The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is Australia's main environmental law. It gives us a legal framework to protect and manage unique plants, animals, habitats and places. These include heritage sites, marine areas and some wetlands. The Act also protects listed threatened and migratory species.
Protecting our environment and heritage
The EPBC Act protects certain nationally significant (protected) animals, plants, habitats or places. We call these things 'protected matters'.
If you want to take any action on an area that the EPBC Act covers, you may need to refer the action to us for assessment.
We manage the environmental referral and assessment process for the Australian Government.
The EPBC Act covers 9 protected matters:
- world heritage areas
- national heritage places
- wetlands of international importance (listed under the Ramsar Convention)
- listed threatened species and ecological communities
- listed migratory species (protected under international agreements)
- Commonwealth marine areas
- Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
- nuclear actions (including uranium mines)
- water resources (that relate to coal seam gas development and large coal mining development).
The Act also protects the environment when actions are taken:
- on Commonwealth land or impact upon Commonwealth land
- by an Australian Government agency anywhere in the world
- that impact Commonwealth heritage places overseas.
The EPBC Act protects all these matters. This means that you must refer any action that may have a significant impact on any of these areas to the Environment minister.
We'll assess your action's impact, and the minister will decide whether to approve it
You can use our Protected Matters Search Tool (PMST) to check which protected matters your project might affect.
You can also check the EPBC Act lists of all protected matters, including:
- listed threatened species
- ecological communities
- migratory species
- marine species.
To learn what we mean by 'a significant impact', read the significant impact guidelines.
The EPBC Act protects our country's heritage. This includes:
- natural, historic or Indigenous places of outstanding national heritage value
- heritage places on or in Commonwealth lands and waters, or under Australian Government control.
- areas on the World Heritage List, or that the minister declares as a World Heritage property.
Once the EPBC Act lists a heritage place, we need to ensure we that protect and conserve it for future generations. This includes creating management plans that set out the significant heritage aspects of the place and how to manage it.
The EPBC Act also establishes a List of Overseas Places of Historic Significance to Australia.
Australia currently has 66 Ramsar wetlands listed as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
A Ramsar wetland is either an area:
- designated under Article 2 of the Ramsar Convention, or
- declared by the minister under the EPBC Act.
The EPBC Act protects Australia's Ramsar wetlands by:
- setting up the process to identify Ramsar wetlands
- encouraging best practice management through nationally consistent management principles.
Find out more about Australia's important wetlands.
The EPBC Act protects nationally threatened species and ecological communities by:
- identifying and listing species and ecological communities as threatened
- developing conservation advice and recovery plans for listed species and ecological communities
- developing a register of critical habitats
- recognising key threats
- where appropriate, reducing the impacts of these threats through threat reduction plans.
Anyone can nominate under the EPBC Act either a native species, ecological community or threatening process.
Protected species in Commonwealth areas
In Commonwealth areas, it's illegal to do anything that may result in killing, injuring, taking, trading, keeping or moving a member of a listed:
- threatened species or ecological community
- migratory species
- marine species.
You need to apply for a permit if you think your action might lead to any of these results.
Whales and other cetaceans
The EPBC Act protects all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in Australian waters.
The Australian Whale Sanctuary goes from the 3-nautical-mile state waters limit to the boundary of the Exclusive Economic Zone. This extends at least 200 nautical miles, and further in some places.
It's an offence to injure, take, trade, keep, move, harass, chase, herd, tag, mark or brand a cetacean in the Australian Whale Sanctuary without a research permit.
Migratory species are animals that either:
- migrate to Australia and its external territories
- pass through or over Australian waters during their annual migrations.
These animals include:
- birds such as albatrosses and petrels
- mammals such as whales
Australia has signed international conventions and agreements to protect many migratory species. These include the:
- Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention)
- China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (CAMBA)
- Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (JAMBA)
- Republic of Korea-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (ROKAMBA)
- Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP)
Listed migratory species also include any native species identified in an international agreement that the minister has approved.
The minister may approve this type of agreement if they're satisfied that it's relevant to conserving migratory species.
A Commonwealth marine area is any part of the sea that isn't state or territory waters, but is:
- within Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone
- over the continental shelf of Australia.
This includes the water, seabed and airspace.
The Commonwealth marine area stretches between 3 and 200 nautical miles from the coast. We recognise marine protected areas that have high conservation value.
Four of Australia's marine regions have marine bioregional plans:
- Temperate East.
The interactive Conservation Values Atlas helps us to implement these plans.
Find out more about Australia's marine reserves.
Read our policy statement Interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales.
The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem. It supports a rich array of plants and animals. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 established a marine park around the Great Barrier Reef.
This marine park stretches along the coast of Queensland, and is about 344,400 km2.
Protecting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), along with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, protects the reef.
The EPBC Act also recognises the reef as a protected matter.
This means you'll need to refer any activity that's likely to have a significant impact on:
- the environment, if the activity is within the marine park
- the environment of the marine park or other nationally protected matters, if the activity is outside the park.
Activities within the marine park may also need a GBRMPA permit.
The EPBC Act covers a range of nuclear actions, such as:
- establishing or significantly modifying a nuclear installation
- transporting spent nuclear fuel or radioactive waste products
- establishing or significantly modifying a facility for storing radioactive waste products
- mining or milling uranium ore
- establishing or significantly modifying a large-scale disposal facility for radioactive waste
- decommissioning or rehabilitating any facility or area in which one of the activities above has occurred
- any other type of action set out in the EPBC Regulations.
Proposed projects that involve the recovery of sands or rare earths may be a ‘nuclear action’.
The decision about whether a disposal facility is 'large-scale' depends on several factors, including the activity of the radioactive materials to be disposed of.
Since a 2013 amendment to the EPBC Act, water resources that relate to coal seam gas and large coal mining development are a protected matter.
The water trigger amendment means we must comprehensively assess the impacts on water resources from:
- proposed coal seam gas developments
- large coal mining developments.
In emergency cases (such as after flood events), the minister can issue an urgent exemption for emergency water discharge if it's in the national interest.
Water resources definition
We define a water resource for the water trigger according to the definition in the Water Act 2007.
Examples of water resources include:
- ground water
- surface water
- organisms and ecosystems that add to the physical state and environmental value of the water resource.
Significant impact definition
An action is likely to have a 'significant impact on a water resource' if it may lead to a change in either the water's:
- hydrology (how it moves and its quality in relation to land)
- overall quality.
The change needs to be enough to reduce, or risk reducing, the current or future use of the water resource.
Whether an action is likely to have a significant impact depends upon the:
- sensitivity, value and quality of the environment that's affected
- intensity, duration, magnitude and geographic extent of the effects.
The impact may result from one development action relating to coal seam gas or a large coal mine, or the combined impact of several actions.
To find out if your coal seam gas or large coal mining development may have a significant impact on a water resource, read our Significant Impact Guidelines 1.3.
The Independent Expert Scientific Committee advises the minister on coal seam gas and large coal mining projects that may need federal environmental assessment.
Coal seam gas and large coal mining development may also need assessment and approval under state law.
Get in touch
If you have any questions about what's protected under the EPBC Act, contact the Referrals Gateway team on:
- email: EPBC.Referrals@awe.gov.au
- phone: 1800 423 135