experience and bearing in mind the work currently being undertaken by the Energy Security Board and the AEMO on security and reliability, is it realistic to expect that Australia can achieve 50 per cent renewable generation by 2030, or is such a goal and rate of investment unrealistic?

Senator Birmingham: That's firmly asking the officials for an opinion. If you'd like to ask them if they have done any modelling or work or estimates that suggest that such a target could be achieved, that might be a way to solicit an answer, rather than whether they think it could happen.

Senator URQUHART: I didn't ask if they think it would happen; I said 'based on past experience'.

Mr Parker : We haven't done the modelling work which would be necessary to begin to answer the question.

Senator URQUHART: You don't know whether we could achieve 50 per cent renewable generation by 2030?

Mr Parker : You're asking us to make a prediction of the future. I'm an old forecaster and I know that predicting the future is extremely difficult.

CHAIR: It is very difficult, but I can predict we will suspend now until 7.30 and return with the Clean Energy Regulator. Thank you.

Pr oceedings suspended from 18:29 to 19:33

CHAIR: Welcome back everyone. I welcome Senator Ruston, who is sitting in the minister's seat. Strap in for a fun night! We're on the Clean Energy Regulator.

Senator URQUHART: Is the Clean Energy Regulator involved in the design process for the National Energy Guarantee?

Mr Parker : We are providing some assistance to the department.

Senator URQUHART: What is the nature of that assistance? What sort of involvement is it?

Mr Parker : We're providing advice to the department on the capabilities that exist within the Clean Energy Regulator, which may be used to provide data and processes for the design of the National Energy Guarantee. As we move more into the detailed design phase, it's appropriate for us to provide that expertise on the build phase, if you might like. We're also providing advice and responses to requests from the entities which are part of the Energy Security Board. We have placed a number of people inside the department to assist with that work.

Senator URQUHART: So what role does the CER envision it will play in a future NEG mechanism?

Mr Parker : As I said, we're still at the design phase, so the precise details are yet to be determined so I won't speculate. But, in the design documents which have been published, the Clean Energy Regulator maintains a number of information mechanisms, including the so-called National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting scheme, which captures details on emissions intensity and so forth. It is envisaged that information will feed into the administration of the guarantee.

Senator URQUHART: Will you be responsible for supporting liable entities in meeting their emissions obligations—is that going to be part of the role?

Mr Parker : I'm not sure what you mean by supporting, Senator.

Senator URQUHART: I guess it's advising, giving support and helping them meet their emissions obligations.

Mr Parker : That depends very much on the precise design of the guarantee. I think the question is a bit speculative at this point.

Senator URQUHART: Will the CER run a clearing house to support the emissions obligations under a NEG as has been outlined in the high-level design document drafted by the ESB?

Mr Parker : I think you might be referring to the registry and so forth. Again, that's a design detail as to the precise institutional arrangements.

Senator URQUHART: You don't have any details on the design process that you'll be involved in?

Mr Parker : We have details in so far as we're participating in it and providing advice, but you're effectively asking me for answers to questions which haven't yet been decided.

Senator URQUHART: So how would you describe the emissions obligations of the NEG?

Mr Parker : I think, again, that's a broader policy question and it should be directed to the department rather than to the Clean Energy Regulator.

Senator URQUHART: Anyone from the department want to have a go at it?

Mr Pratt : So we'll cover that in detail at outcome 4.1 at 2.45 pm tomorrow.

CHAIR: Be there or be square!

Senator URQUHART: In 4.1? Yes, that's right. What is the closest model to the NEG emissions obligations that has previously been floated and is more broadly understood?

Mr Parker : I think, again, that would be a question for the department.

Senator URQUHART: Was the funding of the CER affected by the 2018-19 budget?

Mr Parker : No.

Senator URQUHART: So what's the funding of the CER on an annual basis over the forward estimates?

Mr Parker : We can provide that detail: broadly speaking, our annual departmental funds, to use that label, are a little over $70 million.

Senator URQUHART: How much?

Mr Parker : Over $70 million—$71-odd million. That's in terms of the departmental moneys, then of course there are a range of administered moneys, particularly related to the Emissions Reduction Fund.

Senator URQUHART: So is the $71 million the total?

Mr Parker : That's the departmental moneys which are there for the running of the regulator.

Senator URQUHART: That's the funding on the annual basis over the forward estimates—$71 million?

Mr Parker : Yes. We can provide the precise numbers, if you like, but that's pretty close to that.

Senator URQUHART: Will the new responsibilities of the CER with respect to the NEG require more funding for the CER?

Mr Parker : Again, it's a question which we could only answer when those responsibilities are decided.

Senator URQUHART: How much funding is left in the Emissions Reduction Fund?

Mr Parker : The Emissions Reduction Fund is a scheme which is administered beyond the policy level at the implementation level by the Clean Energy Regulator. We do a number of things in that to regulate the registration of projects. That is a regulatory process which is one of a number of things covered under the $71 million we mentioned. That's the supply side—the creation of Australian carbon credit units.

We're also active on the demand side of that. That is where the Emissions Reduction Fund moneys come in. In round terms, there is $2.5 billion initially allocated to that. Some $337 million has been disbursed from that fund. There is a little over $265 million which is yet to be contracted under that fund. So there remains, in round terms, $1.9-odd billion to be disbursed from the fund under the existing contract portfolio.

Senator URQUHART: How many more auctions does the CER expect this funding to run for?

Mr Parker : That will depend on a range of matters. Let me unpick the question a little bit for you. The early phase of the Emissions Reduction Fund was focused on building a substantial portfolio of abatement. We are now at the stage where that substantial portfolio runs at a little over 191 million tonnes of abatement. We're effectively in the delivery phase of managing that portfolio. That's the slightly over $1.9 billion which remains to be disbursed from that fund. We are no longer at the stage of building that portfolio substantially, the point being that we have assisted meeting the 2020 target. There has been substantial exceedance of that, of course. 2030 is a long time in the future. So we have effectively moved to a process where the auction element of our work is designed to top up and refresh the portfolio over time. There will be a range of policy decisions for the future about the long-term processes of that fund. In terms of the $265 million, we are presently approaching the market roughly twice a year.

Senator URQUHART: How often—once or twice?

Mr Parker : Roughly twice a year. That may move to once a year in the future. That will depend in part on demand from the market. We're currently approaching it twice a year, with relatively small auctions compared with the early stages. That's to keep the portfolio refreshed and so forth. We've said publicly that at the next auction we expect to spend somewhere between $50 million and $100 million. At the last auction we went for, we purchased just a little under eight million tonnes. If we purchased 50 million tonnes worth of abatement contracts then that would be less than eight million, but it would nevertheless refresh the portfolio.

The other thing which is relevant in thinking about how long those moneys might last, subject to any future government decisions, of course, is that inevitably some of the contracts that are in the portfolio effectively roll over. We've published information on that. That is where it becomes clear that a contract won't be delivered. No moneys are disbursed from the fund unless there is delivery, so the funds dedicated to those contracts roll back into the fund. That may be another source of funds to extend the auction process. At present levels of funding it will be several years before that money is completely exhausted.

Senator URQUHART: When is the next auction?

Mr Parker : On 6 and 7 June.

Senator DI NATALE: I have some questions on an earlier topic, which is the RET. I understand in evidence you gave earlier to Senator Urquhart you mentioned that we'd reached our 2020 RET two years ahead of schedule. Is that correct?

Mr Parker : No, that's not what we said. We think that there are enough projects which are built and are being built, and that being built will pan out over the next 18 months to the 2020 target. We think that we've met the target—

Senator DI NATALE: Already?

Mr Parker : In the sense that it is being built as opposed to it is already built.

Senator DI NATALE: You said by 2020 we would be 3,500 megawatts in excess of the 33,000 gigawatt hours target. Is that correct?

Mr Parker : No, that's not what we said.

Senator DI NATALE: What is the 3,500 megawatts in reference to?

Mr Parker : There's not a direct translation between the megawatt and gigawatt hours, which we referred to, it depends on load factors and a range of other things.

Senator DI NATALE: Yes. I was going to ask you that as the next question.

Mr Parker : We didn't go to that in earlier evidence. What we said in earlier evidence was that our estimate of the amount of capacity that's necessary to meet the 2020 target is about 6,500 megawatt hours. Presently, beyond that—

Senator DI NATALE: Sorry. Just so I understand that—

Mr Parker : Megawatts, pardon.

Senator DI NATALE: Just to be clear, 6,500 megawatts.

Mr Parker : It's 6,500, and we think that there's about 1,500 of that which is already built and operating, and that number is going up all the time. The remainder of it is effectively in the process of being built now.

Senator DI NATALE: Where does that take us by 2020 in terms of the 33,000 gigawatts target?

Mr Parker : That would hit that target.

Senator DI NATALE: Not exceed it?

Mr Parker : There are also amounts, which are in the pipeline but are not yet being built.

Senator DI NATALE: But will be built by 2020?

Mr Parker : But we would expect—

Senator DI NATALE: How much do we expect that—

Mr Parker : Presently, that pipeline is about 1,500—not necessarily all of that will be built. It is at the stage where there are power purchase agreements and partial finance, and some is fully financed and so forth.

Senator DI NATALE: Again, so that I'm clear, by 2020, we expect—again, just a ballpark—that we will have exceeded our 2020 target by somewhere in the order of 1,000 to 1,500 megawatts?

Mr Parker : Yes.

Senator DI NATALE: What does that translate to in terms of gigawatt hours?

Mr Parker : We could do that calculation for you. It depends a little bit on whether it's solar and—

Senator DI NATALE: I want to compare apples with apples. We have a target. I'd be interested to know what that compares to in terms of gigawatt hours.

Mr Parker : We can do that calculation for you.

Senator DI NATALE: Will you take that on notice.

Mr Parker : I will take it on notice.

Senator DI NATALE: If you can do it quickly that would be handy—just a ballpark; I'm not going to hold you to decimal points. I will wait for you to do that. I might move to another line of questioning. I'm interested in the proposed changes to the safeguard mechanism. What is the goal of the proposed changes to the safeguard mechanism?

Mr Parker : In terms of goals and policy changes, again, that would be a matter best put to the department, rather than to the regulator. We are responsible for the implementation of that; not for the policy questions and goals related to the review and so forth.

Senator DI NATALE: That's sort of a semantic difference given that you're designing it to achieve a particular goal I'm assuming? You're implementing it.

Mr Parker : It's more than a semantic difference, because the role of the regulator is to administer the law; not to be involved in the policy processes, which go to decision—

Senator DI NATALE: What is the law intended to achieve?

Mr Parker : That is a question properly put to the department.

Senator DI NATALE: But you're designing a particular mechanism to achieve something.

Mr Parker : No. This is the point: we are not involved in the design of it. We are involved in the administration.

Senator DI NATALE: You're implementing something with the aim of achieving something?

Mr Parker : Correct. Yes.

Senator DI NATALE: What is it that you're trying to achieve through the implementation of that policy?

Mr Parker : Presently, we administer the law as it is. As you would be no doubt aware, a review of that process has been announced. There has been a consultation process and the government is yet to announce exactly what it will do in response to its proposed directions and the consultation process. All of those questions are really for the future and they're not for us.

Senator DI NATALE: When will the exposure draft of the amendments, resulting from this consultation process, be released?

Mr Parker : That is for the department.

Senator DI NATALE: So you've got—

Mr Pratt : That's a question for tomorrow, under 2.1.

Senator DI NATALE: Is that something you're able to answer for me tonight? It's a pretty straightforward question.

Mr Pratt : We will see if we can give you an answer.

Senator DI NATALE: I'd appreciate that. Just so that I understand the proposal as it stands: each entity is going to be allowed to move to a calculated baseline; is that correct? Is that getting to where we expect this change to take us?

Mr Parker : I'm sorry to sound like a broken record but, in terms of where the proposal will take us, they are questions properly put to the department rather than to us.

Senator DI NATALE: Mr Pratt, are you suggesting that any questions along the lines of the changes to the safeguard mechanism will need to be put to the department?

Mr Pratt : That's right—under 2.1. We're responsible for that from a policy point of view.

Senator DI NATALE: Can I ask you whether we are going to change to a model that effectively takes us to an emissions intensity framework rather than absolute emissions?

Mr Parker : I'm sorry but, again, that's a question for the department.

Senator DI NATALE: I'm not going to continue to labour the point. I've done my best to extract some semblance of an answer and you've done very well at stonewalling, Mr Parker—well done! I will reserve my questions for tomorrow.

CHAIR: He didn't really mean 'stonewall'.

Mr Parker : Senator, in the fullness of wanting to provide you with information, we can give you an answer to your earlier question.

Senator DI NATALE: An answer—that would be wonderful.

Mr Williamson : Assuming that an extra 1,500 megawatts in the power purchase agreement gets built, that will make a difference of about 4,000 gigawatt hours. However, there are a couple of qualifications. One is that we did give evidence earlier that we're still seeing new announcements. So it may go beyond that if we do see further announcements. Also, hydro does vary from year to year. That assumes an average hydro year.

Senator DI NATALE: Understood. Just to round that point off, that's a significant increase over and above the 33,000 gigawatt hour target in the RET, isn't it? It's taking us closer to the original 41,000 gigawatt hour target that we were told was unachievable by the current government.

Mr Parker : Based on the pipeline that we presently have, we would not get to that level.

Senator DI NATALE: What would we need to get to that level? What's stopping us from getting there?

Mr Parker : There would need to be substantial further announcements of build to come through that pipeline and for that build to be done in time for 2020. Of course, it depends a little on how quickly stuff is built, but it's getting towards the end of that window where you would get additional announcements which would go to a higher number. Our view is that we're not there yet.

Senator DI NATALE: Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Urquhart, you said you have a few more questions?

Senator URQUHART: Yes, I have just a few more.

Mr Pratt : Chair, we might be able to help Senator Di Natale out on that earlier question.

Senator DI NATALE: This is unbelievable, unprecedented—two answers in five minutes.

CHAIR: You're a very lucky man.

