States and territories are generally responsible for land use, water, pollution control and air quality. However, you may need environmental approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (EPBC Act). You'll need to submit a referral if your project could impact any matters protected under the EPBC Act. A referral is a written request for the Environment minister to decide whether the action you propose needs assessment and approval under the EPBC Act.
Step-by-step guide to the referral and assessment process
On behalf of the Environment minister, we administer environmental approvals under Parts 7 to 9 of the EPBC Act. This helps to protect threatened animals, plants and habitats, as well as Commonwealth areas and Heritage places.
Our step-by-step guide explains what happens before, during and after an environmental assessment.
Watch our videos for simplified overviews of:
Not all projects go through all these steps. For example, the minister might decide that your project isn't a controlled action. This means it won't need environmental approval to proceed as you've planned.
The EPBC Act protects 9 matters of national environmental significance:
- declared world heritage properties
- national heritage places
- wetlands of international importance (listed under the Ramsar Convention)
- listed threatened species and listed ecological communities
- listed migratory species (protected under international agreements)
- Commonwealth marine areas
- Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
- nuclear actions (including uranium mines)
- water resources (concerning coal seam gas and large coal mining development).
The Act also protects the environment when projects or developments (actions) are taken:
- on Commonwealth land, or when they impact upon Commonwealth land
- by an Australian Government agency anywhere in the world
- that impact Commonwealth heritage places overseas.
We call all these things 'protected matters'.
Learn more about what's protected under the EPBC Act.
If your project is likely to impact any protected matters, it may need to be assessed. You can refer your project to us for assessment by submitting an online referral form.
Read on to find out how to decide whether to refer your project and to see the entire referral and assessment process.
To help decide whether to refer your project, you'll need to gather relevant information, do a self-assessment and decide whether to meet with us.
2.1 Start your self-assessment
You need to analyse whether your project could significantly impact the environment or protected matters.
Begin by checking which plants, animals, habitats or places are in your area of interest. You can use our Protected Matters Search Tool (PMST) to find out.
The Species Profile and Threats Database (SPRAT) provides information about the listed threatened species and habitats identified in the PMST.
You'll also find guidance on species and habitat-specific at Data and publications.
To understand whether your project's impacts on protected matters may be significant, read the Significant Impact Guidelines 1.1 and related guidelines.
Learn more about doing a self-assessment.
2.2 Decide if your project may impact protected matters
- If your self-assessment indicates that your project will likely impact a protected matter, you'll need to submit a referral. It's helpful to discuss your project with us, especially how you'll design it. Book a free pre-referral meeting.
- If you're unsure, meet with us at a pre-referral meeting to discuss your project.
- If you're sure that your project won't impact a protected matter, you may choose not to refer it. You must keep a copy of your self-assessment documents to send to us if we ask for them. Check with your state and local authorities about other approval requirements.
2.3 Meet with us to discuss your project
We highly recommend booking a free pre-referral meeting with an assessment officer early in the design of your project.
You don't legally need to book this meeting, but it will help you to understand the assessment process.
Doing your self-assessment before the meeting will help to make the discussion effective.
At the meeting, we'll:
- discuss your project
- outline your responsibilities under the EPBC Act.
However, we can't legally tell you whether:
- to refer your project
- you'll receive an approval
- you'll have conditions to comply with
- you'll have to provide environmental offsets.
We won't know this until we've assessed your referral information.
Afterwards, we'll email you a record of our meeting.
2.4 Make your decision
If you're still unsure whether your project will significantly impact a protected matter, contact us for more advice.
Referring your project is the only way to have legal certainty.
- To submit a referral, go to Step 3.
- If your project is likely to impact protected matters but you choose not to refer it, you may face a fine or other penalties. Read actions without approval.
If you decide to refer your project, you'll need to take certain steps to help the minister decide if your project needs to be assessed. Prepare your information, complete the online referral form and submit it through our business portal.
3.1 Prepare your information
- Allow up to 18 months if you need to collect information.
- Pay any relevant fees.
Before submitting your referral, you'll need to prepare supporting documents. Both your preparation and our process can take some time.
- You may need to do surveys that can only happen at certain times of the year.
- You may realise you'll need to provide new information after the pre-referral meeting.
Plan early, and speak to us if you need advice.
Please provide as much clear, relevant information as possible to support your referral.
- A map of your project with a clear legend and date.
- Recent data and surveys (less than 5 years old).
- Details of consultation with First Nations people and communities.
- Details of consultation with members of the general public.
- Other reports and studies, for example, cultural heritage studies.
- A recent report from the Protected Matters Search Tool (PMST).
View the EPBC Act referral form preparation guide. You can't use this guide document as your referral. You must apply online.
EPBC Act referral form preparation guide (PDF 513 KB)
EPBC Act referral form preparation guide (DOCX 711 KB)
Make sure that you answer every question in the online referral form.
3.2 Submit your referral and make declarations
When you've prepared your referral documents, submit them through the EPBC Act Business Portal, and complete all declarations.
At this point, we'll ask you to pay the referral fee. Cost-recovery fees apply unless you're exempt or we grant you a waiver. Learn more about fees, exemptions and waivers.
After you submit the referral, it won't appear immediately on the All referrals tab of the EPBC Act Business Portal. We need to review it first. We'll contact you if you need to make any changes. Then we'll tell you when it's been published.
- Pay the referral fee if applicable.
- Fee waiver decisions can take an extra 20 business days.
