House debates

Monday, 17 September 2012


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012; Consideration of Senate Message

4:41 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That Senate amendments Nos (2) and (4) to (13) be disagreed to.

These amendments make a number of changes, which I do not think any member of this House saw coming, and were the consequence of a rather surprising unity ticket that Senators Heffernan and Nash formed with the Greens. In that surprising unity ticket that they formed in the Senate they did the opposite of what I am hearing members of the coalition argue should happen to my legal powers. We have just had a week where we have had significant debate as to whether or not my legal powers over the marine environment should be extended. But nothing that the government put forward to this House last week matches the extent to which the Senate are now asking and inviting me to expand the authority of national environmental law.

When the government, together with the member for New England, went to a lot of work to determine how we could improve the quality of scientific work that would inform environmental decisions, the principal concern raised by the member for New England and which the government signed up to, was to make sure that the quality of our research into water was as good as it possibly could be. For that reason we determined to establish an independent committee and we also established to fund, and significantly fund, that independent committee.

The Senate have decided that that work, which I can direct the committee to do, not only should be about water and water and water resources, but should actually be about land and its use. So, effectively, forget all the arguments that coalition senators are making in the Senate right now about whether national environmental law should be expanded. What they did last week was provide an overarching interest for national environmental law in pretty much every land-use decision that is made whenever you have a coal seam gas or a coal mining project.

They are significant decisions and they are decisions that matter a lot to local communities. They are decisions over which we have no federal constitutional head of power, so the legal challenges would come thick and fast, and they would win. It is an area where it has nothing to do with any environmental decision that I might subsequently make. So we end up with a situation where we send an expert scientific committee off to do scientific work on land-use decisions, which can go into anything such as council zoning which could be a land-use decision, and all this work gets done and comes back and is, in fact, irrelevant to the environmental decisions that get made at the end of it. What possessed Senators Heffernan and Nash to sponsor this in the other place is beyond me. But I want to make clear that while I appreciate the compliment from the Senators involved and from the coalition over there that they would like me to have an interest in pretty much every land use decision in country New South Wales and most of southern Queensland, we really do not think it is an appropriate policy to go down the path of. So I am hoping for a calmer and more sensible response from the coalition in this place than we got from the coalition in the other place.

There would be uncertainty about what is meant by land and its use. It would completely blow up the agreements we have with the states. I cannot imagine Queensland and New South Wales for a minute having anything to do with the National Partnership Agreements if we said we were now going to have federal oversight over every land use decision they made. It would be reasonable for them to reject it because it is something that is within their province. It is core business for state governments to be making these calls. There will be times when we think they make them the wrong way and people will use the parliament to make speeches about it and to rally against state decisions when we think they have done these jobs poorly. But it is not something that is the province of national environmental law, nor should it be so. It would massively increase the work of the committee. What is generous and required funding in the order of $150 million plus a further $50 million for scientific research would immediately overnight become grossly inadequate if we now had to get to the bottom of every land use and planning decision.

I appreciate that there can be some good local politics on this issue but, in policy terms, what the Senate has thrown up is something that we would not go near. It is contrary to everything I have heard from the Leader of the Opposition—once he backed off on how far the law should go on land use. I really do commend all members to join the government in rejecting these amendments.

4:46 pm

Photo of Ian MacfarlaneIan Macfarlane (Groom, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the minister for his comments and his cooperation on this issue. The coalition has at all times supported the formation of the independent expert committee. I think it is essential in this sometimes controversial space that we give communities, landholders and those interested in the environment the confidence that we have people with expertise on the job to make sure that anything that is done in the extraction of coal seam gas or coal is done with the protection of particularly the aquifers but also the productivity of the land.

4:47 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I hope that this House does agree to these Senate amendments. I can enlighten the House as to the rationale for them. The Greens have been campaigning for some time on the question of potential impacts of coal seam gas not only on water but on land and on communities as well. There have been a number of groups campaigning because of the concern about the massive expansion, largely unchecked, of coal seam gas we have seen in this country.

The Greens proposed a number of ways of going further than this bill goes but we did welcome it as a first step. We commended the work done by the member for New England to bring this about. There were a number of issues we raised in the other place to improve the bill. One of them—where working with others succeeded—was on the question of what happens when salt is brought to the surface of land when coal seams are dewatered to get the gas to flow. We were concerned that issue was not something that was going to be considered by the committee that would have been established.