Mr Archer : The government released a consultation paper on 21 February this year and received submissions. The government is currently considering those submissions and the expectation is that the government will be consulting on draft legislation in the middle of the year with a view to having any changes in place for the 2018-19 compliance year.

Senator DI NATALE: Just so I'm clear about that: you're consulting in the middle of the year; you're not consulting now?

Mr Archer : We've done a process with a consultation paper. The government is now considering the submissions that were received in response to the consultation paper. The next step will be to consult on draft legislation in the middle of the year. Unfortunately, I can't be any more specific than that, but basically we're more than halfway through May, so that's possibly not too far away.

Senator DI NATALE: So there'll be an exposure draft released?

Mr Archer : That's my understanding, yes.

Senator DI NATALE: So, if you're saying 'middle of the year', it could be in the next month or two?

Mr Archer : Yes.

Senator DI NATALE: What was the next phase of that?

Mr Archer : Subject to the responses to the draft legislation, the next phase would be to finalise that legislation for introduction. As I've said, the current aim is to have those changes in place for the 2018-19 compliance period.

Senator DI NATALE: When would that need to be in place for that to occur?

Mr Archer : Unfortunately, I don't have the answer.

Mr Pratt : That is where we need the experts here, to talk through that.

Senator DI NATALE: Okay. We almost got there. Thank you.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me why the reviews are being undertaken into the native forests from managed regrowth and human-induced regeneration methodologies?

Mr Parker : There are several elements to the answer to that question. There are the issues which are, effectively, within the remit of the regulator, and we are in the process of putting out some guidance in the very near future to further assist the administration of those methods. Then there is the review of the method process, which is done by the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee. That is, if you like, at the design end of methods, and we're at the implementation end of the methods. Then there is an overarching process where the Climate Change Authority is required to review the Emissions Reduction Fund, effectively every three years or so. They put out a report earlier this year, or was it late last year—December last year, pardon me. That recommended a review of the forest-related methods, and that process is now under way.

Senator URQUHART: How much of the existing ERF portfolio do these two methodologies make up?

Mr Parker : We can give you that number in a second, we'll just look it up. It's in the order of 80 per cent, from memory.

Ms Wilson : They're some of our most popular methods, the vegetation methods, and the HIR projects are very popular within those. I don't have specifics on method by method, and we can certainly get those to you, but vegetation projects are comprising 50-odd per cent, really, of total projects that are being conducted.

Mr Parker : We will dig that number out for you in the course of the hearing.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you. How many ACCUs have been issued and contracted to these two methodologies? And what does that translate to in dollars?

Mr Williamson : Senator, I can help with the issue. In the human induced regeneration method, there have been 8,853,998 Australian carbon credit units issued. In the native forests for managed regrowth method, there have been 1,903,326. Both of those numbers were as at 31 March. At that date we had around 47 million Australian carbon credit units issued. I guess that is around about just under 11 million out of 47 million from those two methods. I think Ms Wilson may be able to give you the contracted details.

Ms Wilson : Just to go back to the projects, there are 197 projects using the human-induced regeneration method and a further 35 projects are registered under the native forests for the managed regrowth method. For the human-induced regeneration projects, they've had almost 8.9 million ACCUs issued to them. And we've issued 1.9 million ACCUs for native forest managed regrowth projects to date.

Senator URQUHART: What does that translate to in dollars?

Ms Wilson : That will depend—not all of those projects are contracted projects. For those projects, they would need to strike a commercial agreement in the secondary market. For the projects that are contracted, it will depend very much on the price that they bid in at the auction. That's not publicly available data.

Mr Parker : To be helpful, the average cost abatement under the total scheme—and, as we've said, these forest regeneration projects account for a substantial part of it—is about $11.08. Is that right?

Ms Wilson : $11.90 is the average price across all of the six auctions that we've held so far.

Senator URQUHART: Has the CER undertaken a full audit of projects that have been issued—ACCUs—under those methodologies, to verify that the abatement claimed has actually occurred?

Mr Williamson : There are a number of integrity checks in the process. The projects have to provide an audit report, not with every claim for Australian carbon credit units, but based on an audit schedule that is issued at the time of project registration. We then certainly check every claim that comes in for its integrity; those are risk based checks that we do.

Senator URQUHART: So every project is audited in—

Mr Williamson : Every project gets some form of checks by us, and every so often on each project they have to submit their claim for Australian carbon credit units with an actual auditor report. There's a combination of us always doing certain checks and an audit report that comes in at other times.

Senator URQUHART: Has the CER stopped issuing ACCUs to projects under these methodologies?

Mr Williamson : No.

Senator URQUHART: Will the CER accept applications from projects using these methodologies in the upcoming ERF auction on 6 June?

Mr Williamson : The window closed a while ago for this auction but certainly before that window closed we were accepting applications under these methods, yes.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you.

CHAIR: Any further questions for the Clean Energy Regulator? No? Thank you very much, Mr Parker and your colleagues. We'll now move to program 3.1. Welcome to our Antarctic friends. Thank you for making yourselves available. We will proceed to questions and I think Senator Moore will kick off.

Senator MOORE: I'm interested in the media announcement that there will be a runway in Antarctica that will be paved. Can you tell me what funding is linked to this project?

Mr Clark : On Friday just gone, the announcement to construct a paved runway in Antarctica, subject to environmental approvals, was the result of a number of years' work funded by $10 million announced in the 2016-17 budget to undertake preliminary studies to investigate options for year-round aviation access.

Senator MOORE: So the $10 million was to look at the preliminary process. Is that up till now, or is there money into the future?

Mr Clark : That money was over three years.

Senator MOORE: So $10 million deliberately for the preliminary parts of the process—building it up? I would imagine this is a really big project. Because I was fascinated by the issue, I actually looked it up on Google and found out that other countries have got a form of runway but not paved and that we're using ice now; is that right?

Mr Pratt : If it goes ahead it will be the first paved runway in Antarctica. We also operate an ice runway.

Senator MOORE: We have an ice one now?

Mr Pratt : Yes.

Senator MOORE: Argentina and the US have something else—I forget the term—but it's not paved; it's between ice and paved.

Mr Cahill : These are what we call 'intercontinental' not intracontinental, so there are lots of runways where aircraft can move within Antarctica.

Senator MOORE: It's quite a busy space, isn't it, with the amount of work that goes in there? That's what I've heard.

Mr Cahill : The funding is to do the next detail level of design, to work out costs and options and to do an environmental assessment. That will enable the government to then make a final decision. It's an expression of an intent where the government say that they've identified a site, a preferred site, and now we have to do more work of what the implications of that is?

Senator KENEALLY: Who is going to do that work?

Mr Clark : There's a project team as part of the modernisation task force of the Antarctic Division that undertakes that work. That involves on-the-ground assessment work and desktop work to look at the various options and feasibility around not just the construction but the overall operation of the year round access to Antarctica?

Senator MOORE: How much has been spent so far?

Mr Clark : I might ask a colleague, Mr Bryson, to answer specifics on the project.

Mr Bryson : To date we have spent $5.046 million.

Senator MOORE: $5.04 million?

Mr Bryson : Yes.

Senator MOORE: So, now we have an agreed site and an intent to continue?

Mr Bryson : That's correct. To continue to the next stage, yes.

Senator MOORE: Do we have any idea what the costs will be for the whole project? Is that part of the work that's being done now or have you got a ballpark figure?

Mr Pratt : That's the next stage of the work.

Senator MOORE: We have nothing in terms of knowing what it will be? What did the media statement say?

Mr Pratt : The Australian government announced its intention to construct a 2,700-metre paved runway.

Senator MOORE: So we have a statement of intent and we've spent $5 million, and the $10 million was over three financial years? So we've had 2016-17, and 2017-18 is coming up, and 2018-19 will be the end of that allocation? In relation to the project plan beyond the three years, do we have any idea what's in that?

Mr Pratt : That will be subject to government decision over the course of the next financial year.

Senator MOORE: I thought the government had made up their mind that they were going to do it?

Mr Pratt : It certainly announced an intention to construct a paved runway subject to environmental assessments and the detailed design.

Senator MOORE: Okay. Is it unusual to announce something that will happen without having a budget?

Mr Cahill : Senator, it's not unusual. Often government will announce to fund a business case or a consideration or do scoping work, and that's consistent with what I've seen for even the Australian War Memorial with funding to do some extra scoping work. We've been funded to do more scoping and analysis to inform government decisions.

Senator MOORE: I'm aware of funding going to a budget for a business plan but in this case we seem to have gone to the next stage where we made the commitment and we're going to do more work. That's the thing that I'm not sure of. We've got the commitment. In terms of the current process do we have any idea how long the next stage will be or how long the business case will take?

Mr Clark : We're anticipating a 12-month period.

Senator MOORE: That's another 12 months on top of the three years, is that right?

Mr Clark : That's 12 months from now.

Senator MOORE: So, the expectation is that the whole business case process will be done within the first three years within the $10 million, is that right?

Mr Clark : That's correct.

Senator MOORE: That will be the environmental assessments as well because I'd imagine that would be critical?

Mr Clark : There are things that run on slightly different time lines and processes and, without going into all of the specifics, quite often there's a staged approach to decision-making. In parallel to that we're going through all of the treaty obligations we have to conduct a thorough environmental assessment process. Preliminary work that's already occurred to date has occurred under the basis of an initial environmental evaluation. That covers on-the-ground work in Antarctica. We'd envisage that the proponents of the activity, that element of the Antarctic Division undertaking the project work, will also submit further work for evaluation at the appropriate time. That work would then be evaluated at the required level, which may be a comprehensive environmental evaluation, which would have broad public and international scrutiny.

Senator KENEALLY: If I understand correctly, in the media releases the government provided $10 million to scope options and undertake preliminary site investigations with the cost of the new runway now to be determined through the detailed business case. So is the business case part of this $10 million package or is it additional?

Mr Clark : We've been through that first stage, Senator, of a broad scoping of the various options, and looking at all of the potential sites and locations that would be suitable to assist with year-round aviation to Antarctica. On the basis of that we have narrowed it down and selected a site and type of runway, which is a 2,700-metre paved runway. The next step is to look at more detail around the costs of the construction, the operation and maintenance of that facility and that will be the subject for further consideration by government.

Senator KENEALLY: Will the business case also look at the opportunities and potential income?

Mr Clark : The business case will cover all of the issues associated with establishing the capability.

Senator KENEALLY: Will that include economic benefit to Hobart?

Mr Clark : Yes. It will look at all of the issues that we would normally contemplate in a business case.

Senator KENEALLY: The media release says:

The establishment of the permanent link between Hobart and Antarctica will enhance Hobart’s role as a gateway to East Antarctica, making it a more attractive destination for Antarctic nations to base their operations in Tasmania.

It seems like this has a direct potential economic benefit to Tasmania?

Mr Clark : That's correct.

Senator KENEALLY: That's part of the business case?

Mr Clark : Yes, Senator.

Senator KENEALLY: The media release also says that it would support our international partnerships. How would that happen?

Mr Pratt : Well, for example, with our ice runway in Wilkins we support a number of countries' operations in our territory—China, India and others. Where Davis is located is perhaps the busiest part of the Australian Antarctic Territory and there are a number of countries which operate there and they'll be able to leverage off our infrastructure there.

Senator KENEALLY: Does that require agreements with them or user charges?

Mr Pratt : Potentially.

Senator KENEALLY: Would that also be part of the business case?

Mr Pratt : Yes, Senator.

Senator KENEALLY: Thank you.

Senator MOORE: Is there a particular group that's tasked with doing this? Have you formed a special working group that's in charge of this project?

Mr Clark : Yes. Rob Bryson is the head of our modernisation taskforce which includes a number of the new capability projects at the Australian Antarctic Division that were announced as part of the Australian Antarctic strategy and 20 year action plan. Year-round aviation is one of the key elements of that along with the new ship-modernising infrastructure at Macquarie Island and our new traverse capability.

Senator MOORE: And the same group is in charge of all of that? There isn't a particular one that is tasked with this runway project by itself?

Mr Bryson : There are separate teams for each one—

Senator MOORE: Okay.

Mr Bryson : and supporting technical experts and subject matter experts.

Senator MOORE: Are there paved runways in any other part of Antarctica or the Arctic?

Mr Bryson : In the Arctic there is.

Senator MOORE: So there's a comparison in the Arctic?

Mr Bryson : Yes. The technology that we're talking about has been in use since World War II. The Russians used it in all their airfields during that war and they're still using it today.

Senator MOORE: Is there any reason it hasn't happened in Antarctica before, if it's been available since post World War II?

Mr Bryson : I think it's about finding the right site to do it.

Senator MOORE: Okay. It just seemed odd.

Mr Pratt : Less than one per cent of Antarctica could support a paved runway.

Senator MOORE: So it's a different geography. We're going into the third year and, hopefully, at the end of the third year it will be time to go into the next stage. When did the division learn that the media announcement was Friday? Was the division aware that that was coming up?

Mr Cahill : This has been a long process with government that started two years ago, with multiple submissions and considerations, which culminated in the announcement once the government made that final decision and included a consideration of the announcement.

Senator MOORE: When did the division find out about the government's decision? It wasn't by the media release; it was before the media release came out?

Mr Cahill : We were part of the briefing of government in that decision?

Senator MOORE: When was that?

Mr Cahill : It was part of the government decision-making process, but it was—

Senator MOORE: No, I know the government decision. I'm wanting to know when the division found out that the decision had been made and the media release went out—beforehand?

Mr Pratt : Without going into the cabinet process, once the government took a decision to go ahead with this, the division knew about it, because the division was part of the process.

Senator KENEALLY: How many landings have there been on the ice runway? Say, annually, how many are there, do you reckon?

Mr Clark : Are you referring to the Wilkins ice runway?

Senator KENEALLY: Yes.

Mr Clark : The number of flights varies each summer, but typically it's between 10 and 25.

Mr Pratt : And those are intercontinental flights.

Mr Clark : Not intracontinental.

Mr Cahill : There are a lot of little aircraft that then move around the region from there as well, in addition to the intercontinental flights.

Senator KENEALLY: How often is the ice runway not useable?

