House debates

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

6:26 pm

Photo of Janelle SaffinJanelle Saffin (Page, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak in strong support of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013. It is a bill that is needed to give protection to our water resources. I live in an area—though my seat is called Page—called the Northern Rivers, a part of the North Coast, and that speaks volumes. That is what we are trying to protect. There is prime agricultural land. That is what we are trying to protect. And this bill gives scope to actually do that.

There is all sorts of mining, but we are talking about coal seam gas mining. That is the province of the state, because onshore petroleum resources, constitutionally, reside with the states. There are some environmental powers that we have federally, and it has been a conversation that I and the member for Richmond, and the member for New England, I know, and other members in this place such as the member for Lyne have been having with the minister for the environment for quite some time, to look at ways in which we could add that protection that was not happening through the state based regulatory regime.

One of the things I would like to say in addressing some of the issues that the honourable member for Parkes raised, about the state based scheme, the federal scheme and all that, is: coal seam gas in New South Wales almost snuck up on us. We had a company, Metgasco, come to my area some time ago, and we all thought: 'Great—we are going to have natural gas.' People associate that with cleanness, and they thought, 'This is good. This is a good thing in our community,' where they were going to be, in the Richmond Valley. I said, 'That's great. This will work.'

Then, when we discovered, after some time, that it was not natural gas, and we started to ask questions about it—'Okay, so you're going to do coal seam gas mining; what is that? What impact will that have?'—and we were not getting answers, locals started to get worried. So did local farmers. Some farmers have said yes, but you have very few rights, under the way the state based scheme works, to say no. But some of the farmers did say yes, and now some of them are worried because they are looking at some of the science that is in on coal seam gas mining and unconventional gas mining.

I first became alert to it when I read the National Water Commissio's position statement on coal seam gas mining, which they put out in 2010. It was updated in 2012, when they said that basically what they said in 2010 stands. They articulated 11 principles that should be followed—adhered to—if this coal seam gas mining is going ahead. Not that they said it, but from what I read you would not do it. If you were applying the precautionary principle—which we should to our water and to prime agricultural land—you would not do it.

I then read the CSIRO publication on water, and it addressed different sectors and areas right across Australia. There is a section in there—to memory it is chapter 10—that deals with coal seam gas mining and large coal mining. Again, it states quite clearly that they do not know some of the impacts on water and the aquifers, and that there are other issues. So why would we do it if there are groups like those saying that?

Now I will move to the next part of the story. A lot of locals in my area were starting to get worried. The worry came from farmers, because it was farming land and farms that the coal seam gas companies wanted to go onto. The farmers came to see me and started talking about it. And there were local environmentalists and other locals who were worried about it.

Most of the people in local government in my area have come out saying that they do not want coal seam gas mining. And that is unusual. At the time, I had meetings with locals and I said, 'This has the potential to be the rare earth.' In Lismore, many years ago they wanted to set up a rare-earth plant, and thousands of people took to the street in Lismore and marched against it. There were thousands of local people who said, 'No.' Back in 2010-11 I saw that coal seam gas had the potential to be a 'rare-earth' issue.

I met with the gas companies—I met with them here—and talked with them. You have heard a lot about social licence. That is something I spoke about to the gas companies. I said, 'You have to earn that. Yes, you might have a legal licence to explore. Then if you want to go into production you go through another process to get your approvals to do the exploitation and production. But you also have to live in a community, be in a community and be welcome in that community.' It is clear in my community that those companies are just not welcome. It has been a very fraught issue for a lot of people. All sorts of people have been involved.

The honourable member for Parkes was talking about farmers and saying that they would be the ones who would feed the world. From the evidence—the science and the literature—that I have looked at to date I think that farmers will not be able to. If coal seam gas mining goes ahead on their land they will not be feeding anyone; they will not even be feeding their families, let alone feeding the world. That is just nonsense.

The honourable member for Parkes also talked about the National Farmers' Federation. In essence, he was saying that they were against the bill. I have their media releases; everybody here would have them. Their media release of 12 March said:

While we certainly agree with the intent of the bill—

That is hardly speaking against it—

which is to see greater scrutiny and scientific rigour around coal seam gas and mining developments where they may impact on our water resources, we have significant concerns about the potential for this bill to be extended to agriculture in the future …

The minister said at the time that it was bizarre, and I said, 'That's a bit out there.' I must admit I attributed the quote to Duncan Fraser when I was speaking on the Country Hour. It was actually Jock Laurie, so I will correct that here, on the record, but it was in the NFF statement. In their statement the NFF go on to say a lot about water. They have been consistent in that.

