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Australia's native title laws causing delays, raising costs for exploration

Dean Smith, a Western Australia senator, believes that Australia's current native title process is inefficient and leads to lengthy delays and higher costs for explorers.

"Estimates are that heritage compliant costs, including native title access, can be as high as 10% of total exploration expenditure," Smith told delegates June 7 at the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies Convention in Perth, Australia.

"In addition, the scope and scale of fees attached to native title negotiations have escalated rapidly without any external oversight. These costs are borne before explorers and shareholders are able to determine whether recoverable mineral discoveries actually exist.

"This impacts the fundamental economic viability of exploration, with the greatest impact on smaller exploration companies and prospectors."

The Native Title Act was introduced in 1994 and requires explorers to negotiate with traditional owners to secure access to land before an exploration permit can be granted.

According to Smith, the introduction of the act more than doubled the time it took to obtain an exploration license.

"Prior to 1994, the average time taken for the grant of an exploration license in Western Australia was 205 days," he said. "After 1994, the average time increased to 542 days."

While approval times are back down to around 200 days, Smith said it can take months, sometimes even years, for explorers and traditional owners to reach an access agreement.

In Western Australia, about 85% of the state is subject to either a native title claim or has received a Federal Court determination that recognizes the existence of native title rights.

"Today, there are 79 currently filed native title claims in Western Australia on top of 60 native title determinations, comprising over 50% of the total land area," Smith said.

Just under half of all native title claims in Western Australia were filed more than 15 years ago.

Since the introduction of the Native Title Act, more than 90% of all future act applications have been made in Western Australia, and between 2014 and 2015, 92% of all future objections lodged with the Native Title Tribunal were based in Western Australia.

"Significantly for us in Western Australia, 48% of those objections remain unresolved, which means activities cannot be undertaken — activities such as mineral exploration that are a necessary precursor to resource development and future employment growth in our state," Smith said.

"Protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage is important and is a necessary aspect of exploring and mining in our country, but we should no longer be timid in starting a debate that highlights that the current native title regime process is inefficient and is resulting in unnecessary delays leading to higher costs of exploration."