Mr Clark : The runway itself operates predominantly during the summer months. At the peak of the summer we experience periods in which we choose not to fly, because of the temperatures getting above a certain level. Typically that's in the mid-December to early-January or mid-January period. Outside of that period, from October to late February is the typical flying period.

Senator KENEALLY: Am I correct in my understanding that this government also funded the ice runway?

Mr Cahill : It does and continues as part of the Antarctic—

Senator KENEALLY: How long did you say the ice runway had been in operation?

Mr Pratt : For 10 years.

Senator KENEALLY: What I'm trying to understand is: is the ice runway failing, or is it unreliable? What is the problem we're trying to solve here?

Mr Pratt : Maybe I can have a go at this and Mr Clark will correct me if necessary. The ice runway is near Casey station, which is about a 4½-hour flight from Hobart. The proposed paved runway is near Davis station, which is probably another—it's directly south of India on the map, whereas Wilkins is south of Western Australia. So, there's quite a long distance. It's sort of a Brisbane-to-Melbourne range between the two. As we've just described, the ice runway is for most of the period between October and the end of February. The paved runway will be able to operate all year round, which gives us huge advantages in terms of primarily safety and emergency response but also to support science throughout the year, not just during the summer months primarily.

Senator MOORE: So there's no pre-existing ice runway in the new spot? This is virgin ice?

Mr Pratt : The ice runway is very difficult to operate in winter.

Senator MOORE: But I mean, where the proposed site for the new runway is, there's nothing on that at the moment? It's a completely new site?

Mr Pratt : That's right. It's not ice covered.

Mr Cahill : There is a smaller ice runway to enable us to go within stations but not fly direct from another continent.

Senator KENEALLY: Given that this runway is only 10 years old, was there any consideration 10 years ago to build a paved runway?

Senator URQUHART: You should ask your own government.

Senator KENEALLY: Well, Malcolm Turnbull was the environment minister. I can't really ask him, so I'm left asking you.

Mr Bryson : The Antarctic nations have been looking for sites to construct all-year access for decades, and in fact the first look, within the Australian context, was 40 years ago, where we looked at a site in Heidemann Valley, which is pretty much close to Davis. So, we've been looking for those kinds of sites since then that would give us that all-year access and had a gravel or a solid foundation. It's come to this point that we've found a site that actually meets all those criteria. Ice runways operate in dynamic environments on glaciers. We've also been looking for the last 20 years, probably, for suitable glacial sites to do another ice runway, but we haven't been able to find one. We've looked all over the Australian Antarctic Territory for a site, and Wilkins is the only one that's suitable—and that still moves towards the coastline at 12 metres a year, so it's quite an interesting and dynamic environment, as I said before.

Senator KENEALLY: When you say it's 'dynamic', you mean—

Mr Bryson : It moves.

Unidentified speaker: It's like a very slow-moving river.

Senator KENEALLY: Is it moving because of climate change? Is there any contribution there?

Mr Bryson : I'd have to bow to my colleague the chief scientist.

Dr Fenton : In this case, it's really just the glacial speed—which is just normal, just natural there—that we are working with with the runway. It makes it an interesting place to operate. You've got to survey it frequently so you know exactly where it is, so the pilots know exactly where it is. It's an interesting place to work, on a glacier.

Senator KENEALLY: That is very interesting. I appreciate that.

Senator MOORE: Have there been any concerns raised? You said you had to go through the discussion with the existing treaties. Have there been any concerns raised because this is another level of building in the environment, and everyone's always concerned about any change in that environment? In this first two-year period, have there been concerns raised?

Mr Clark : There are those who have got views on the construction of permanent infrastructure in Antarctica. We've been quite open in that the initial environmental evaluation that was produced to enable the site evaluations and the work was made public and subject to a public consultation period. We intend to continue that same process in the next steps, of inviting anyone who has comments or can make contributions to the process. There are public consultation periods on that, so, if they do have views, they can bring them forward through that.

Mr Cahill : I might get Mr Clark to expand on the recent Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, where we had conversations with key partners about our intent.

Mr Clark : It's probably worth stepping back just one step. The Antarctic strategy and action plan identified that investigation into year-round access, some years ago, was going to be one of the key activities that we did over the first few years of the new strategy. So we are delivering on that commitment. For some years now, we've flagged that this work was underway and we've been having regular conversations with other Antarctic countries, particularly those that we currently have collaborative arrangements with. In the margins of the Antarctic Treaty meeting held just last week in Buenos Aires, we continued those conversations with those countries. It's a forum in which we keep people regularly informed and abreast of our activities. Of course, for those that we partner with, they have a close interest in what we are planning to do, as similarly we do with their activities. We always look to collaborate wherever possible.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Presumably this will give Australia a strategic advantage in many ways, in the Antarctic, and it won't necessarily be to their interests, will it, if we have a permanent runway in Antarctica?

Mr Clark : We've got a range of interests in Antarctica, and, as Mr Bryson talked about beforehand, and as the secretary has commented on, this is at the heart of our operating area in Antarctica. We have operated Wilkins runway for years now, but 1,500 kilometres away is where Davis is, and it's really the centre of our operations. It's also one of the busiest areas within East Antarctica, where a range of countries operate. So having the primary means to access that region is important, in that it enables us to undertake the important science we need to do but also to collaborate with those countries in that region.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: An adviser on Antarctic policy for the Humane Society, Alistair Graham—and you guys probably know Alistair; he's a conservationist who's been around for a while and has had a lot to do with the Antarctic, especially with CCAMLR—has put out a statement this afternoon that says:

Building a paved runway into Antarctica is a terrible abrogation of Australia's duty to protect the Antarctic continent and to tread lightly upon it in conducting scientific activities.

He goes on to say that it's potentially a breach of the Antarctic treaty's Madrid protocol on environmental protection. For Alistair, it's quite a scathing media release. Have you had discussions with conservationists and environmentalists about this, or are you assuming it's going to be done during an environmental approvals process?

Mr Clark : We have regular and ongoing conversations with all our stakeholders who are interested in Antarctica, and that's an ongoing conversation. There will be significant periods of public consultation throughout the process as we develop the environmental impact assessment around this activity, and that's the way we operate with all the activities we do in Antarctica: they're open to public comment and scrutiny.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: They're saying:

… major permanent infrastructure is the thin end of the wedge for inappropriate development of Antarctica, inconsistent with managing the icy continent—

a slight footprint, and all stakeholders have supported over the years.

Mr Clark : We've had permanent infrastructure in Antarctica for many decades now, and it underpins all our operations in Antarctica. What we seek to do is to make sure that, in assessing our work and any proposed activities, we do that in accordance with all of the treaty requirements and to the highest possible environmental standards.

Mr Cahill : I was just going to mention—and you don't have the document in front of you—we will not be in breach of the Antarctic treaty system. That's a clear way that we operate, and we operate consistently within that treaty and stay within those bounds.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: In terms of the thin-edge-of-the-wedge argument—and other countries may choose to do the same—are you saying that's not possible based on what you said earlier about only one per cent of Antarctica being suitable for this kind of permanent paved runway?

Mr Clark : You're asking me to speculate on what other countries might do or other countries—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I'm not asking you to speculate at all. You said earlier that only one per cent of Antarctica is suitable—

Mr Pratt : I said that. Senator.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sorry, Mr Pratt.

Mr Pratt : Less than one per cent of the continent would support a paved runway, because it's less than one per cent which is not ice covered. I imagine on that less than one per cent very few spots would actually be suitable for development of a lengthy runway of this sort, and you need quite a lengthy runway in order to be able to take planes which are big enough to be able to get there and back without refuelling.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And you're confident that other nations have been searching for sites for some time?

Mr Pratt : I don't know.

Mr Clark : Other countries have constructed various forms of gravel runways in Antarctica. It's worth illustrating why. In many instances, particularly on the Antarctic Peninsula, the challenges of distance are less and quite often those programs are able to support aircraft operations that require less substantial or less capable runways because of the distances involved. We're looking at a distance of several thousand kilometres, and the types of aircraft that can fly that distance to support our program require runways constructed to a higher standard.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I'll certainly watch it with interest. Could I ask some questions now about Australian Antarctic science in the budget measures that we've just recently seen. Australia will provide $35.7 million over four years from 2018-19 to support Australian Antarctic Science Program by extending the Australian Research Council's special research initiative, Antarctic Gateway Partnership and establishing the Antarctic science collaboration initiative from 1 July 2018. Firstly, we've been asking questions for a couple of estimates now on the Clarke review. When is the review going to be released; and is this restructuring of Antarctic science based on recommendations from that review?

Mr Clark : The Clarke review that you're referring to is currently under government consideration, and I'm not able to provide an exact date of when the government might finalise its decision-making on that and release its response to the review.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is this structure that we've got before us now consistent with recommendations from the Clarke review?

Mr Cahill : The important thing about the announcement by government is that there is a substantial funding base that enables us to put in place appropriate governance. One of the key, fundamental elements of the Clarke review is that it benefits from a material investment in science. Once we've got a decision by government on the Clarke review then we will sit down with the relevant stakeholders, including those portfolios that have got the funding, and work through how to implement it accordingly.

Mr Pratt : Mr Clarke's review didn't cover science funding per se.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It covered restructuring of the CRC, though—correct? That's why it was set up.

Mr Pratt : It was a review of the governance arrangements supporting the science program, not the funding itself.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sorry; could you say that again?

Mr Pratt : It looked at the governance arrangements which support the Australian Antarctic Science Program, not the money itself.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: But they're related—

Mr Pratt : They're linked.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Directly or indirectly, it does support funding.

Mr Pratt : I would concede that—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: My understanding is that it was designed to replace, or build on, the previous CRC structure, which, we know, has had problems. The community has been looking for continuity, so funding continuity is an important part of that. It's good that that's been achieved, but I'm interested in the structure around that. Mr Cahill mentioned governance. Could you tell us what kind of structure is going to be in place underneath the governance?

Mr Cahill : Once the Clarke review and the government response has been finalised, we'll be in a position to talk about the implementation arrangements, but the government hasn't finalised its response.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You've released this budget statement about funding. Just to be clear, you say:

The cost of this measure will be met from within existing resources of the Australian Research Council and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

So it's not new money; is that correct?

Mr Pratt : The funding for the program is terminated, but the government has continued that funding for an extended period for those programs.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. So we've got the Australian Research Council; we've got the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science under 'Jobs and Innovation'; and then we've got the AAD and the department of the environment, which I know had some connections with the gateway funds and the ARC. There are three silos there, in three departments. How are they going to work together? Is that something that's going to be dealt with in the new governance model?

Mr Pratt : Yes.

Mr Cahill : That's the intent.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: How developed is that? When will the stakeholders have some indication of how this is going to work?

Mr Pratt : We can't pre-empt a government decision.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It's being worked on. You're obviously working on it. How close are we to getting some answers on that?

Mr Pratt : I cannot pre-empt a government announcement on this.

Senator Ruston: I'm more than happy to take that on notice for you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It's striking that we've got this announcement, we've got the basics of how it's going to be funded—a rough breakdown of the split in funding between the ARC, the SRI and the ASCI—but we're not quite sure how it's going to work. Minister, is it pretty much in place already? I'm wondering if you've put the cart before the horse, so to speak.

Senator Ruston: I just said I'd take the matter on notice for you. I'm unaware of the specific details. I certainly wouldn't think we'd put the cart before the horse. We don't usually do such things. But I'll take that on notice and get back to you.

Mr Cahill : I will flag, though, that those measures there, I think, are an extension of funding that lapses in about a year's time, so there is ample time for the government to finalise its response and then for us to engage with the relevant portfolios and stakeholders to implement whatever that arrangement is.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The Press report—this committee actually had a very good inquiry into all this about three or four years ago—pretty much recommended combining the CRC bodies and stakeholders into a single national program. Is this something that this could evolve into?

Mr Cahill : Again, when government responds and the report's made public we'll be able to discuss the implementation.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: At the moment the CRC model has worked well in terms of bringing the various models of the different stakeholders together—like CSIRO, University of Tasmania, AAD. They've all got different business models and different structures, but it's worked well under that umbrella. I understand why the CRC structure is being replaced, but will you have a structure in place that will allow that kind of flexibility and long-term collaboration that we've seen?

Mr Cahill : The best way I'd describe it is that science, particularly in Antarctica, is based on collaboration so—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That's right: long-term collaboration?

Mr Cahill : any arrangement we put in place will have a key principle about collaboration.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is that something that the Clark review has been faithful to as well—understanding that complexity and that long-term collaborative approach and why it's necessary?

Mr Cahill : In all our conservations with all stakeholders, I think it's universally accepted that collaboration is at the core of Antarctic science.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: How will it work in terms of grants? My understanding is there is a grants program attached to this in terms of that funding?

Mr Cahill : It's still subject to the government decision and to be worked through.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So there hasn't been decided then that there's going to be a grants based funding proposition?

Mr Cahill : There has been no decision by government about their response to the Clark review.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: How will you deal with issues like research priorities and recruitment for different programs, especially across different stakeholders and divisions?

Mr Cahill : That's still to be worked through.

Mr Pratt : But the budget announcement around Antarctic science has, of course, reassured everyone about the continued availability of funding long-term for Antarctic science. I know this might be slightly gratuitous, but in terms of what the government announced it was going to do under the Australian Antarctic strategy and 20-year action plan, we are busy knocking off positive developments—we have the ice-breaker, we have Macquarie Station, we have the overland traverse capability, we now have an announcement on the year-round aviation access, we have an extension of the science funding. So we're feeling pretty positive about the developments here, and the government response to the Clark review will complete that picture in due course.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: All valid, but only a few years ago we were facing pretty significant cuts to many of these climate science programs. It's good to see there's some continuity there, but I suppose from a Tasmanian perspective, a lot of the concentration of this work's done within Tasmania through the CRC. Will it be a grants based funding model where some of that work may move away from Tasmania? These are the kind of things I'm interested in as a Tasmanian senator: how those decisions will be made and who's going to prioritise them?

Mr Cahill : The design and the response is subject to the government response.

Mr Pratt : We very much appreciate your interest in this, but we just cannot pre-empt an announcement by government.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Minister, you are the government, so you can answer this. When will the community down there know the structure? Will you deliver this before the election?