- We may ask you to update your information.
3.3 Minister considers your referral
- 20 business days, plus any extra 'stop the clock' time.
- Stopping the clock incurs a fee.
There is a mandatory public comment period for all referrals. Learn more about periods of public comment.
The minister will consider your information and any public comments before deciding on your referral.
We may ask you for extra information about your project. If this happens, we'll 'stop the clock' on our standard turnaround time. The time won't resume until you've sent what we need.
For example, imagine it takes you 2 weeks to send us the extra information. The clock would stop for those 2 weeks, so our total time would extend by 2 weeks.
3.4 Receive the referral decision
Once the minister decides, we'll tell you their decision.
Under the EPBC Act, the minister can make 5 types of decisions on referred actions.
If it is a controlled action, your project will need formal assessment and approval before you start.
- If your project is a controlled action, it will require formal assessment.
Before the assessment, we'll:
- tell you which method of assessment we'll use for your project
- give you a customised list of fees you'll need to pay unless you're exempt or we've granted you a waiver.
- Pay the fee, if applicable, before we start assessing your project.
If your project is a controlled action, you'll need to take certain steps before the assessment begins. For example, send us any extra information we ask for, pay fees if applicable. You may also have to respond to public comments and revise your assessment documents.
- Each method of assessment takes a different amount of time. Ask your assessment officer how long yours might take.
4.1 Send us extra information if we ask
- This time depends on which method of assessment we use and how long it takes you to send any extra information.
You'll need to send us all the extra information we request. You can't publish your draft assessment documents until you do.
- Pay any relevant fees.
4.2 Publish your draft assessment and invite public comment
- Public comment periods are at least 10 business days.
All assessments have a period of public comment at this stage. In most cases, you'll invite those comments.
When it's time to publish your project information for public comment, we'll explain how to do it. Learn more about periods of public comment.
4.3 Respond to public comments
- Notify us if you do or don't receive any comments.
Review all the comments you receive.
Update your assessment documents, showing us how you've considered and responded to any public comments. Send the documents and comments to your assessment team.
We can't assess your project until we have your final documents.
4.4 Publish your final assessment documents
We'll tell you how and when to publish your finalised assessment documents.
Your information will be available for the public to view, but there's no public comment period at this stage.
This is when we'll start formally assessing your project.
- Pay any relevant fees.
You'll need to review and respond to the minister's proposed decision before you receive their final decision.
5.1 Receive the proposed decision
- 15 to 25 business days, but times vary depending on the method of assessment.
- Stopping the clock incurs a fee.
We'll 'stop the clock' if we ask for extra information during the formal assessment. The time won't resume until you've sent us everything we request.
Our proposed decision will outline the minister's planned final decision. We'll also send any conditions that you would need to comply with if the minister is likely to approve your project.
The proposed decision won't usually be available for the public to view.
5.2 Respond to the proposed decision
- You will have 10 business days to respond.
We'll invite you to comment on the minister's proposed decision and any conditions.
We'll also invite comments on the proposed decision from other ministers. The minister may decide to make the proposed decision publicly available, but this is not usually the case.
- Discuss the proposed decision with us as needed.
5.3 Receive the minister's final decision
- 30 to 40 business days from when we start the formal assessment. Times vary depending on the method of assessment.
We'll send you a copy of the final assessment decision notice and publish it on the EPBC Act Public Portal.
The minister will either:
- approve your project
- refuse your project.
If the minister approves your project, the decision notice will include the details of your approval and any conditions.
If they don't approve your project, you can't go ahead. However, you can redesign your project and submit a new referral.
Now your project is approved, you will need to meet any conditions we have set to stay compliant with the EPBC Act.
6.1 Ask us any questions
After the minister approves your project, we'll send you a letter about your obligations and how you can contact us.
Ask us for advice on meeting your conditions of approval at any time throughout the approval period.
6.2 Submit required information or plans
Conditions of your approval may require you to submit extra information or plans, such as an:
To remain compliant with the EPBC Act and your approval:
- do not start your project until the minister approves your plans
- implement any plans the minister approves
- implement any plans the way they've been approved.
- We may ask you for extra information.
6.3 Tell us when you start
Notify us in writing when you start your action. Your approval may define what 'start' means for your specific project.
6.4 Keep meeting your obligations
Comply with all the conditions of your approval for the entire approval period. If you breach any approval conditions, you may face civil or criminal penalties.
If your project or situation changes, contact us.
You can't change your action after the minister has approved it. If your action changes, you may need to submit a new referral.
Learn more about approvals and making changes.
Shared assessments with states and territories
The Australian Government has assessment bilateral agreements with all states and territories. These allow states and territories to assess some projects under the EPBC Act. The Commonwealth Environment minister uses a state or territory's report to decide whether to approve an action. Learn more about state and territory assessments.
Strategic assessments are a collaboration between the Australian Government and an assessment partner. They allow for a big-picture approach to safeguarding protected matters from the impacts of development over a long time. Learn more about strategic assessments.
Projects referred to us for assessment usually include strategies to avoid significant impacts on protected animals, plants, habitats and places. If you can't avoid such environmental impacts, you may need to offset any residual (remaining) significant impact. We'll let you know what you need to do during our referral and assessment process. Learn more about environmental offsets.
Get in touch
Contact our Referrals Gateway team:
- Email: EPBC.Referrals@dcceew.gov.au
- Phone: 1800 423 135 between 9am and 5pm AEST/AEDT.