Actions that are likely to have a significant impact on protected matters (including nationally significant plants, animals, ecological communities, and places) are required to be assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). As part of the assessment, the person proposing the action can propose an offset, which compensates for any residual significant impact.
Advanced environmental offsets are where an improvement to a protected matter is made now for use as an offset in the future. In most cases this will be through improving habitat for listed threatened species or communities at a specific site. Although in some cases it may be possible for other offset types (see direct and indirect offsets) to be used as an advanced offset.
In most cases, management of an offset site to compensate for the impacts of an action (such as clearing protected plants) occurs after proposed actions are approved. However, advanced offsets are commenced before an approval decision has been made.
Usually, an offset is delivered after an action is approved but before any impacts occur.
If you intended on undertaking a project that will have a significant impact on bilby habitat, you would need to refer the action under the EPBC Act. Your project would then be assessed by the department.
You may be asked to provide an offset if you are unable to avoid or mitigate your residual significant impact, see mitigation hierarchy.
If the minister decides to approve your action, then they may impose a condition of approval requiring you to deliver this offset by protecting and improving a different at-risk bilby habitat.
This might involve purchasing some land with bilbies on it, fencing it to remove feral animals such as cats which prey on the bilby, and securing it as a nature reserve. You do all this after your approval is granted.
Advanced offset example:
As an alternative, if you realise that you are likely to impact bilby habitat in the future you could establish an advanced offset or purchase an existing advanced offset, provided it has not already been used for another project.
An advanced offset is one that you can not only put in place before you start work on your proposed action, but where environmental benefit has been realised before you refer the action or receive approval for it.
Just like in the previous example, this might involve purchasing some land with bilbies on it, fencing it to remove feral animals, and securing the land as a nature reserve. If you then record an improvement in the quality of the habitat for the bilby and an increase in the number of bilbies at that site, you may be able count this as an advanced offset for your future action.
The key point of an advanced offset is that the offset is implemented in advance of any impact. Providing an advance offset means:
- the delay between the impact and the environmental compensation is reduced
- there is more certainty that environmental outcomes will be achieved; and
- there may be a decrease to your offset liability.
Regardless of when the offset is delivered it must provide an environmental benefit for the protected matter that has been, will be, or is likely to be, impacted.
Key benefits of advanced offsets
Better environmental outcomes
Advanced offsets can provide better environmental outcomes, as they are put in place before the impact happens. This allows time:
- to find the best offset
- to test management activities
- for improvement to the quality of the offset to begin to occur before you have an impact elsewhere.
Reduced offset size
Advanced offsets may reduce the overall area of offset required, leading to reduced costs. This is because an advanced offset reduces the time until the required environmental outcomes are achieved.
When calculating the size of offset required, the time between the impact occurring and the offset achieving its aims factors into the equation. Generally, the longer an offset takes to deliver, the larger the offset will need to be. If the time until ecological benefit is reduced to zero, the size of offset required is also likely to reduce.
An advanced offset provides increased confidence that outcomes will be achieved as there has been time to see the effect of the management measures and address any failures. This will again factor into offset calculations, with an increased confidence in result usually leading to a smaller offset.
Advanced offsets can reduce the time taken to complete the EPBC Act assessment process and get an approval, as the availability and location of a suitable offset is known.
How do you determine if an advanced offset is suitable?
The minister’s decision on whether an advanced offset is suitable and compensates for impacts on protected matters will be based on how the offset proposal aligns with the policy principles outlined in the Environmental Offsets Policy.
The environmental outcomes of the advanced offset will be assessed by understanding the benefits to the protected matter impacted by the proposed action, compared to a scenario where the offset was not put in place.
For example, the assessment may compare the quality of a patch of listed threatened ecological community on the advanced offset site against the quality it would have been today had no offset been delivered.
As with all offset proposals, the suitability of an advanced offset can only be formally considered and accepted through the EPBC Act assessment and approval process.
The minister will not be able to approve an advanced offset separate from approving the action for which it will be used under the EPBC Act.
If you intend to commence an advanced offset it is important to speak to the department, to guide you through the process and explain how and when it can be used. The department will also be able to provide you with information on activities that could not be considered for an advanced offset, such as those which are already required under other legislation (see “offset policy principle 6” in the policy principles.
To be considered suitable for use as an offset for an action assessed under the EPBC Act an advanced offset proposal must:
- include one or more sites and/or activities, dedicated to protecting or managing a protected matter after 16 July 2000 (following commencement of the EPBC Act). The protected matter must also be the same as that which is being impacted by the action.
- be accompanied by information to enable a clear assessment of the environmental outcomes that have been, or are likely to be achieved, because of the offset.
- clearly show that the environmental outcome is more than what is expected under other planning regimes, legislation, schemes or duty of care. For example, if the area was already required by law to be free from weeds, weed control measures would not count towards the offset, but planting new habitat trees might.
Advanced offsets and landholders
It is not only developers and offset providers that can develop advanced offsets. It is possible for a rural landholder, Indigenous corporation or a conservation organisation to establish an area of land suitable for an advanced offset and sell the environmental outcome to a developer. This allows developers to focus on their core business and pay other organisations to deliver offsets on their behalf. It also provides an incentive and income stream for landholders to protect and manage protected matters.