Senator Ruston: I can't; I'll have to take that on notice, I'm just the duty minister sitting in tonight, it's not my portfolio, but I'm more than happy to take it on notice.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you just update us on any new developments at all around the East Antarctic Ice Sheet?

Dr Fenton : This summer, we did a number of things in the science program, which was actually a very, very successful summer of science in Antarctica. We did some work on the Totten Glacier, which I have spoken about before here, looking at working out where that ice shelf is floating. So quite a lot of work just looking through the ice; some of the team were, with huge hammers, hitting on the ice to get a seismic rebound, if you like, to find out exactly where the ice is grounded on the rock beneath, because the issue there is about a warming ocean approaching the ice shelf and coming in underneath it. We're trying to understand what that means for the melt of the ice sheet itself. That was very successful program. They will do more this summer. They found the ice shelf was floating further back than we realised, but that is really just because we've never really looked in the detail that we did this summer. We also did an ice core at Mount Brown, which is behind Davis station. We got another ice core record, from a region we haven't been to before for taking an ice core, and that ice core goes back at least 1,000 years.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You have a 1,000 year ice core?

Dr Fenton : Yes. That's a really nice addition to the ice core records and will be very useful in terms of the gas bubbles inside that ice core, and measuring all the things that we commonly do—the CO2 levels and things—but also looking at the weather patterns and things that link up to what we can see in Australia. We've seen before from our ice cores that we can see patterns in Antarctica back thousands of years that we can see reflected, or mirrored, in Australia in weather patterns. So, in, say, south western Australia, we have records of the ice core data being useful for that. We can take records back a lot further than we've got instrumented records in Australia. We've had a very successful summer of science and a lot more to come out from the data they've been collecting. Thank you for the question.

Senator PATRICK: I have some questions for Mr Bryson on the icebreaker. In response to a question that I asked at the last estimates, you provided a schedule update for the program, which shows that the next milestone to be achieved was completion of the detail design review No. 2. It was scheduled to be completed on 4 May. Did that occur?

Mr Bryson : No.

Senator PATRICK: When is that likely to occur?

Mr Bryson : Hopefully, this Friday.

Senator PATRICK: Consistent with most projects, deadlines seem to shift right rather than left. You still have final acceptance on schedule. Methods for doing that include applying more resources and reducing the performance requirements. How are you attempting to get back on schedule?

Mr Bryson : At the moment, the contractor and the shipbuilder, as you said, are applying more resources in the shipyard. I think what we've experienced is a bit of the complexity of construction that has slowed us down, but at the same time too we're also running parallel processes to catch-up schedule as well. So, building super structure blocks that aren't on the critical path at the moment, as well. They are doing their best and they remain confident—this is Serco and Damen—that the ship will be delivered ready to commence the season 2021.

Senator PATRICK: You haven't completed the detailed design reviews, is that indicative of some project issues that haven't been resolved that you're hoping to have resolved?

Mr Bryson : It's mainly about the complexity of the vessel and interpretation of our functional performance spec. As you would be aware, it's a pretty difficult way to build a ship when you want something to perform in a particular way, and understanding between the parties about what that is. We've had some complexity about actually working out that functional performance spec. We know what you want and they've delivered a solution. We're working out if that meets our requirements and that's dragged on a little bit. The vessel itself is very complex. We are coming to learn a lot more about shipbuilding and ship design than we did in the past. It's been a difficult period, but also, at the same time, it's been quite rewarding and we're quite looking forward to what's coming down the path towards us.

Senator PATRICK: At this point in time, the additional resources, the cost, is being borne by the contractor.

Mr Bryson : That's exactly right.

Senator PATRICK: I note that in your risk register you did identify that translation of the functional performance specification to the technical requirements was a risk. I was going to ask you about retirement of some of those risks. I thank you for this, back last year—in response to questions in June—you provided the risk register to the committee. I might go to a few of these, because, obviously, risk registers give you a feel for how things are tracking. If you can take this on notice to, perhaps, update the risk register to see what has been retired, maybe with a line through it or something, and what new risks have developed. Is that okay to take that on notice?

Mr Bryson : I can answer that. All of the risks that we see in the risk register are still there.

Senator PATRICK: I would have expected at this stage, looking at some of them, that some should've been retired by now.

Mr Bryson : Not the headline risks but some of the little bits in between as we go through it are not there but, at the same time, we're dealing with all of those risks still.

Senator PATRICK: One of the risks you identified—and this is in the section where you said you've not got a lot of contingency in this project—was the need to actively manage design review processes and change processes to make sure that you ended up not bearing the cost of any design changes. Have there been any contract amendments that have been signed in relation to design changes?

Mr Bryson : Not at the moment.

Senator PATRICK: That's good news.

Mr Bryson : I actually have to correct in that regard. At the beginning, we had a lightship weight issue that we dealt with which led to that extension in the design phase, and that resulted in a lengthening of the vessel by four metres which resulted in a contract change.

Senator PATRICK: That goes to my next question. On the risk register you talked about a proposed vessel length of 156 metres and suggested that, if you went any larger than that, you'd have difficulty berthing the vessel at Horseshoe Harbour and Mawson Station. Also you talked about the draft as well—9.3 metres—can you then update us on what the new lengths and drafts are.

Mr Bryson : The vessel is 160.3 metres, and the design draft remains at 9.3 metres.

Senator PATRICK: Does that create a problem in respect of berthing?

Mr Bryson : You can actually still get the vessel into Mawson Harbour on dynamic positioning and mooring. But, after our incident with the Aurora Australis two years ago where she ran aground, it certainly changes your mind when you are the owner of the vessel and you've made a half-a-billion-dollar investment. So, we decided that we aren't going to go into Mawson Harbour.

Senator PATRICK: You aren't?

Mr Bryson : No. We've been testing new ways of refuelling the station. In the last season, we did it from outside the harbour, which we'd done before. That's worked effectively, so we think we've got a good solution for that and it will protect our investment into the future.

Senator PATRICK: Maybe on notice could you provide a description of the impact of that decision on operations. Because clearly you intended to—

Mr Bryson : We've done it in the past as well. I did it in 2008-09 from outside the harbour when we had an iceberg in the harbour. It's nothing out of the ordinary for us. We've always had to adapt to those situations in the past.

Senator PATRICK: Sure, but you identified it as a risk. It was foremost on your mind when you went into the project, and now you find that risk has materialised without being mitigated. From the project's sense, the operator bears the inconvenience or the impact of that.

Mr Bryson : We have done a study on that, and I can provide that on notice.

Senator PATRICK: Another one in relation to cavitation inception speed: you were doing some trials on the propulsion, and obviously CIS has an impact on the speeds at which you can operate the vessel and on sonar systems.

Mr Bryson : I can provide that on notice but, as far as I'm aware, it's eight knots.

Senator PATRICK: I think 8.3 was the upper limit that you were after. There was also some concern about the hybrid system not having been used before. I'm very mindful of the LHD problem that the Navy's had with the brand new propulsion system. How are you travelling in respect of mitigating the risks of that new hybrid propulsion system?

Mr Bryson : We've done all the background testing on it, with FATs and all the advanced friction clutches and the auxiliary electric drives. We think we've got a viable solution. That's what our contractor's telling us. That's what we've seen from attendance at those factory acceptance tests. All the evidence that we're given seems to bear that up. It's not an azimuth drive—we deliberately didn't go down that path due to familiarity with the technology plus the noise generation of azimuth pods. We think we're in a pretty good situation with this one: it's a pretty conventional drive at its base.

Senator PATRICK: Finally, you've gone to Kongsberg for most of the remote sensing equipment on board the vessel. Have those contracts being signed? Have you got all the installation negotiations between Damen and Kongsberg sorted out?

Mr Bryson : It's a pretty complex arrangement. I might have to take that one on notice. I know that equipment has been purchased and contracts have been signed. But I couldn't give you a definitive answer on what pieces of kit have been bought and what systems.

Senator PATRICK: You also said you were going to do some analysis of ownership noise and, presumably, flow noise across the vessel in respect of the performance of those sensors. Has that been carried out?

Mr Bryson : I believe so. We actually got a sound report last week. I would have to check on that for you. The design phase had all the resilient mountings and everything like that, and all the noise generation from each of the pieces of equipment that were put through a factory acceptance test. That's all been built into what you call the sound book of the ship. That's currently in development. We think we're in a pretty good place at the moment. That was all part of DDR2 and getting that ticked off. I believe we'll have that this week.

Senator PATRICK: When you do the testing on that, are you going to actually do some noise measurements on that?

Mr Bryson : Yes, we're going over to the sound range in Norway.

Senator PATRICK: In Norway. Of course the ship's being built in Romania; that makes sense. That's a NATO sound range, is it?

Mr Bryson : Yes, Svalbard.

Senator PATRICK: I think that's it. I'll be back next estimates to see how you're going.

Mr Bryson : I look forward to it.

Senator URQUHART: Can you give me an update on negotiations regarding new marine parks and reserves in Antarctica?

Mr Clark : As you are probably aware, the proposal for a network of marine parks in east Antarctica is something that has been on the table for a number of years now. It still enjoys wide support at CAMLR. However, it's not at the point where it has consensus. It was again considered at the most recent CAMLR meeting. We will go through a process of talking with the co-proponents prior to the next CAMLR meeting, where we will make a determination on what approach we will take for the next meeting.

Senator URQUHART: When is the next CAMLR meeting?

Mr Clark : In October this year.

Senator URQUHART: Why are the marine parks important, particularly in Antarctica?

Mr Clark : The marine parks we're proposing in Antarctica aim to represent broad areas of ecosystems within the various marine environments. It takes an approach where representative areas are captured in various locations within the network. That process aims to protect and preserve ecosystems and habitats over the longer term. They provide very good science reference points where they wouldn't otherwise be impacted by activities to provide a reference point for other management arrangements and, as a total package, bring together an effective mechanism to manage broad ecosystem health.

Senator URQUHART: What's the total staffing of the division?

Mr Clark : We have a total FTE of 388. That's annualised.

Mr Cahill : That's annualised; it fluctuates throughout the year.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, because of the summer. That's FTEs, full-time equivalents. What's the total reduction from last year?

Mr Clark : That figure is consistent with last year.

Senator URQUHART: So it was 388 last year?

Mr Clark : It was 387, so an increase of one.

Senator URQUHART: What's the impact of the efficiency dividend and ASL cap on the division? Has there been any impact from that?

Mr Cahill : The ASL cap actually applies to the department, which the division is part of. I think the best indication is that the full-time equivalent staffing level is broadly the same from year to year.

Senator URQUHART: That's it, thank you.

CHAIR: There being no further questions for program 3.1, thank you very much, Antarctic Division.

[20:56]

CHAIR: We will now move to program 1.5, Environmental regulation. We'll go straight to questions.

Senator URQUHART: I can now go back to the other questions I had regarding the clearing proposal for Olive Vale. The question I was going to ask GBRMPA was: have you been asked to comment on the Olive Vale clearing proposal? Were they asked to comment?

Mr Barker : The department's had some interactions with the proponents of the Olive Vale proposal. They haven't yet formally referred it for an assessment under the EPBC Act. I think the last interaction that officers had with the proponent was in December—late last year. There was just some discussion around what the content of the referral was, what the process was under the EPBC Act. It's normal and usual once a referral is received, where there is a possibility of impacts on the reef, for the department to obtain the advice of GBRMPA. But we're not at that point.

Senator URQUHART: As I understand it, the proposal is to clear around 30,000 hectares of forest in the reef catchment in relation to the Olive Vale process?

Mr Barker : Yes, that sounds about right; however, obviously the detail of what they will refer is subject to their formal referral to the department.

Senator URQUHART: So, the department hasn't asked GBRMPA to comment on that yet, because it hasn't been referred yet?

Mr Barker : That's correct.

Senator URQUHART: Would that not be a concern to the reef, in terms of that amount of clearing that's in a reef catchment?

Mr Barker : Yes, it is in a reef catchment, so we would expect to ask GBRMPA for their advice in addition to the assessment the department itself would do on the likelihood of a significant impact on the reef from the clearing—and any other matters of national environmental significance that may be impacted.

Senator URQUHART: When you do expect to get that referral?

Mr Barker : It's a matter for the proponent. They haven't indicated to us when they would be likely to do that.

Mr Knudson : The one thing to keep in mind, though, is that the proponent would not be able to undertake that land clearing until they have an approval.

Senator URQUHART: No, no.

Mr Knudson : I just wanted to make sure that was clear.

Senator URQUHART: I would hope not.

Mr Knudson : Exactly.

Senator URQUHART: What about Wombinoo? Is that in the same process time frame as Olive Vale?

Mr Barker : The Wombinoo proposal has been referred for assessment under the EPBC Act. It has been determined to be a controlled action, which means it's now going through the process of a more detailed assessment. The proponent provided the department with an initial draft of some assessment documentation. The department has given comments to the proponent on that and asked for some further information, particularly around surveys. For example, on that property, there's an identified population of greater gliders, which are a vulnerable species listed under the EPBC Act. So, in that respect, the questions are about more precisely identifying where that species is on that particular property, and we're waiting for the proponent to come back to us.

Senator URQUHART: Has GBRMPA been asked to comment on that one?

Mr Barker : GBRMPA did provided advice at the referral point of that project, as is usual for projects that are in the reef catchment.

Senator URQUHART: And what was GBRMPA's advice regarding what the impact of that clearing would be?

Mr Barker : Sorry, I don't have a copy of that advice in front of me. From recollection, it was to highlight that, yes, there was the potential for impacts on the reef from that clearing proposal.

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to provide a copy of that advice or that information from GBRMPA?

Mr Barker : We'll see if we can provide that.

Senator URQUHART: I understand that the department has investigated 59 permits for clearing in Queensland. How many permits for clearing in the Great Barrier Reef catchments have been investigated by the department?

Ms Collins : I'll just see if I've got that information in front of me.

Mr Knudson : I suspect that we're going to have to take that on notice, but you're exactly right: there were 59 permits at the beginning, and a subset of those would have been in the reef catchments. We can come back to you and clarify that number—unless Ms Collins has that.

