Since the Davis aerodrome project in Antarctica was proposed in 2018 by the Australian government, there have been continuing debates about the potential environmental costs, as well as its geopolitical implications, in light of Australia’s sovereign claims to 42% of the frozen continent and its adjacent waters. The government has stated the proposed paved runway near the Davis research station will provide “reliable year-round aviation access to Antarctica” in addition to the existing ice runway at Wilkins aerodrome, which is only suitable in summer months.

What has so far been overlooked in the discussions, however, is how adequately Australia’s environmental legal framework applies to the assessment of the environmental impact of the Davis aerodrome project. In this regard, the findings of the recent Samuel Review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), published in late 2020, provide an opportunity for new analysis.

Australia has long proclaimed itself a leader in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) which has governed the continent for more than six decades. An indispensable part of this claim is advocating environmental stewardship. But against the backdrop of increasing incursion on Antarctica’s biodiversity, and the alarming expansion of the human footprint, the proposed aerodrome presents a conundrum: how can Australia credibly assert its leadership in maintaining the stability of the ATS while undertaking a project that carries significant risk of unprecedented, negative environmental and ecological impact?

First, we argue that the shortcomings of the EPBC Act identified in the Samuel Review will be exacerbated in the context of managing impacts to the pristine and fragile ice-free areas of the Antarctic environment, which is the site both of human settlement and of high concentrations of biodiversity.

The shortcomings of the EPBC Act will be exacerbated in the context of managing impacts to the pristine and fragile ice-free areas of the Antarctic environment.

Given the Davis aerodrome project is within Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT), the environmental assessment ultimately falls to Australian domestic law, which extends to the AAT. The environmental assessment for the Davis aerodrome project is regulated under the dual operation of the EPBC Act and the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980, which give effect to Australia’s obligations under the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection (aka the Madrid Protocol). 

The environmental assessment phase of the Davis aerodrome project is currently underway. The relevant process began under the EPBC Act with the referral of the proposal and the declaration that it constituted a controlled action, and is therefore subject to environmental assessment. During the environmental assessment, the Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation (CEE) will be produced. The terms of reference is a pivotal document in the CEE that can set the parameters for assessment and ongoing understanding of the environmental impact of the project. Both the referral and the terms of reference are critical in terms of establishing the scope, if not necessarily the depth, of environmental assessment. 

The Samuel Review has reiterated some of the systemic problems with the assessment process. There are limitations on when the assessment process is enlivened, and this does not resonate strongly with managing the effect of increasing the human footprint into ice-free areas.

Davis Station, Antarctica, January 2019 (Jeff Miller/Getty Images)

Moreover, a review of both the referral and terms of reference documents published by the Australian Antarctic Division shows that the focus is on assessing potential impacts on species included under various categories of Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES), rather than assessing the incursion on the ice-free areas in terms of habitats that represent concentrations of biodiversity. Consequently, the significance of the ice-free areas and the need for its protection is obscured.

This emphasis points to a gap between recognising the potential impacts on relevant species and delivering environmental outcomes. In accordance with the footprint understanding of environmental affects, the proper outcome should be protection of the integrity of the ice-free areas. The lack of an outcomes focus under EPBC assessment means that the critical relationship between species and preservation of space could be overlooked.

Second, we believe applying the EPBC Act to the environmental assessment of the Davis aerodrome may unintentionally enhance China’s strategic position towards the future of the Antarctic Treaty System, rather than counterbalancing it. China has been promoting a narrative of balancing the protection and use of Antarctica since the 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting hosted by Beijing in 2017 – shaping the environmentalism of the ATS towards sustainable use.

The geopolitical and security concerns of China’s proposed aerodrome project near Zhongshan Station within the AAT are real and undeniable. The EPBC Act, however, is legislation that aims to balance the development of land and the protection of environment in mainland Australia. Its application in the context of the Davis aerodrome would amount to the same narrative as China has proposed.

We suggest before carrying on a significant project such as the Davis aerodrome, the Australian government should improve its Antarctic-related legislation to ensure that environmental assessment is more sensitive to the unique Antarctic ecosystems. Building upon good domestic practice, Australia could then promote its best practice to be internationally recognised within the ATS. This approach would better support Australia’s Antarctic leadership in the long run.