(Bloomberg) -- Australia plans to set up an independent regulator to hold business to account over environmental breaches. 

The Environment Protection Agency will audit companies — including in the nation’s crucial mining and energy sectors — to ensure they are complying with regulations, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said in a press release. It will be able to issue so-called stop-work orders to those breaking the law, and through courts issue maximum fines of A$780 million ($500 million) and prison sentences of as long as seven years.

The move follows an audit ordered last year that found about one in seven developments may not have properly compensated for the impact they were having on the environment, Plibersek said. The government, which came to power just under two years ago promising to end the nation’s reputation as a climate laggard, is seeking to slash emissions and protect the environment while sustaining its multibillion-dollar resource exports. 

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Mining and natural gas extraction account for just over an eighth of Australia’s gross domestic product. Some companies have said the new body will create another layer of bureaucracy and lead to further delays in approvals as Australia already has similar watchdogs at state and territory level. 

“If the Federal Government gets it wrong, better environmental outcomes are at risk, and the ongoing economic contribution of the sector’s existing operations and A$93 billion in future Western Australian investment projects and associated jobs are threatened,” said Rebecca Tomkinson, chief executive officer of The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia. 

A 2020 government review found the time to decide whether to approve new mines and projects had blown out to an average of 1,013 days. Australia will allocate A$100 million to speed up environmental approval decisions, including on renewables and critical minerals, Plibersek said Tuesday.

The EPA will also be responsible for enforcing other federal laws including wildlife trafficking and the dumping of waste at sea. The government will also set up Environment Information Australia to improve access to data and publicly report on progress toward environmental goals, it said.

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