Ms Collins : No, I haven't got that in front of me.

Senator URQUHART: How many permits for clearing in Great Barrier Reef catchments have been assessed by the department?

Mr Knudson : Again, because we don't have the specific breakdown of the 59 here, we will have to come back to say which of those are in the catchment area and then which ones have been assessed.

Senator URQUHART: When are you able to come back with that?

Ms Collins : We would come back on notice. I understand there are four referrals in Queensland currently under assessment, but I'm not sure which of those are in the catchment.

Mr Barker : We have five proposals that are currently under assessment in reef catchments. I can give you the reef catchments here, but it might be better if we provide you with the detail on notice. One of those is a dam rather than a clearing proposal per se, and we have already approved one proposal recently—a smaller proposal.

Senator URQUHART: One is a dam.

Mr Barker : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: And, of those other four, one has been approved for bulldozing, effectively?

Mr Barker : There are five under assessment in reef catchments—two in the Burdekin, one in Herbert River, one in Normanby, one in Burnett Mary—and one has been approved in the Upper Burdekin. That project, however, was not triggered for the Great Barrier Reef; it was triggered on the basis of likely impacts to threatened species, and it was referred by the landholder for that reason. In that particular project, the proponent agreed to avoid entirely clearing the area of that species' habitat. So, in the end, the proponent managed to avoid impacts entirely on the species for which the project was originally triggered.

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to provide some more information around those five that you talked about?

Mr Barker : Certainly, yes.

Senator URQUHART: I understand that the department has made a decision that only three permits for clearing in the Great Barrier Reef catchments need federal oversight. Is that correct?

Mr Tregurtha : I think what you're referring to there, again, is a subset of the 59 that were originally considered. As Mr Knudson said earlier, I think we would need to address that as part of taking on notice those of the 59 which are in reef catchments.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Can you tell me whether they were assessed individually or cumulatively?

Mr Tregurtha : In relation to all the assessments of clearing proposals—in Australia, but in this case in the Great Barrier Reef catchment areas—we undertake our assessments on a case-by-case basis. Each individual project is referred to us, and we undertake an assessment on the basis of the factors of that project. However, in doing so, we do take into account the regional conditions around where that project is operating; we don't treat them as if they exist in a vacuum. We look at factors that are common across boundaries or across projects, but each one is assessed in its own right.

Senator URQUHART: How many of those clearings have been subject to a cumulative impact assessment in accordance with the cumulative impact guidelines that are promised to UNESCO under the Reef 2050 Plan?

Mr Knudson : I think we're in the same position—

Senator URQUHART: We're going round in circles because of the 59, are we?

Mr Knudson : Yes. Obviously the department is very aware of that Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority policy, and we'll take that into account where it's relevant for the individual assessments.

Senator URQUHART: I've got some other questions, but I'll put them on notice when you get the other information. In relation to Kingvale, why did the department call the Kingvale decision in?

Mr Barker : Essentially the project was deemed to be referred under the EBPC Act because of the potential for it to impact on the reef and the potential for the clearing to impact on threatened species listed under the EPBC Act.

Senator URQUHART: What type of information did you have at hand when you made the controlled-action decision? What were the types of reasons?

Mr Barker : I suppose I should distinguish two things: firstly, there was the deeming of the referral, which is the calling, if you like; secondly, once it was referred, or deemed to be referred, there was a decision made to confirm that it was actually a proposal that was likely to have significant impacts, and then the detailed assessment process followed from there. So, at the point at which the proposal was deemed to be referred, the department had undertaken some engagement with the landowner, it had some expert advice that it had commissioned itself and it had also obtained some advice from GBRMPA, among other things, to inform that decision. That advice, as well as further investigations, had informed the decision to make the action a controlled action and then trigger the process of more detailed assessment.

Senator URQUHART: So, you did ask GBRMPA to submit to the recent consultation process on the draft recommendations report?

Mr Barker : I understand GBRMPA addressed that issue earlier today. Advice was provided from GBRMPA in relation to the deeming of the referral, and then, secondly, advice was also obtained from GBRMPA at the point at which the decision was made to trigger a more detailed assessment on the proposal.

Senator URQUHART: How many protected matters was it determined the project would impact on as part of the controlled-action decision?

Mr Barker : Essentially it was the reef but in relation to its World Heritage listing, its National Heritage listing and its listing in its own right as well as for listed threatened species generally.

Senator URQUHART: Is there a high degree of confidence in the prediction of impacts?

Mr Barker : I think at that point yes, there was. I think we based that conclusion on the advice that we'd received on a high degree of confidence that there was likely to be a measure of impacts. So, to that extent, yes.

Senator URQUHART: Are the relevant impacts short-term, easily reversible or small in scale?

Mr Barker : I think they were easily identifiable, and that was based on a substantial amount of expert advice that the department commissioned across 2015, 2016 and 2017. About 10 separate expert reports were provided to the department by six different consultants, and the department has also undertaken a very extensive literature review and reference to scientific evidence in relation to that. While that body of evidence is quite substantial, a focus of the impacts is relatively defined. The impacts in relation to the reef are from sedimentation and run-off, and the impacts in relation to species, and there's a defined number of species that are outlined in the draft recommendation report that the department recently published for public comment. There's a confined number of those species, and impacts in relation to each of them are addressed in some detail in that draft report.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. So, you had I think six consultant reports, did you say?

Mr Barker : There were 10, and they were from six separate consultants. It's outlined in the draft report that was published between 20 April and 7 May for public comment. So, there's a list of those reports in that draft assessment, as well as the other body of scientific evidence on which the department has based its draft conclusions.

Senator URQUHART: Is the information provided adequate?

Mr Barker : The department considers so. The department has done the assessment in this case.

Senator URQUHART: Is the degree of public concern moderately low?

Mr Barker : In relation to the referral decision and the processes that came before it, I think there is a relatively low number of individual submissions on those reports. In relation to the draft recommendation report, I think we had four submissions, and one of them was from the proponent itself. We had a number of campaign submissions as well, but they were all of standard form. I suppose what I'm saying is that it depends on how you calibrate the level of concern. If we go on the basis of individual submissions, that number was relatively low.

Senator URQUHART: How many in the campaign submissions were there?

Mr Barker : I think there were 6,000.

Senator URQUHART: So, four individual and about 6,000—

Mr Barker : There were four individual submissions, one of which was from the proponent himself and three from organisations, and the rest were standard-form submissions.

Senator URQUHART: How did the department arrive at assessment on referral information decision given the requirement for this type of assessment as set out in section 5.03A of the EPBC regulations?

Mr Barker : I think a number of the requirements you're referencing are requirements that are set out in the regulations in that respect. And that does include things around the scale of the impact and the level of concern. So, really the department went through each of those criteria and made a determination that there was sufficient reason to proceed on assessment on referral information in this particular case.

Senator URQUHART: So, you consider that 6,000 of what you class as campaign submissions is moderately low?

Mr Barker : It could be described as moderate, having regard to the fact that they were campaign submissions and they were all of the same type. There were a couple of paragraphs that were not so specific to the particular proposal as they were to land clearing more generally in Queensland, and impacts on the reef. Weighing up those criteria is an issue of judgement. So, the department concluded that yes, there was a moderate level of interest in the project, but that had to be weighed against the substance and the merit of the nature of the submissions that were provided.

Senator URQUHART: Right, but they were all from different individuals?

Mr Barker : Different individuals but all in exactly the same terms.

Proceedings suspended from 21 : 14 to 21 : 30

Senator URQUHART: I have a final question on the Kingvale Station. Is the department aware of the legal action announced today by Queensland against the owner of Kingvale?

Mr Barker : The department's draft recommendation report did refer to legal action being undertaken by the state in relation to the proponent of Kingvale. I understand there was a reference today to some action that related to cultural heritage in Queensland. We are aware of that and would take that into account in finalising the assessment report.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is this the appropriate place to ask questions about the threat abatement plan for marine plastics?

Mr Knudson : No. We can deal with plastics and what we're doing on waste et cetera tomorrow—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You want to do that under the hazardous waste section?

Mr Knudson : That's correct.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: If I could ask about the EPBC process, the threatening process and the threat abatement plan?

Mr Knudson : Mr Richardson, who was here earlier, deals with threat abatement plans. If you already putting those on notice, that's probably the best way to deal with it at this point.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Today, I've just seen this; it was released on 21 May: 'Notification of Referral Decision and Designated Proponent—controlled action' in relation to the Alpha North coalmine project, Galilee Basin, Queensland. The proposed action has been deemed to be a controlled action, so that will require assessment and approval under the EPBC Act before it can proceed. There's a list there of relevant controlling provisions. I was wondering why the Ramsar wetlands weren't included in the relevant controlling provisions? They were for the Adani mine. Is it that there are none in the area of this proposed Alpha North coalmine project?

Mr Barker : There wasn't a Ramsar site that was identified as being potentially impacted, no.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It also says there 'assessment approach'—

Mr Barker : Sorry, Senator, I should add that this mining proposal, unlike the Adani mine, is confined to the mine itself. The Adani proposal included a rail component as well as the mine component, so in a sense the spatial scale of that mine was different to the spatial scale of the Alpha North proposal. So it's just the mine footprint itself.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Under 'assessment approach' it said, 'To be advised.' Is it common not to have a declaration of the assessment approach at that point in time?

Mr Barker : Yes, it is. The department in this case has received advice from Queensland agencies that the proponent has applied for a voluntary EIS under state processes that are accredited under a bilateral agreement the Commonwealth has in place with Queensland. So if that EIS process proceeds at a state level then that may allow the bilateral agreement to be engaged and there would be a joint assessment with the state and Commonwealth for that proposal. That is subject to us getting advice back from Queensland that that process will in fact apply at the state level.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: When would you expect to get that advice back?

Mr Barker : We haven't been advised of timing, Senator, but, for example, it may happen in a month or so. We haven't been advised of timing from the state.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you. On an entirely separate question, I have here the September 2008 EPBC Act Policy Statement 2.1: interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales. Has there been any update on this policy statement? Has there been any new science on seismic testing?

Mr Knudson : Senator, we undertook a strategic assessment of NOPSEMA and their assessment process that was done almost four years ago, if not longer—effectively, now NOPSEMA do the environmental assessments on our behalf, so you could ask that question of the department of industry, who has oversight, from a policy perspective, for and of NOPSEMA.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That was about four years ago so, essentially, you are no longer—

Mr Knudson : That is correct. Under the strategic assessment they effectively have been accredited by the department to undertake environmental assessments in the marine environment for offshore oil and gas production and exploration.

Mr Tregurtha : If I can just add, Senator—and of course, the other areas of the department who were on earlier today, in terms of threatened species and migratory species, continue to look at the science around cetaceans and impacts and those sorts of things, and would provide that advice into the NOPSEMA process. But I'm not aware they've done any specific, formal update at this time.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That would only be in relation to migratory or threatened and endangered species, is that correct?

Mr Tregurtha : Correct.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It wouldn't be things like scallops or other commercial species.

Mr Tregurtha : No. That's right, it would only be in relation to things that were able to be regulated.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay, that makes it even easier for me.

Mr Knudson : Senator, I've just been informed that the two branch heads that deal with threat abatement plans will be back for outcome 1.4 tomorrow, so you will have the opportunity tomorrow afternoon to ask that question in 1.4.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you, I'll be very keen to follow up on that, and I'm sure Senator Urquhart will be as well, given the groundbreaking inquiry we did into the threat of marine plastics. I have one last question in relation to a question that you took on notice for Macquarie Harbour. We've asked a few times now about the officer compliance in Macquarie Harbour. I asked when you had last done a routine investigation, and it was several months ago—this was for February 2018. Then I asked whether you had conducted any audits around their EPBC obligations. You responded that you had, and that you had found that the three companies were operating in a way that was consistent with the requirements of their EPBC Act decisions. Could you provide me with a little bit more information about what you judged to be 'consistent with the requirements of their EPBC Act decisions'?

Ms Collins : Yes. In this case there was a decision in 2012, which was made by the Commonwealth, that the activity was not a controlled action as long as it was undertaken in a particular manner. And the particular manner requirements relate to things like undertaking monitoring of the water quality, and being able to implement management responses if they're finding that there are changes or adverse impacts on the water quality. We recognise that the Tasmanian government is the primary regulator of the finfish industry in the Macquarie Harbour, and we were just looking specifically at those conditions attached to that decision. And what we found was—and it was in February 2017 rather than 2018—that we went down and did that routine monitoring, and we found they were, in fact, operating in accordance with that decision.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So were you satisfied, then, that over the five years—if you went in 2017—since expansion in 2012, they had they reacted to changing conditions in Macquarie Harbour?

Ms Collins : We undertook a site inspection. We also spoke with the Tasmanian government. We asked for information both from the Tasmanian government and from each of the operators. With all the information available to us, we could see that, yes, monitoring had been undertaken and, yes, management responses were put in place.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do you get to judge the adequacy of those management responses? Was there any qualitative assessment, or did you make some sort of values based assessment on whether that management had been effective and quick enough?

Ms Collins : The particular conditions don't specify exactly. There is a Macquarie Harbour finfish management plan and even that management plan doesn't specify exactly, for instance, things like the biomass limits. It's a matter for the Tasmanian EPA; they set the biomass limits, and they've been taking into consideration all of the monitoring data and the condition of the harbour itself. As you're aware, they’ve gradually reduced the biomass limit in the harbour and I think they're about to make another decision in terms of the maximum biomass limit for next summer.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I have a copy of the latest IMAS report of environmental research in Macquarie Harbour, September 2017. That's the latest one, and it shows that they are still not showing recoveries in dissolved oxygen issues in the harbour. The committee went down there in 2015 and had in inquiry and was told everything was fine, and then of course it's all blown up since then. The companies are suing each other and of course you guys.

