In a landmark ruling, the Northern Territory Supreme Court revoked a permit to clear more than 20,000 hectares of native vegetation at Maryfield Station, southeast of Katherine. This decision came as a result of a powerful legal challenge by EDO on behalf of the Environment Centre NT.
Land clearing is a threat to vulnerable Australian wildlife, and a significant driver of climate change.
In a legal first, the Environment Centre Northern Territory (ECNT), represented by the EDO, challenged a permit to allow the clearing of more than 20,000 hectares of Northern Territory native vegetation at Maryfield Station, including on climate change grounds. The successful case demonstrates the community’s ability to hold governments to account for their decisions.
Maryfield Station lies 200km southeast of Katherine. North Star Pastoral was granted a permit to clear 20,431 hectares in 2017 for planting pasture and grazing stock. This was the single largest land-clearing permit ever to be issued in the Northern Territory. The estimated greenhouse gas emissions from this permit would have been 2-3 million tonnes, about 18.5% of the Northern Territory’s entire annual emissions.
Environmental Impact Assessment not required
The Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority (NTEPA) exists to protect our environment and its decision-making obligations and processes are set out in law.
In this case, the Pastoral Land Board (PLB) had referred the proposed clearing to the NTEPA to assess whether an environmental impact assessment (EIS) or public environmental report (PER) was required under the Environmental Assessment Act (EA Act), given the size and scale of the proposal.
In late October 2017, the NTEPA Chairperson wrote to the PLB indicating that the project did not need assessment under the EAAct.
The PLB granted a permit for the clearing in November 2017. However, the permit did not apply conditions that had been recommended by the NTEPA in its letter to the PLB, including a requirement for a Biodiversity Management Plan and a trial clearing area.
In early 2018, ECNT, represented by EDO, launched a legal challenge against the decisions of the NTEPA and the PLB.
In the case, EDO argued that the NTEPA failed to follow the requirements of its own Act (including by not holding a vote on the decision) and that the NTEPA did not lawfully consider whether the land clearing would have a significant impact on the environment in terms of its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
This was the first case to challenge a land clearing approval on climate change grounds in the Northern Territory. It is also the first time the decision-making processes of the PLB and the NTEPA under this legislation have been challenged in the Northern Territory Supreme Court.
The Court found that the NTEPA had not made its decision by a majority vote of its members, as it was required to do by law. As a consequence of ECNT’s legal action, the permit for the clearing was set aside in September 2019. The proponent subsequently withdrew their permit application, which would have been open for the NTEPA and PLB to re-determine.
While the court did not address the climate change grounds in the judgment, the invalidation of the permit means those greenhouse gases have not been emitted.
EDO Northern Territory is the legal entity acting in this case. EDO Northern Territory agreed to merge with EDO Ltd in 2019.
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