Exploration Authorities

Companies or individuals wishing to explore for coal or minerals in NSW must first obtain an authority under the Mining Act 1992. Exploration authorities include the following:

  • Exploration Licence (EL)
  • Assessment Lease (AL)

These authorities are approved and regulated by NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, Division of Resources and Geoscience.

For information regarding petroleum exploration (including coal seam gas) refer to Petroleum Exploration.

Land access

Before undertaking any land-based exploration activities, the authority holder must enter into a written access arrangement with the landholder.

Go to the Landholders & community section to read more about landholders' rights.

Exempted areas consent

Exploration in exempted areas requires the prior consent of the Minister for Regional NSW, Industry and Resources in addition to an access arrangement with any landholders. Approval of exploration activities cannot be granted until Ministerial consent has been obtained. Exempted areas include State Forests, State Conservation Areas and most other public lands.

The Mining Act 1992 defines an exempted area as an area constituted by land:

(a)  reserved, dedicated, appropriated, resumed or acquired for public purposes (except land reserved for a temporary common or a commonage), whether vested in the Crown or in any person as trustee for public purposes, or

(b)  held under a lease for water supply by virtue of a special lease or otherwise, or

(c)  transferred, granted or vested in trust by the Crown for the purpose of a race-course, cricket-ground, recreation reserve, park or permanent common or for any other public purpose, or

(d)  prescribed by the regulations for the purposes of this definition.

To apply for an exempted area consent, contact Resources Operations by phone on
+61 (0)2 4063 6600 or email: resource.operations@planning.nsw.gov.au

Is approval of exploration activities required?


Clause 6 of the State Environmental Planning Policy (Mining, Petroleum Production and Extractive Industries) 2007 (Mining SEPP) provides that mineral exploration (and fossicking) is development permissible without consent and is therefore subject to assessment under Part 5 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act). The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment is the determining and approval authority for all exploration proposals, other than those identified in Schedule 1, Clause 5 of the State Environmental Planning Policy (State and Regional Development) 2011.

An exploration authority (such as an exploration licence) issued under the Mining Act 1992 is subject to a statutory condition that the authority holder must not carry out an “assessable prospecting operation” unless an exploration activity approval has been obtained (sections 23A and 44A).

The Department’s approval process for assessable prospecting operations has been designed around the environmental assessment requirements under Part 5 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. When prospecting is proposed on a mining lease, reference should be made to the Department’s Fact Sheet Prospecting on a Mining Lease to determine whether approval from the Department is required.

Note: Prior to 1 March 2016 the obligation to carry out certain exploration activities was a condition of the authority.  In most cases the conditions of the exploration authority divided exploration activities into Category 1, Category 2 and Category 3 prospecting operations, with these categories having different activity approval requirements.  However, from 1 March 2016 the obligation to obtain an activity approval became a requirement of the Mining Act 1992 (sections 23A and 44A).  Therefore, regardless of what is stated as a condition of the exploration authority, an authority holder must not carry out an “assessable prospecting operation” unless an activity approval has been obtained.

Exempt Development

Certain exploration activities with minimal environmental impact have been identified as exempt development under the Mining SEPP. These minimal impact activities do not require further environmental assessment or approval prior to being carried out.

Under the Mining SEPP the following activities are exempt development, provided they are of minimal environmental impact:

  • the construction, maintenance and use of equipment for the monitoring of weather, noise, air, groundwater or subsidence
  • low intensity exploration activities, including:
    • geological mapping and airborne surveying;
    • sampling and coring using hand-held equipment;
    • geophysical (but not seismic) surveying and downhole logging; and
    • accessing of areas by vehicle that does not involve the construction of an access way, such as a track or road.

These activities can be undertaken without approval provided that they are on land that:

  • is not within an environmentally sensitive area of State significance; or
  • is within a state conservation area, but is not otherwise on land referred to in section 3 of the Mining SEPP as being environmentally sensitive area of State significance.

Assessable Prospecting Operations

All "assessable prospecting operations" require further approval from the Minister (or delegate) before they can be carried out. Assessable prospecting operation means any exploration activity that is not exempt development within the meaning of clause 10 of the Mining SEPP.

Exploration Activity Application and Assessment Process

Application Form and Lodgement

Applications for exploration activity approvals must be made using the Department's Form ESF4: Application to Conduct Exploration Activities (Application Form). The Application Form asks specific questions about the proposed activity, with the answers identifying the level of assessment required. The Application Form also identifies when additional supporting information must be submitted to satisfy relevant statutory requirements.

Note: For the purposes of conditions of some older authorities/titles, the Department's Application Form replaces the Surface Disturbance Notice (SDN) for the notification of exploration activities.

Assessment and Determination

For more information as to the requirements for obtaining approval to carry out activities refer to ESG5: Guideline for the Assessment and Determination of Exploration Activities.

The application process for exploration activities is summarised below.

Complying Exploration Activities (excludes petroleum)

In order to streamline the assessment process, a subset of activities requiring approval (being Assessable prospecting operations) have been identified as being unlikely to have a significant environmental impact if carried out in a particular manner. These activities are referred to as Complying Exploration Activities (CEAs). (Note: Petroleum Exploration is excluded from comprising a CEA).

A streamlined assessment pathway has been developed for these activities.

These activities can be assessed under the streamlined CEAs Assessment Pathway if they:

  1. satisfy location requirements set out in ESG5: Assessment Requirements for Exploration Activities
  2. satisfy the impact thresholds and criteria set out in ESG5: Assessment Requirements for Exploration Activities and
  3. can be carried out in accordance with the relevant Department's Codes of Practice for Exploration.