Ms Collins : I think, since that report, the biomass limit has been reduced again. It was sitting at about 14,000 tonnes for the harbour; it's been reduced to 12,000 tonnes. The EPA also has requirements for the extraction of some of the waste from the harbour as well. Recently, in the media they’ve stated that they're likely to reduce the biomass limit to 9,000 tonnes in the harbour. That's a maximum biomass limit, which means that, at any time, they can only have a maximum of 9,000 tonnes of biomass in the harbour, meaning when the fish are younger there is less biomass in the harbour. I was speaking to the EPA recently and they said there is less than 4,000 tonnes in the harbour at the moment. They were also saying that they've observed—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Less than 4000 tonnes?

Ms Collins : Because they’ve just had the harvest. They're saying they’ve observed that the health of the harbour is getting better as a result of having less fish in the harbour.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Are you satisfied that the research around the maugean skate, which is a threatened species under federal law, has been adequately assessed?

Ms Collins : So we're aware of the IMAS reports as well, specifically for the maugean skate. They cope well with the low-dissolved oxygen. The condition of the fish were not showing any signs of harm due to the dissolved oxygen.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Here is my last question. You're currently assessing an expansion at Storm Bay. Is that correct? Was that a referral from one of the—

Mr Barker : Yes, we have referrals from Tassal and from Petuna in relation to Storm Bay.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: If there's a third operator there, would they have to go through—

Mr Barker : Sorry, Senator, not Petuna; it's Huon.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: They're set the same process, though? The both referred—

Mr Barker : That's correct. They're separate referrals, so a decision would be required for each of them as to whether a further, detailed assessment would be required.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay, but the cumulative impact of having two large operators there, is that something you take into account?

Mr Barker : Absolutely. We understand from Tassal and Petuna, which is yet to refer, that they work together to undertake a cumulative impact assessment of those proposals. So, in a sense, we'll get separate referrals but there is a shared evidence base for those. We have also had discussions with Huon as well. So the department would obviously consider all the information it had available to it about cumulative impacts on Storm Bay from the proposals that have been put forward.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Will you be consulting with the Derwent Estuary management group, the scientific group that looks at the health of the Derwent? Is it an independently set up organisation?

Mr Barker : We would take into account as much information as we could that was relevant to the proposals. It would go through the normal process of exposure for public comment as well, and anyone is entitled to provide comments to the department on those proposals within the statutory time frame. Our standard practice is that we seek to take into account even submissions that are received outside of the statutory time frame, to the extent that that is feasible. We also engage with state regulators around the information they have—through the planning process that is occurring in Tasmania for the expansions in Storm Bay.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Have they outlined what their expected projections are for fish numbers to the department, separately?

Mr Barker : I don't have the numbers in front of me. But I would anticipate they had identified the proposed biomass that they're seeking to stock.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It was put to me that it was potentially between six million and eight million fish when it was fully set up in that area—that's the equivalent of the sewage outflow of Tasmania's half a million population, in terms of nitrogen loading. I thought I would put that on the record.

Mr Barker : That is the type of information we would expect to take into account in the course of the assessment, as well as, obviously, the nature of the environment—it's a fairly high energy environment in Storm Bay—the existing fish farming operations around the bay and shore based infrastructure as well.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: Can the department cite the scientifically peer reviewed advice that states that clearing on a slope of less than two per cent will not harm the reef?

Mr Barker : I think you're referring to expert advice the department engaged in relation to clearing on the Kingvale property. The source of that advice is cited in the draft recommendation report that the department published for public comment. The department engaged an expert geomorphologist, who provided that advice. There was also another consultant, who was engaged by the proponent, who also commented on the gradient of the slope, if you like, in relation to run-off risk as well.

Senator URQUHART: Who were the consultants that you used?

Mr Barker : Jeffrey Shellberg, who was cited in the report, and Dr Loch from landloch consulting, whose advice is also cited in that report.

Senator URQUHART: Can the department outline what constitutes an acceptable impact on the reef from clearing?

Mr Barker : As with every process under the EPBC Act, the department goes through a detailed assessment process to determine what the impacts will be and then to identify measures in a hierarchy of avoiding, mitigating or if necessary offsetting the impacts and identified risks that the body of information through the assessment identifies, and that's the process that's been undertaken with the Kingvale proposal.

Senator URQUHART: What actually fits into that basket of acceptable impact? That's what I want to know.

Mr Barker : I think at the end of the day it's based on an identification and assessment of the quantum of the risks and the nature of the risks, the particular EPBC matters that are potentially impacted by the proposal, and then the countervailing conditions that might be imposed on the project to address those risks.

Mr Tregurtha : If I can add to Mr Barker's answer, you also have to consider that each project, as I mentioned before, is considered within its own context. So, for example, a project that was being undertaken near Cairns would have different impacts to one being undertaken in Bundaberg or Townsville because of the geography of where it's located as well. So there are a range of site-specific factors you would take into account as well. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Senator URQUHART: What basis will the permanent conversion of almost 2,000 hectares of land in reef catchments to cropping not have an ongoing sediment and nutrient impact on the reef?

Mr Barker : Again, I think, just in reference to Mr Tregurtha's comments, the department, in the draft recommendation report that it has published, has mapped out a suite of proposed conditions, requirements and management measures, including, as you referenced, the gradient that relates to a proposed requirement for the avoidance of any clearing in areas above a gradient of more than two per cent that are being mapped on the property and a requirement to put significant buffers in riparian zones to maintain an appropriate density of vegetation cover across the property as well as native vegetation in the buffer zones to construct contour banks and to ensure that linear infrastructure is constructed in accordance with Queensland Soil Conservation Guidelines. There are a range of measures proposed to avoid the identified impacts that have been assessed through the process.

Senator URQUHART: Just to be clear, is the department recommending the clearing of 1,863 hectares of primary forest in a reef catchment and subsequent development of intensive agriculture at Kingvale Station on Cape York Peninsula?

Mr Barker : The department is recommending approval of clearing of 1,846 hectares subject to the conditions that I've outlined. It's 87 per cent of the area that was proposed for clearing by the proponent. But it's packaged with that body of conditions, requirements and management measures to avoid the identified risks of impacts.

Senator URQUHART: What about the advice from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that the development is likely to impact key values and attributes of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area through increasing the amount of fine sediments and nutrients entering the reef and advice from erosion expert Dr Jeff Shellberg that the development is likely to cause erosion and sediment movement which is likely to impact the reef?

Mr Barker : The advice from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority as well as earlier advice from Dr Shellberg and the department's own conclusion were the basis for the activity to trigger the application of the EPBC Act and for the assessment to be undertaken. And since those initial advices were received, there's been further expert advice, and the conditions that the department has proposed are responsive to the expert advice that it has received.

Senator URQUHART: So, as you said earlier, the project will clear almost 1,846 hectares of threatened species' habitat. Can you outline why this won't require any offsets?

Mr Barker : The department has commissioned ecological surveys of the property. Broadly, the surveys identified that there is potential habitat for some species in that area but there's no confirmed presence of those species. The proposed conditions, including the maintenance of riparian corridors and vegetation buffers will also provide a secure area for the species that may use the area, but there hasn't been a confirmed presence of the species on that particular property.

Senator URQUHART: When will the department finalise the final recommendation report for that project?

Mr Barker : We're undertaking that process now.

Senator URQUHART: When will that be completed?

Mr Barker : Possibly about a month. The process is for the department to finalise that report, make a proposed decision and then make a final decision. The proposed decision is required to be provided to the proponent for at least ten business days comment.

Senator URQUHART: So that process will be completed and finalised within about a month?

Mr Barker : My estimate is about a month, but that's an estimate at this stage.

Senator URQUHART: Will you be informing UNESCO of your decision?

Mr Barker : I understand the department does have processes in place to inform the World Heritage Committee about processes that are likely to have a significant impact on the reef. That advice, I understand, occurs for projects that trigger the EPBC Act and, therefore, have already been identified at that point as projects that are likely to have that level of impact.

Senator URQUHART: I want to ask a couple of questions around the Olive Vale issue again. Why haven't you called in Olive Vale for assessment given the then minister, Greg Hunt, said in 2015 that the landholder had agreed to cease clearing on the property until such time as the balance of the clearing, approximately 30,000 hectares, could be formally assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act?

Mr Barker : My understanding of discussions that departmental officers had had with the proponent—and I say my understanding because I haven't had those interactions directly myself—is that the proponent has indicated a willingness to refer the proposal under the EPBC Act, and no works have been undertaken, at this point, subject to that referral.

Senator URQUHART: Have you been informed that in 2017 the landholder cleared more than 100 hectares of bushland despite not having federal approval?

Mr Knudson : Yes.

Ms Collins : We received an allegation of clearing in June 2017 at Olive Vale. We had compliance officers inspect the property in September 2017 and did find that some clearing had been undertaken on the site there. We did an assessment, and that clearing in and of itself was unlikely to have resulted in a significant impact on protected matters. But in discussions with the landowner it was identified that the landowner did intend to do further clearing. That's why we informed the landowner of the requirements under the act and also referred them to the assessments people, where that conversation has now occurred.

Senator URQUHART: So you raised concerns about that proposal.

Ms Collins : That's right.

Mr Knudson : I also believe—but I just want to check this—that most of that 100 hectares you're referring to was outside of the area that was supposed to be referred. Most of it was outside.

Senator URQUHART: But a different area, yes. In terms of Wombinoo, why did the Australian minister for the environment say that claims that a landowner had wrongly cleared at that area were unfounded? There are media reports that contradict the minister.

Ms Collins : There were claims made in the media about allegations of illegal clearing. The department looked into those claims and determined that that clearing related to clearing that the department had already become aware of. We had already assessed that clearing, through a site inspection, and determined that it was not likely to have a significant impact on protected matters.

Senator URQUHART: Is the department planning on recommending that the clearing at Wombinoo go ahead?

Mr Barker : The assessment's ongoing for that proposal, so it hasn't reached the point at which the department would formulate a proposed decision.

Senator URQUHART: I want to very quickly refer back to Kingvale. As I understand it, this is a tropical area. Is that correct, Mr Barker?

Mr Barker : That's correct. It's the wet-dry tropics.

Senator URQUHART: With a wet season and a high rainfall that floods?

Mr Barker : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: So the department is confident that sediment won't enter the reef?

Mr Barker : We're confident that the risks that have been identified, in the expert advice that we've received, would be addressed by the conditions that we have proposed. That's subject to the fact that we're still finalising that assessment report, and having regard to public comments we've received on it.

Senator URQUHART: That's all I have on that section.

Senator BARTLETT: I have a couple of aspects, some of which I flagged earlier. Before I do, I would add that I'm fairly new to this role, as you know, and the EPBC and all that stuff, and how it all works these days. This is possibly one for Mr Knudson.

Senator Birmingham: I think you were there when it was first enacted, Senator Bartlett.

Senator BARTLETT: A long time ago. It's all my fault. It's one thing to enact a law, it's another to figure out how it is actually working. So my question goes to how it actually works. As we've been talking about, when there's a particular issue and there's a referral and the department provides advice, I just wanted to get an idea about the usual practice. The department assesses all the evidence and usually provides a single piece of advice to the minister or the relevant decision-maker—is that how it works?

Mr Tregurtha : I'll just take you quickly through the process. Initially, there will be a referral. Usually that's where someone has determined they're going to take an action, and it may need to be considered under Commonwealth law, the EPBC Act. Once that referral is received, the department publishes it for public comment at the referral stage. Following a publication period, we then make what's called a controlled action decision. We determine whether or not it needs formal assessment and approval. In many cases, it doesn't. In that case, that's the end of the process. If it does need assessment and approval, as Mr Barker talked about earlier this evening, we determine an assessment approach—there are a range of those, depending on the nature of the project—and whether or not we can assess it jointly with a state or territory where we have agreements to do so. Once it goes through an assessment phase, part of which is a further public comment period—towards the end of that period the proponent then must address any public comments received during the public comment period. We get a final document set. The department then reviews that, along with all of the other information it has obtained or has available to it. For example, the department may determine in some cases to seek expert advice. If it's a coalmine or a coal seam gas operation, we're obliged to seek the advice of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee so that there are a range of inputs. The department will synthesise that into what we call a recommendation report, which is then provided to the minister or the minister's delegate in order for them to make an approval decision.

Senator BARTLETT: You, as you say, synthesise it all into a recommendation report to the minister. Would that be a single recommendation? Is that normally the case?

Mr Tregurtha : What normally happens is the recommendation would in rare circumstances be to not approve the project but more often than not to approve the project on the basis of the conditions. So the department would recommend that a condition set be attached to the project, and that is around ensuring environmental matters are protected by avoidance, by mitigation or through an offsetting regime, where environmental impacts are unable to be avoided.

Senator BARTLETT: I'm trying to think of something previous just so it's outside of the current political context. The Traveston dam thing was when Mr Garrett was the relevant minister—not as big as a rock star as the current minister before us now of course but, nonetheless, he tried his best!

Senator Birmingham: I was about to say: be grateful that Senator Macdonald is not here to hear you mention the Traveston dam!

Senator BARTLETT: Was there was a specific recommendation from the department in that case? I don't know if it's too long ago to recall. Would there have been a specific recommendation from the department, for example, saying: 'No, knock off the Traveston Dam,' and the minister said yes or no? Was that the case? Or were there a couple of recommendations to the—

Mr Tregurtha : There would have been a recommendation. The department would recommend either, as I said, approval or nonapproval, but usually, if we're recommending something be approved, we do so on the basis of a set of conditions that would be put in place in order to facilitate the project going ahead in a way that is environmentally sound from the perspective of the EPBC Act.

The other thing to note in relation to this as well is that, in making the decision, the minister, or his or her delegate, must also consider the economic and social matters around the project. The EPBC Act itself provides for that consideration. At that point in time the department recommends a course of action, but it's entirely open to the minister or their delegate to determine variations to the conditions or take into account various other matters and determine the decision in a way that runs counter to our advice. The department provides that advice, as you said, in the form of a recommendation report and then a decision is made.

Senator BARTLETT: Is it usual practice, or does it ever happen, that the department provides two alternatives, two variants of the brief, to the minister, saying, 'You could do this or you could do that'?

Mr Tregurtha : It's certainly not usual practice, but I would have to take on notice whether we've ever provided that to previous ministers. As you know, the act's been in place now for 18 years, so that's quite a long time, and I haven't been in this role for that long.

