The NT Supreme Court has ruled that a permit to clear more than 20,000 hectares of native vegetation at Maryfield Station southeast of Katherine is invalid. This outcome follows a landmark legal challenge by the Environmental Defenders Office NT (EDONT) on behalf of the Environment Centre NT.
The NT Environment Protection Authority (NTEPA) is established to protect our environment and makes important decisions in that role. The law sets out a process to safeguard the integrity of those important decisions. In this significant case, the NTEPA failed to follow the requirements of its own Act. The decision-making process, best characterised as a confused chain of emails, has been found legally invalid. As a consequence, the permit for the clearing – ultimately granted by the Pastoral Land Board (PLB) following the NTEPA’s flawed process – will now be set aside.
Our environment’s health and prosperity rely on good government and on decisions being made with rigour, careful thought and integrity. Given the importance of this particular decision, which led to the issue of the largest native vegetation clearing permit in the NT’s history, it should concern everyone that the decision-making process was undertaken so poorly.
“This is a significant and important decision of the Court. We are thrilled to have won this case on behalf of our client, the Environment Centre NT” said Gillian Duggin, Principal Lawyer for EDONT. “This judgment has serious consequences for how the NTEPA makes the important decisions which impact on the beautiful Northern Territory environment”.
The NTEPA’s failure should not be looked at in isolation. The government has also failed, by not providing the NTEPA with meaningful guidance in the law about how it should make decisions about critical matters like land clearing and climate change.
Ms Duggin stated “This is an important test case about the decision-making obligations of the NTEPA. However, it also highlights that there remain considerable deficiencies in existing law and policy around environmental assessment, climate change and land clearing in the Northern Territory”.
“The Government must now pass its draft Environmental Protection Bill, amended to include clear guidance and obligations about climate change. It must also progress its climate change strategy and offsets policy as a matter of urgency,” Ms Duggin said.
Shar Molloy, Director of the Environment Centre NT, said, “We thank the Environmental Defenders Office for helping us expose this serious failure of governance. The NorthernTerritory environment is special, that’s why there is deep community concern when they hear about a proposal for deforestation on such a large scale. We are reassured now that the Court has accepted our argument about the inadequate processes within the agency tasked with assessing environmental impacts”.
“Fortunately there is now an opportunity for the NTEPA to go away and consider this proposal properly and that must include asking for a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement, and one that includes a full assessment of the climate change impacts of a land clearing project of this scale.
“It’s imperative that we have strong laws about deforestation and climate change alongside more open process in making environment assessments,” said Ms Molloy.
This is a ground-breaking legal decision, given that this was the single largest land-clearing permit ever to be issued in the NT. The estimated greenhouse gas emissions from this permit would have been 2-3 million tonnes, about 15-20% of the Northern Territory's entire annual emissions. Those emissions are now in abeyance.