Non-Complying Exploration Activities

Applications to undertake Assessable Activities which do not meet the CEA criteria must be accompanied by additional environmental impact assessment information. The Application Form is structured to identify the specific additional supporting information required by the Department to facilitate the environmental assessment.

The additional information can be provided in the form of:

  • a Targeted REF#. A Targeted REF would generally be suitable for activities that only slightly deviate from one or more of the CEA criteria. The information in a Targeted REF only needs to specify the potential environmental impacts associated with the departure(s) from the relevant CEA location restriction, impact criteria, or management control; or
  • a Guideline REF# prepared in accordance with the Department's ESG2: Guidelines for Preparing a Review of Environmental Factors. This may be appropriate for activities which significantly depart from the CEA criteria, but are not likely to have a significant impact on the environment. A Guideline REF is required for all petroleum exploration activities; or
  • an Environmental Impact Statment (EIS) or Species Impact Statement (SIS). An EIS will be required for activities likely to significantly affect the environment, and a SIS will be required where the activity will be carried out in critical habitat, or is only likely to have a significant impact on a threatened species, population or ecological communities or their habitats.

# Note: An Agricultural Impact Statement (AIS) is required to accompany certain REFs where there may be an impact on agricultural resources or industries. In preparing an AIS, proponents should refer to Guideline for Agricultural Impact Statements at the Exploration Stage.

Exploration activities requiring approval under other legislation

Certain exploration activities may also require approval under other legislation, for example:

It is the responsibility of the authority holder to identify these requirements and ensure that all approvals are in place prior to commencing an activity.

Where to find information on activities that have been approved

All information relating to environmental activity approvals can be found in the DIGS Database.

DIGS Database provides access to a range of information relating to exploration and mining activities. Information on how to use the database is detailed in the DIGS User Guide.

Some useful tips when using DIGS:

  • to find information relating to Reviews of Environmental Factors (REFs) type REF in the Report Number field
  • the Tenement Name/Number field requires 4 digits to search. This means that authorities such as EL123 should be entered as EL0123


It is the responsibility of the Department to ensure that land disturbed by exploration activities is returned to a sustainable land use.

All authority holders are required to lodge a security deposit with the Department.  Departmental Policy ESP1: Rehabilitation Security Deposits states that the security deposit must cover the Government's full costs in undertaking rehabilitation in the event of default by the authority. This requirement is intended to minimise potential liabilities to the State in the event that the authority holder defaults on their rehabilitation obligations.

On receipt of each application for approval of an exploration activity, the Department will review the adequacy of the security deposit. Holders of authorities under the Mining Act 1992 will be required to submit a Rehabilitation Cost Estimate (RCE) with the Application Form to facilitate this review. The RCE is used by the Department to assist in determining the amount of the security, including when a potential change in rehabilitation liability occurs.

Refer to ESG1: Rehabilitation Cost Estimate Guidelines and the Rehabilitation Cost Estimation Tool, Rehabilitation Cost Estimation Tool Handbook and the Frequently Asked Questions for more information.

Site inspections and audits

The Department monitors exploration sites through inspections and audits to ensure compliance with legislative requirements, authority conditions and activity approvals. These may be carried out in conjunction and cooperation with other regulatory agencies.

Incident reporting

Reporting of environmental incidents is a requirement for all exploration activities. Refer to the Department's Guideline ESB28 – Environmental Incident Reporting Requirements.

The Department is responsible for investigating community complaints and certain environmental incidents. A range of compliance and enforcement mechanisms are available in accordance with the Department's legislative and policy framework including penalty infringement notices and, if required, prosecution. The enforcement approach to non-compliances depends upon the nature or consequences of the non-compliance and the previous performance of the authority holder, including responses to previous notices or sanctions.

For information on how a member of the public may lodge a complaint or report an incident, please refer to Complaints and incident reporting by the public.

From 1 July 2015, under the NSW Gas Plan, the Environment Protection Authority is the sole authority to regulate compliance with and enforcement of all conditions (excluding work health and safety) contained within petroleum titles. This includes any conditions imposed in relation to specific activity approvals.

The Department is responsible for regulating compliance for all other matters relating to prospecting titles/authorities under the Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991 and the Mining Act 1992.  The Department's approach to compliance and enforcement is set out in the Compliance and Enforcement Policy.

Authority renewal

To renew an exploration authority, holders must demonstrate that they are conducting their operations in an environmentally responsible manner and in accordance with the conditions of the authority. Authority holders must also demonstrate that rehabilitation is being carried out to the satisfaction of the Department. Renewal applications may be refused because of unsatisfactory environmental performance or because of failure to meet the conditions of the authority.

For more information about applying for a renewal of an exploration authority download form EL5 Application for Exploration Licence Renewal.

Rehabilitation and authority relinquishment

The Department requires exploration authority holders to undertake progressive rehabilitation over the life of the exploration project. Authority holders must demonstrate that rehabilitation has met the required standards. The Department has responsibility for determining when rehabilitation has met the required standard, prior to authority relinquishment and security deposit release.

Before relinquishing part or all of an exploration authority, the authority holder must demonstrate that all environmental obligations have been met and that rehabilitation has achieved the required standards.

The security deposit will be refunded once a Rehabilitation and Relinquishment Report has been submitted to the Department and the authority holder has demonstrated that rehabilitation has been completed to the satisfaction of the Department.

For more information about Rehabilitation and Relinquishment Reports download form ESF2 Rehabilitation completion and/or Review of Rehabilitation Cost Estimate (fillable form).

Read more in the Exploration and mining rehabilitation fact sheet [PDF 175 KB].

For further information