Senator BARTLETT: Perhaps just in the last couple of years—three years would suffice.

Mr Tregurtha : I'd be happy to take that on notice.

Senator BARTLETT: If you did do that in the last three years, if you'd given them this option or that option, that would obviously be on the record, I would assume.

Mr Tregurtha : Our recommendation reports are certainly on the record.

Senator BARTLETT: So you've taken that on notice, whether that's been done in the last few years, in regards to a referral decision. That's what we're talking about—that last step in the process?

Mr Tregurtha : No, that's in relation to an approval decision.

Senator BARTLETT: Approval decision, sorry—not a referral.

Mr Tregurtha : The approval decision is at the point when you determine whether it can just go ahead or it needs formal assessment and approval.

Senator BARTLETT: Yes. The referral is way back. It's the approval.

Mr Tregurtha : That's right.

Senator BARTLETT: I wanted to ask something specific about the Toondah Harbour situation, which I asked about back in February. There was an original referral for that project back in 2015, as I understand it, and then a new one in 2017. Correct me if I'm wrong on that, but that's my understanding of it. That original referral, Toondah Harbour decision 2015/7612—as I have it before me, which may or may not be right—under the EPBC Act, was for the Cleveland Moreton Bay Ramsar wetland situation. Can you explain what the impacts on matters of national environmental significance were for that project, particularly the department's views on the potential impacts on the Ramsar site? Hopefully that is uncontroversial, given that, as I understand it, that original 2015 proposal has been withdrawn.

Mr Knudson : Are you sure you want us to talk about the old referral—

Senator BARTLETT: Yes.

Mr Knudson : or do want us to talk about the new one?

Senator BARTLETT: I will get to the new one, but I wanted to do the initial one first, thank you. As my reference to Mr Garrett revealed, I'm a bit of a retro guy! I like my history.

Mr Knudson : Fair enough!

Mr Barker : The 2015 referral was referred, and the proponent itself nominated as a controlled action. The proponent withdrew that referral before a controlled action decision was made, but the proponent itself put forward the referral on the basis that it was likely to have significant impacts on the values of the Ramsar site—the Moreton Bay Ramsar site—as well as nationally listed species and migratory species that use the Ramsar site.

Senator BARTLETT: Okay. I know it was eventually withdrawn, but did the department formed views on that—or you in particular, I think?

Mr Barker : The department did not make a formal decision on that.

Senator BARTLETT: Sorry, it didn't?

Mr Barker : It did not make a formal controlled action decision on that proposal.

Senator BARTLETT: Because it was withdrawn before you got to that situation?

Mr Barker : That's correct.

Senator BARTLETT: So there was never any advice provided on that original proposal?

Mr Barker : There was no formal briefing for a referral decision on that proposal.

Senator BARTLETT: The proponent referred it themselves, you were saying. But there was never any actual documentation produced? You would have done some initial work on that.

Mr Barker : Yes. There was documentation in the sense that there were discussions with the proponent and there were communications to the proponent about that proposal, identifying issues around the impacts, particularly in relation to the wetlands. So, certainly, there was documentation, but, as I've mentioned, the department didn't make a formal decision on the proposal.

Senator BARTLETT: It was withdrawn before you got the chance to do so?

Mr Barker : Yes, that's right.

Senator BARTLETT: Was there any advice to anybody that the impacts of that original referral could be inconsistent under the Ramsar obligations?

Mr Barker : There were comments that the department got on the referral itself that raised those issues. The issues were probably raised in a number of different circumstances, in the sense of issues around impacts on the wetland. There were a number of different levels and layers at which those issues would have been identified.

Senator BARTLETT: In amongst all those layers, where did it end up at?

Mr Barker : Sorry, I'm not—

Senator BARTLETT: You're saying there were a number of different layers where all those issues were identified, were they just all identified and then just never went anywhere?

Mr Barker : Essentially they didn't go anywhere because the proposal was withdrawn. There were issues the proponent itself raised in putting be referral forward, there were comments that the department got on the referral. There were communications the department itself sent to the proponent around the likely impacts of the referral; and that occurred as early as December, shortly after the proposal was referred at the end of November in 2015. Obviously those issues didn't reach a conclusion, because the conclusion would have been the first statutory decision on the project, which wasn't made.

Senator BARTLETT: Would the proponent have got an idea that perhaps it might not have been favourably received, and that's why they withdrew it?

Mr Barker : It was certainly identified for the proponent that there were significant issues around impacts, in relation to the footprint of the proposal being within the Ramsar site, and having impacts on the values of the Ramsar site. So that certainly was flagged with the proponent.

Senator BARTLETT: The new proposal also has impacts on the Ramsar site, does it?

Mr Barker : Yes, that's right.

Senator BARTLETT: I guess where I'm going with this is, as the minister said, having been there at the start and how this act actually works, if a proponent thinks this isn't going to fly, they pull it back before they get the official kibosh by whatever means. They find out about that, and just re-propose it again via another mechanism, which is what they'd done. I asked about the new proposal back in February—maybe you don't remember; I'm sure you have many things on your mind, but I did ask back in February. So the new proposal, what stage is that at?

Mr Barker : So a decision has been made that the new proposal is a controlled action, and requires further environmental impact assessment. So it's at the stage of, a decision hasn't been made yet on the tiering of the environmental impact assessment, because the proponent has advised that they're considering potential changes again to the scope of the proposal. So that decision hasn't yet been made.

Senator BARTLETT: And when's that likely to—a piece of string, I know, but a rough idea?

Mr Barker : I couldn't speculate, because it really is a matter for the proponent to confirm how it wants to proceed with the proposal. Essentially we're waiting.

Senator BARTLETT: You're waiting on?

Mr Barker : So we're waiting for the proponent.

Senator BARTLETT: To tell you what?

Mr Barker : To confirm how they're going to proceed with the proposal.

Senator BARTLETT: It's been around a long time, they still haven't told you the full details of what they're going to do? Is that what you're saying?

Mr Barker : They're changing the details.

Senator BARTLETT: Again?

Mr Barker : Well, potentially changing the details, and that's what we're waiting for confirmation about.

Senator BARTLETT: Sorry if I'm being obtuse. But you had the original one in 2015, and the new referral in 2017. This is being assessed under the new referral from 2017, but they still actually haven't told you fully what they're going to do yet?

Mr Barker : They've mapped out a detailed proposal for what they're going to do in the new referral, and it's different in degrees to the referral that the department received in 2015. The proposal was scaled back. For example, there were buffers from a high tide roost site for the eastern curlew and some other migratory birds that is adjacent to the proposed development. So there were changes of that type to the proposal that's currently being referred, and on which a controlled action decision has been made. So that decision has been made, and it will proceed to an assessment, but it's still waiting on some further information.

Senator BARTLETT: To go back to my original thinking about how the whole act works, you know it's controlled action and you have to assess it, but you still actually can't assess it—even though it's from 2017—because you haven't got all the details yet. Is that what you're saying?

Mr Barker : The way the act typically works is for information to be provided by the proponent, and the timing for that information to be provided is a matter for the proponent.

Senator BARTLETT: How long have they got?

Mr Barker : There is no time frame on proponents under the EPBC Act.

Senator BARTLETT: Who let that act pass? It was a terrible idea to put a time line on it.

Mr Barker : There are some proposals where proponents undertake a relatively expeditious assessment. There are other proposals where, for whatever reason, proponents take a more extended period, and that could be a period of years for them to develop an assessment and come back in with that information to the department. Again, there's no time frame for proponents to provide information.

Senator BARTLETT: So you just have to sit and wait.

Mr Barker : In this case the proponent has flagged they will be providing further information to us, so, yes.

Senator BARTLETT: Sometime.

Senator Birmingham: I think the officials have other work to get on with.

Senator BARTLETT: I'm not saying you have nothing else to do. However, you'd like to finalise these things, I'm sure, one way or another—maybe you don't. I'm sure you have plenty else to do. Given that, you can't really compare the 2015 version to the 2017 version, because you haven't got all the info yet.

Mr Barker : We can compare the versions that we have at the moment. There are differences of the kind that I alluded to earlier. So that is a comparison that could be made.

Senator BARTLETT: Do you think the proponent got a sense that their 2015 version mightn't fly, and that's why they withdrew it and pulled it back around?

Mr Barker : The department certainly did, as I mentioned earlier, flag significant issues to the proponent with what they had earlier proposed. They made their own judgement to rescope the proposal and re-refer it in response to the matters that were raised with them.

Senator BARTLETT: When they give you more info and they might get a sense again that it doesn't fly, they can just pull it back a bit, and we'll all be back here in 2019 with another version—that's the way it can work?

Mr Barker : Technically, it's a matter for the proponent as to how quickly they want to proceed with a proposal and whether they want to substitute it with another one or make variations as it proceeds.

Mr Tregurtha : If I can add to Mr Barker's answer, the department tries to work with the proponents to ensure that development proposals as they pass through the system are, if you like, approvable as possible in the sense that they are going to be acceptable from an environmental impact perspective. We take it upon ourselves to work with proponents and provide them the sorts of information that Mr Barker is talking about. It's certainly not unusual for proponents to withdraw a proposal once the department's had a conversation with them and then to re-refer a modified proposal that, hopefully, will be more environmentally appropriate from the perspective of the EPBC Act. That's certainly a standard operating procedure we have.

Senator BARTLETT: The proponent withdrew the original proposal—why? Did you give them a signal?

Mr Tregurtha : As Mr Barker said, we certainly discuss with proponents the environmental concerns that we have around those proposals at our earliest opportunity, so that basically it's a transparent process. It's not a case of, 'You give us your documents and then we'll wait and say suddenly no or yes.' It's more a case of, 'We'll work with you and we'll provide information,' to a proponent, transparently, and 'This is where we're heading with this particular assessment.' In those instances where there is the potential for significant environmental impact, we would certainly flag that with proponents so they are able to make their own business decisions around whether or not they want to continue with the process as they have referred it or modify the proposal if there are small changes they could make, or alternatively withdraw and submit a substantially revised proposal.

Senator BARTLETT: When you say it's transparent are you able to provide the communications you have—the proponent or the draft referrals you might have provided to the minister at the time?

Mr Tregurtha : Every referral we receive, as I indicated in my earlier answer, is made available for public comment, so that information is made publicly available.

Senator BARTLETT: Yes, I know the referral is made public. But, I guess, communications between you and the proponent, or the draft potential assessments between yourselves and the minister?

Mr Barker : We have received an FOI request in those terms to provide that information. We are in the process of going through that and providing that, at least in that case, to the person who has requested it.

Senator BARTLETT: It wasn't me, but, yes, that's interesting to note.

Senator RICE: I want to ask a few questions about the agriculture review and the EPBC Act. My first question is how did the review come about, which ministers requested that there be a review of the intersection of the EPBC Act and agriculture?

Senator Birmingham: That was a decision of the government as a whole.

Senator RICE: Where did it come from though? Whose initiative was it?

Senator Birmingham: I think, if my memory is correct, this was a cabinet decision, so it would have gone through the usual cabinet processes.

Senator RICE: How many landholders or agricultural stakeholders have taken the chance to make submissions so far?

Mr Edwards : The independent review is currently in the consultation period that started on 7 May and runs through to 15 June. That submission process is open for that entire period. We haven't heard a report back at this date from the independent reviewer about how many submissions she's received.

Senator RICE: So you have no indication at all?

Mr Edwards : There's certainly been submissions, but, no, I haven't been given a number at this stage.

Senator RICE: How many referrals under the EPBC Act have been made by the agriculture sector, say, in the last 10 years?

Mr Edwards : I've got some numbers here. It does get fuzzy over periods of time and about how you breakdown the sector. The figure I have is 78 referrals that we would attribute to the agriculture sector since the commencement of the act.

Senator RICE: When was the commencement of the act?

Mr Edwards : 1999.

Senator RICE: So 70 over the last 18 years?

Mr Edwards : Yes. But, I would put caveats around that figure, because, again, you have to distinguish between forestry activities, agriculture, agribusiness and a range of categories. To the best of my knowledge, that's the vicinity that we're looking at.

Senator RICE: Does that 70 include farm, forestry and agribusiness activities?

Mr Edwards : This is our best distinction between what we would call land-based agriculture in a proper sense. Trying to exclude some of the farm, forestry and large agribusiness developments that's the sort of ballpark we're looking at.

Senator RICE: How does that 70 compare with other land management sectors or industries?

Mr Edwards : It's relatively small compared to some other sectors. One of the key reasons there, of course, is that states and territories are the main regulators of agriculture activities, such as land clearing and so on. We have a lot of interactions with the agriculture sector. Not all those interactions convert to referrals under the act. But we do know that there's quite a bit of confusion and concern in that sector about when they do or don't need to interact with the EPBC Act. So, the figures are an indication of how many people have gone through to that process, but they're not a great indication of our interaction with the sector.

Senator RICE: But can you give me a comparison? We've got 70 compared with how many other referrals under the act?

Mr Tregurtha : There have been over 6,000 referrals since the start of the act. Certainly we would have to take it on notice if you're asking for a sectoral breakdown of all of those referrals, to draw out other sectors. We wouldn't have those figures with us tonight.

Senator RICE: But 70 compared with 6,000 is what we're talking about?

Mr Tregurtha : No. Those 6,000 include things like commercial developments, residential developments—

Senator RICE: No, but that's the—okay.

Mr Tregurtha : That's the whole pile. So, what I'm saying is that if you were looking for other land based sectors that impact on the land, like open-cut mining, for example, we'd have to take it on notice to see what the balance was across the relevant sectors.

Senator RICE: Okay, if you could, that would be good.

Mr Tregurtha : We're happy to do so.

Senator RICE: And given that agriculture covers more than 50 per cent of Australia's land, I think that 70 referrals would indicate that the agricultural sector is actually under-referenced or under-referred under the act.

Mr Edwards : It's hard to tell. One important distinction of the act is that activities that were already underway prior to the act do not need to be referred. If you look at agriculture, therefore, you get a range of obviously farming enterprises that would have been operating for a number of years, where there are not significant changes to those enterprises. It also brings in the level of significance. Individual farmers may of course have quite modest impacts. So, it is hard to say. To our best bet, we're seeing reasonable referrals. But, to my earlier point, we know that there's significant confusion in the agriculture sector about when they do or don't need to, so our interactions with that sector are much higher than that figure would suggest.