I have here the NSW Farmers media statement of 12 March on the bill we are debating now. The statement says:

Fiona Simson, President NSW Farmers, said: "We have consistently stated strong regulatory frameworks are required to place sensible limits on mining and coal seam gas activities."

"Farmers right across New South Wales have been calling on the NSW Government to deliver a more rigorous assessment process for mining and coal seam gas proposals.

"It is not surprising the federal environment minister has seen a need to step in ...

And the media release goes on. That media release was from NSW Farmers. They are embracing the action that had to happen. So it was good to have both positions put there.

I would like to say a few other things about what has happened at state level. I have said in media interviews on the radio—I have been saying it since 2010; I have been talking about coal seam gas since then and working with my colleague the honourable member for Richmond on this—that it was as if we were caught unawares. We have state based regulatory systems that are predicated around large open-cut or underground mining. And we do not have those systems modernised for mines in our backyards. I call it 'mining in your backyard'. Who wants mining in their backyard? I do not want mining in my backyard. People in my area do not want mining in their backyards. I make no apology about that.

I got asked on Country Hour: 'Is this a NIMBY?' and 'Why are you doing this?' I said, 'I'm representing my local people, who are really worried about this.' Also, I do not want sinkholes in my back yard, due to the effects we have seen of some mining. But my primary concern was always water, given everything I had read about water.

Another issue that has been raised in our area is property values. Real estate agents have told me, right across the Northern Rivers, that when people find out that coal seam gas mining licences have been issued in particular areas, they do not want to know about property there. They go away. It is certainly one of those issues that scares people.

I want to turn to a couple of other issues. I did note comments by the Woodside CEO in the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 March. The CEO, Peter Coleman, was asked a question in response to something that the previous CEO, Don Voelte, had told a business forum. He told a business forum that he wanted his six-year tenure to be remembered for his decision to stay out of CSG. He said:

Come back and check four or five years from now—I think one of the greatest things I will have achieved is not taking my company into coalbed methane.

Asked about the comment, Mr Coleman said:

Don showed wonderful insight.

The article goes on. That is clearly one big company that everybody knows and which has stayed out of that area.

We have another issue and it is to do with health. People are concerned about the impacts on their health. But I come back to water. One of the things that worries people is that a huge amount of water is extracted in the process. If you read the extra work that the National Water Commission did beyond their position statement on CSG, it is well documented. It is a large amount of water. Our systems will not be able to cope with it. That is the way I am reading the science so far.

We have the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and we now have the independent expert scientific committee, which we all agree is a good thing. It would have been great if that had been set up in 1999 when the act came into being. We would have had a lot of baseline studies done that we do not have now. All of this activity is taking place, but we do not have the baseline studies. That is what we are trying to get to. This amendment will give at least some additional protection around our water.

It is a huge debate. It is a debate that we need to have about a modern regulatory framework, particularly at state and territory level and where the federal government is involved around resources. Anyway, we are having the debate incrementally and we are trying to step in where the state has not been able to give that protection.

Another issue that comes up is the impact this will have on gas prices. If you do the research and read up, you will know that gas prices have risen in recent times. In Western Australia, they have gone from $2.50 to approximately $8 per gigajoule, and that is in just a short time. We expect that in eastern Australia it is now rising. One of the things people say is that it is because we are going to stop coal seam gas mining, but the steep rise has very little to do with the increased cost of production or trying to stop coal seam gas mining. It is a consequence of the burgeoning LNG export industry. There are many documents on this. It is to do with the on-selling of the gas for export. A lot of it will be sold and it goes up in price. That is reflected back to us domestically and we end up with a higher price. Even if you read the Prime Minister's manufacturing task force report of the non-government members, you will see it in there.

A whole lot of issues have been raised about this. Issues have been raised with me by people in my community. I say that this is a really good amendment to provide some protection to our water resources. Like a lot of these issues, the work in progress will continue. I commend the minister for the work that he has done on this and for listening to us—listening to my community and listening to the community of the member for Richmond—and making sure that we have this additional layer of protection around our water resources. I commend the bill to the House.


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