The federal government is investigating potentially illegal land clearing in the Northern Territory, where satellite imagery obtained by ABC suggests swathes of unique savannah have been cleared to make way for a cotton industry.

Officials declined to say when the investigation was first launched, but the investigation was confirmed following an investigation by ABC’s 7.30 this week.

A spokesman for the federal environmental department said it was working with the NT government “to determine if [land clearing] activities comply with the Law for the Protection of the Environment and Conservation of Biodiversity (EPBC), as well as with the legislation of the relevant Territory”.

Substantial penalties apply for clearing without approval in the case of significant impacts on threatened species.

Individuals can be fined nearly $1.5 million, while penalties for corporations reach $13.75 million and up to seven years in prison.

A woman speaks at a lectern
Tanya Plibersek says clearing puts enormous pressure on Australia’s native plants and animals.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said reports of extensive land clearing in the NT are “very worrying.”

“There must be serious consequences for anyone who does the wrong thing,” he told ABC.

A NT government spokesperson said the federal government had “previously sought advice” on approving the cleanup of one of the properties investigated by ABC, following a complaint they received from the NT Environment Center.

“The federal department has not informed the NT government of any additional or new investigation,” the spokesman said.

Ask for a wider probe

This week, Green senator Sarah Hanson-Young called on the federal government to launch an urgent investigation into the allegations, citing “deep concern” over the lack of response from the NT government and the regulations currently in place.

“So far, the NT government has failed to regulate and is instead paving the way for a major expansion of the cotton industry in this fragile ecosystem,” he said in a letter to Ms Plibersek.

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