Senator RICE: Would you suggest, then, that an outcome of the review is probably that we need farmers to be better equipped to make a referral and to know when to make a referral?

Mr Edwards : I think that's a fair comment. I think from our perspective it would be great if we at least helped with clarity, but the independent review is obviously out talking to people at the moment and in large part trying to unpack the areas of concern, the rub points, for farmers. So, we're hoping we get some recommendations that'll be useful.

Senator RICE: Okay. I just want to draw comparisons. In Queensland in 2015-16 there was 396,000 hectares of forest and bushland that was cleared, 93 per cent of which was grazing for agriculture, killing an estimated 45 million animals, releasing 45 million tonnes of CO2, according to the Queensland government. Can you tell us how many referrals for federal approval for deforestation and land clearing for agriculture were made under the EPBC Act that year?

Mr Edwards : I'd have to take that on notice.

Senator RICE: Okay. I'm told that it was one, which was for Kingvale, which we've already been talking about today. Can you also tell me the total area of clearing subject to federal and environmental impact assessment in that year?

Mr Tregurtha : As I explained to Senator Urquhart earlier this evening, we undertake our assessments on a case-by-case basis and we don't have a collective figure to say how much clearing would be attributable across the scope of the act.

Mr Knudson : I would add one fact, and we can certainly pick this up when the climate change officials are here tomorrow. You mentioned that in Queensland there was 301,000 hectares of forest cleared last year—

Senator RICE: No, it was 396,000 in 2015-16.

Mr Knudson : That's the Queensland figure. Our figure is 301,000, and our calculations are that 88 per cent of that are regrowth. But I would note—and this is the interesting thing—at the same time, in that same year, there was over two million hectares of regrowth forest in Queensland. It helps to put it a proportion. You were talking about different proportions. I just wanted to make that point with respect to land clearing. There's actually been far greater growth than there has been clearing.

Senator RICE: Yes, but it's the clearing that is causing an estimated 45 million animals to die in the type of forest that's being cleared. But I will move on. In 2014-15, how many permits for so-called high-value agriculture granted by the Queensland government were investigated by the federal department but not subject to formal environmental impact assessment? You'll probably have to take that on notice.

Ms Collins : No. We assessed 59 permits that were issued by the Queensland government in the period 2014-15.

Senator RICE: So they were investigated. How many were subject to formal environmental impact assessment?

Ms Collins : Out of that, we advised that the act might apply to seven of those permit holders, and a number of those—I think there's four—have now currently referred their proposal. We also assessed that for 49 of those permit holders the act would not apply. And this is where my colleagues were saying earlier that the Queensland government's the primary regulator for land clearing in Queensland. We get involved in the assessments only if there are impacts on matters of national environmental significance and those impacts are significant.

Senator RICE: So it was only seven that actually then had to be assessed?

Ms Collins : For seven we advised that the act would apply. Of those, I believe four have currently referred.

Mr Knudson : As well as the—

Senator RICE: Again, compared with the number of assessments in other land sectors, in the thousands, we're talking pretty small numbers, aren't we?

Mr Knudson : No. That would cover, I would imagine, several hundred thousand hectares of land.

Senator RICE: I'm told that of the high-value ag permits investigated by the department in reef catchments there were only three that were formally assessed by the department. Is that correct?

Ms Collins : I think we've taken that on notice earlier in the session.

Senator RICE: How many prosecutions for agricultural deforestation and land clearing in Queensland have been initiated by the department since 2012?

Ms Collins : To my knowledge, I don't think we have done any since 2012 in Queensland.

Senator RICE: Right, so zero. I suppose the point I'm making is why there was a sense there was this huge regulatory burden when we've had such small numbers, actually, of referrals and formal investigations and prosecutions. Why do we need to review the regulatory burden?

Mr Knudson : Well, Senator, when you think—

Senator RICE: And on the other hand 45 million native animals were killed by clearing in a single year. Shouldn't it be the other way round—that we should be investigating why so much isn't being assessed under the EPBC Act?

Mr Knudson : I think, as Mr Edwards was talking about, a few of the things that we've definitely heard are, No. 1, there is a fair amount of uncertainty within the farming sector about when the act applies, when it doesn't, what their obligations are. And on top of that, if you think about your average farmer, it's hardly talking to BHP. They don't have a team of environmental officials and experts who can provide advice to the company about how to navigate the system. Generally you have individual farmers trying to figure out what they need to do, and part of that is the complexity of our process. Quite frankly, I can take a look at our threatened species advice or in particular our ecological communities advice, and it's quite difficult for farmers to determine whether that applies to them or not, and that's one of the things we want to try and clarify.

Senator RICE: I'm being called by RRAT, apparently, so I'd better go. Thank you.

Senator KENEALLY: Thank you for your patience this evening. I'd like to ask some questions about waste and recycling.

Mr Tregurtha : Senator, that's our session tomorrow.

Senator KENEALLY: Oh, I have been sitting here all night!

Senator Birmingham: And we have enjoyed your company!

Senator KENEALLY: You're breaking my heart!

Mr Knudson : If you'd care to ask the questions now, we'll be happy to come back and answer them tomorrow—I'm kidding, I'm kidding.

Senator KENEALLY: As Senator Urquhart is pointing out, we do have other questions, unless you tell me these are ruled out.

Mr Tregurtha : It's in outcome 1.6. I think it's tomorrow. The schedule currently has this at about 5.45 tomorrow.

Senator URQUHART: They keep changing it.

Senator KENEALLY: It's the national environment pollution measure?

Mr Knudson : Yep. That'll all be tomorrow at 5.45, program 1.6, on management of hazardous waste, substances and pollutants.

Senator KENEALLY: I've got a few more. I have waited some time to be knocked back!

Senator Birmingham: Here we go. Take two!

Senator KENEALLY: Clean air strategy.

Senator URQUHART: Is that 1.6?

Mr Knudson : Same one—sorry: that's going to be under climate change.

Senator URQUHART: What about giant pandas?

Senator KENEALLY: Giant pandas—please! Let me ask my questions.

Mr Knudson : It depends. If you're talking about wildlife trade in giant pandas, that's 1.4.

Senator URQUHART: Who knows about zoos? Is there someone here who knows about zoos?

Mr Knudson : That would be 1.4 as well. That is tomorrow as well.

Senator URQUHART: Ivory trade?

Mr Knudson : Ivory trade is also under wildlife trade, 1.4.

CHAIR: What a delight this evening has turned out to be! I'm sure you'll take no more than five minutes, Senator McKim.

Senator Birmingham: Ready to go any minute now!

Senator KENEALLY: No.

Senator URQUHART: Senator McKim is here waiting.

CHAIR: Three whole minutes.

Senator McKIM: For me?

CHAIR: Yes.

Senator McKIM: Well, I might get told that my topics are tomorrow as well. What about Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area management and rezoning and comments of the World Heritage Committee that are relevant to the TWWHA?

Mr Knudson : You are correct, Senator: it is another session.

Senator McKIM: You guys might get to knock off early!

Mr Knudson : It is also 1.4 tomorrow, where we are going to be dealing with natural, indigenous and historical heritage.

Senator McKIM: So all questions around TWWHA management, internal rezoning, funding given for tourism projects inside the TWWHA, and comments made by the World Heritage Committee would fit in—

Mr Knudson : That's all 1.4.

Mr Tregurtha : Just to be clear: if any of those projects are required to be referred under the EPBC Act, it would be our staff who would assess those projects—

Senator McKIM: Would that fall under this output?

Mr Tregurtha : which is this output.

Senator McKIM: I think I've found an in! I want to ask about the Lake Malbena proposal, which I understand is being assessed under EPBC. So I'm in the right place?

Mr Barker : For that proposal, that's correct.

Senator McKIM: I very much appreciate your assistance.

Mr Tregurtha : We'd rather do it in person than on notice.

Senator McKIM: So you only want to answer questions in this output with regard to the EPBC assessment of the projects?

Mr Tregurtha : That is correct.

Senator McKIM: Are you currently assessing the Lake Malbena proposal?

Mr Barker : Yes, we are.

Senator McKIM: Are you aware that the proposal that's been put up to your department differs from the proposal that was assessed under the Tasmanian government's RAA process in terms of the size and the number of structures?

Mr Barker : I'm aware that there was a general proposal that the proponent may have put forward in 2015. However, we are assessing the proposal as it has been referred to the department, which is for four standing camps on Halls Island in the lake.

Senator McKIM: Do you mean four structures?

Mr Barker : Sorry; a standing camp collectively but four structures.

Senator McKIM: Do you have the sizes of the structures that you're assessing there?

Mr Barker : Not off the top of my head.

Senator McKIM: Are you aware that the size of the structures in the proposal you're assessing is different to the size of the structures that the Tasmanian government has given approval for under its RAA process?

Mr Barker : As I mentioned, what we have is what has been referred to us, and what the state approves is a matter for the state.

Senator McKIM: Yes, but it would be interesting, would it not, if the same development, or the same proposal, were presented in different forms to two levels of government?

Mr Barker : I suppose it's a matter for the proponent. They might have a broader envelope of approval, for example, at the state level—I'm just speculating here—and then choose to seek federal approval for a smaller proposal. In a sense, that's what they are approved to do under the EPBC Act in relation to the likely impacts.

Mr Knudson : Senator, your point is of concern, quite frankly, in the sense that we don't want the proponent to end up with two decisions that they can't implement because they are for different things. Based on the information you've provided, I think we should follow up with the state government and the proponent to sort that through.

Mr Tregurtha : I should also mention, Senator, that it is standard practice for us to consult with state governments in relation to assessments and approvals, in which case we would certainly, as Mr Knudson said, in this case raise that with the Tasmanian government.

Senator McKIM: Thank you for that. Are you aware that the camp construction methodology in the proposal that's been submitted to your department breaches the parks and wildlife standing camp policy, which is that walls and roof have to be made of tent-style material, which is not the case in the proposal that has been referred to you.

Mr Barker : I think that is something that we will have to explore further. I am not aware of it.

Senator McKIM: Will you explore that further with the Tasmanian government?

Mr Barker : We will take that up with the Tasmanian government.

Senator McKIM: Does the proposal before you describe helicopter use for construction as well as to ferry in guests or is it just to ferry in guests or to fly in guests?

Mr Barker : I think I will have to take that one on notice. It does include helicopter access for guests but I'm not aware whether it includes helicopters being used for construction of the proposal itself. At this point in this assessment, however, we have sought further information from the proponents. They are yet to come back to us with further information about mitigation and management measures for those impacts. That is something we can ensure is undertaken as part of that stage we are at at the moment.

Senator McKIM: Is the department aware that the area of Lake Malbena and the island on which it is proposed to site this development had its zoning changed between when the draft management plan for the TWWHA was put out for consultation and when the final plan was announced? Are you aware that the zoning mysteriously changed and there was no explanation given for that?

Mr Barker : Senator, I'm not aware of whether the zoning changed or whether the mapping was improved in terms of the boundary between the wilderness zoning and the tourist zoning.

Senator McKIM: The mapping was very clear in the draft plan that this was in the wilderness zone and, once the final plan came out, it was in the, I think it was called, recreation zone.

Mr Barker : I should have prefaced this by saying that a decision hasn't yet been made about whether this proposal will trigger the EPBC Act as being referred, and the assessment is being undertaken at that threshold stage. Should the assessment proceed then the department would have to be satisfied that the proposal is consistent with the management plan as it is now.

Senator McKIM: I understand that, but I'm talking about the process that led to the management plan being as it is now. When the draft plan was put out for public consultation, this area was in the wilderness zone and therefore it wouldn't have been allowed to proceed. When the final plan was released, the boundary had mysteriously shifted.

Mr Tregurtha : Senator, in relation to this issue we will assess the project in relation to the management plan that is in place at the moment. If you've got more broad questions about the management plan that will be a different area.

Senator McKIM: I'll ask them tomorrow. Fine, I appreciate that. Do you believe you're assessing a standing camp or accommodation buildings?

Mr Barker : It is described as a standing camp in the details that have been provided in the referral. We are assessing it as described in what has been referred to as a standing camp. I appreciate there might be some differences of view about what a standing camp is, but I understand it's the temporary nature of the structures to be constructed on the island.

Senator McKIM: It's a hut and accommodation buildings of timber and steel and just doesn't sound very temporary.

Mr Barker : There's degrees, Senator, but that's the way it's been referred to.

Mr Tregurtha : Again, Senator, as part of the investigation at the referral stage, on which I presume we are seeking public comments on the proposal, that's already happened.

Mr Barker : We had the matter referred and it was put out for public comment for the initial 10 days, however, we had a number of public comments raised that the reserve activity assessment and some other matters were not provided fully by the proponent, so we have gone back to the proponent and asked for that information to be re-provided with some other information we have asked for. We have put up a notice on the department's website to indicate that we will put that out again for another period of public comment. That is yet to occur.

Senator McKIM: Thanks, Mr Barker, I appreciate it. We will come back tomorrow and have a broader discussion about the TWWHA management, but in the context of this proposal I'm happy for you to take this on notice. You said earlier that you had gone back to the proponent and asked for, I think, some further detail about the proposal. Is that something you would be able to provide publicly to the committee such as what further detail you've requested from the proponent?

Mr Barker : I suppose that would become apparent. When we get the detail back, we would publish it again on the department's website for that further period of public comment. Necessarily, the department would be satisfied that that further detail is responsible. We've asked for it and then it would go out for further comment.

Senator McKIM: If you're not satisfied that it responds to what you've asked for, that would be made clear by the department?

Mr Barker : We would wait until we had it and then we would publish that information.

Senator McKIM: Okay, thanks, I appreciate it.

CHAIR: Thank you. That concludes our consideration of all of the portfolio today. We will commence tomorrow morning at 9.00 am with environment and energy, starting with officers from Snowy Hydro. The committee is adjourned for tonight.

Committee adjourned at 22:46