Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek recently announced ‘stage 2’ of the government’s nature law reforms which includes the introduction of Environment Protection Australia (EPA).

The EPA is a new national regulator that will enforce Australia’s nature laws. It will have powers to investigate illegal bulldozing of our bush, hand bigger penalties to lawbreakers, and be responsible for assessing all new projects that might harm nature.

Today, the EPA bill was passed in parliament as part of the Albanese government’s proposed nature positive reforms and will now proceed to the Senate.

So how did we get here and what will an EPA achieve?

Here's a timeline:

  • Early 1990s: Early proposals for a national EPA. Initial establishment of an EPA which later became National Environment Protection Council.
  • July 2000: Nature laws were introduced. Since then, places we love like the Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed and thousands of plants and animals, like the koala and Gang-gang cockatoo are now at risk of extinction.
  • 2022: Albanese government’s Nature Positive Plan was announced to address the desperate need for updated nature laws in Australia.
  • End of 2023: Updated nature laws were meant to be introduced into parliament. Spoiler: It didn’t happen.
  • April 2024: Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced she was planning to proceed with what she called ‘stage 2’ of the government’s nature law reforms. Rather than the full package promised, ‘stage 2’ will include only a couple of the reforms needed – mainly the Environmental Protect Authority (EPA) to enforce nature laws.

ACF and other environment organisations have been advocating for an EPA for many years, and we welcome the government’s commitment to new laws establishing Environment Protection Australia. However, there’s work to be done to ensure that the EPA they are proposing is as strong and independent as it needs to be.

Gang Gang Cockatoo

The Gang-gang cockatoo is at risk of extinction

What do we want from an EPA?

Our current, broken nature laws are barely monitored and rarely enforced. Nature-wrecking miners and developers have exploited this for decades – destroying nature and robbing our future for their profits today.

An EPA – wielding powers to audit projects and slap ‘stop work’ orders on projects breaching conditions to protect wildlife and habitat, together with significantly increased penalties for breaches of the law as proposed – is a serious, new deterrence to those who seek to flaunt the law to harm nature. But more can be done to ensure that the EPA is the powerful new independent regulator nature needs.

Firstly, we’d like to see the EPA governed by a Board, rather than the single person CEO model the government is proposing.

Other things we’d like to see are an obligation on the EPA to respond to complaints about breaches of the law. This would:

  • Require the EPA to investigate all breaches of nature laws brought forward by the community.
  • Require the EPA to act on complaints of actions that destroy threatened wildlife habitat without seeking approval.
  • Ensure the EPA is responsive to requests to use powerful new Environment Protection Orders to step in and protect nature when someone is breaking the law.

These changes ensure that the EPA is an effective enforcement agency which is responsive to complaints and requests to act on contraventions.

The EPA must be fully independent. This means ensuring project proponents and the environment minister of the day cannot interfere with the EPA’s independent decision making and undermine nature and wildlife protection.

What's next for our nature laws?

An EPA is only as effective as the laws it's enforcing, and with the bulk of nature laws delayed by the government without any clear time frame for when they will be delivered we need a clearer commitment to when these urgently needed improvements to nature protections will be delivered.

A strong, independent and well-resourced regulator is critical so Australia can move beyond the present situation, where vested interests influence decision making and undermine nature protection,” said national biodiversity policy adviser Brendan Sydes.

“We believe the EPA is important for fixing longstanding issues with compliance and enforcement under the EPBC Act, however the government must go even further than they are currently proposing with their reforms.

“The government must listen and negotiate to strengthen the bills in Parliament to strengthen nature’s protection against bulldozing and climate harm immediately. The bulldozers won’t stop if the EPA is only enforcing our existing broken laws.”

With 144 plants and animals added to the threatened species list last year alone (almost three species per week!) nature can’t afford the rest of nature law reforms being put in limbo.

Grassland Earless Dragon. Photo: John Wombey/CSIRO

The Grassland Earless Dragon was added to the threatened species list in 2023. Photo: John Wombley/CSIRO

The government must deliver strong new nature laws in full as it promised to protect Australia’s threatened plants and animals and end the extinction crisis. The EPA is a good step to achieving this, but more work is needed to ensure Australia's unique natural wonders are protected for future generations.

Join over 500,000 people calling for strong new nature laws.

Brendan Sydes

National Biodiversity Policy Adviser