An amendment was successfully moved in the Senate to expand the remit of the committee. It would not expand it into a vastly new area but would be very much connected to the question of water. We were pleased the amendment was agreed to by a number of Independents and members from other political parties. I note that Senator Heffernan and Senator Joyce in the other place were very active on this question and were the driving forces behind getting their side to agree to this amendment.

I am very concerned that now the bill has come back here to this place that the coalition will change its position. Because, unless these amendments are agreed to, the committee will not be able to look at some very important water connected but land based impacts of CSG including salinity as well as climate impacts and impacts on farm operations from surface infrastructure.

The amendment came out of an attempt to address a very real problem and the coalition understood those arguments in the Senate. It would be very concerning if the rationale behind that suddenly changed now that is has been brought back here. I could speculate on why that might be and whether it is a case of coalition senators being prepared to go to the bush and say one thing yet when it comes to the question of how they actually vote when legislation comes back here, the leadership team says, 'You can go and say whatever you like, but, when it comes to the way we are going to vote, that is not actually how we are going to vote.' If that was the case, that is the inference that people would be entitled to draw about the coalition's concern on the question of coal seam gas because this amendment was successfully passed in the Senate with their support—and we congratulate them for that. I hope the coalition reflects on this and that these amendments are insisted upon here in this House.

4:51 pm

Photo of Tony WindsorTony Windsor (New England, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The Senate played a similar game with this issue on another occasion where there was an attempt some years ago now to move an amendment to the 2007 Water Act that actually put in place a clause that before exploration licences were granted that the appropriate bioregional assessment processes be put in place. That was supported in this chamber by the coalition, and then supported in the Senate by the coalition, and then recanted the next morning. So I am not surprised that this issue does have some sensitivity. If you read the speeches of that particular debate that night you would see that the claims that you had to be a member of the National Party to achieve something in this particular area, and the next day they all recanted on the demands on the Minerals Council. But I think there are people in this chamber, including the shadow minister I might add, who have better heads for what is practical in terms of these particular issues. I will be supporting the government in its initiative.

In terms of the salinity issue, if Senator Heffernan and the others had taken the time to actually look at the legislation and the accompanying documents, the national partnership agreement, that goes with it—and the cases that the member for Melbourne just raised—they should be aware that the salinity issue can be looked at without much risk at all. In fact, part of the national partnerships approach does include the capacity to have bioregional assessments that the independent scientific committee that we are talking about. Bioregional, by its very nature, means more than water; it means the impact of water on the bioregion and the cumulative impacts of mining and coal-seam gas, agroforestry or any other activity on a particular region.

This was supported back in 2008 by the Minerals Council environmental officer, a lady called Melanie Stutsel. They actually called for a bioregional process to be put in place before exploration and production licenses were granted—for very good reason: so that the mining industry would actually know where it was more than likely it would have success if it in fact spent a lot of money exploring. It would be able to be assured of some likelihood of success, or would not go there if in fact the bioregional assessment process indicated that either the one-off mine or coal-seam gas industry venture, or a cumulative number of ventures in a particular region or catchment. It would have some clarity as to its likelihood in terms of being able to get that process up and running.

A lot of those processes are state related—I think we are all aware of that—and there are concerns. I am very concerned in New South Wales, for instance. Only last week the New South Wales government announced its aquifer interference policy and its strategic land use management policy, which has received enormous disregard from the community, part of which is in my electorate, where people are very concerned. I know the minister, the shadow minister and many other ministers and shadow ministers have been to parts of the Liverpool Plains. There are similar issues on the Darling Downs. There are issues in the member for Parkes' electorate, in that magnificent plain country between Balata and Moree, the Edgeroi area—right through that country. There are very valid issues. It is not, as occurs from time to time, the sort of NIMBY effect—'I want this to go ahead, as long as it's not here'. There are significant issues that we do not know about in terms of water, particularly, and the relationship that groundwater has (extension of time granted), particularly in terms of heavy metals and run-off et cetera; or the relationship that surface water may have with some of these mining or coal-seam gas activities, which, if based on a floodplain, will at some stage be affected by flood—otherwise it would not be called a 'floodplain'!

I think that is where Senator Heffernan, Senator Joyce and others come from in their concerns about land use and soil. So I do not suggest that they are not well-intentioned on that particular issue. But the minister has made the point, I think adequately, that those jurisdictional issues are very much at a state level and would blow—and that may have been their intent—apart the capacity to have the states and the Commonwealth coming together in a national partnerships agreement that they have to actually set up an independent scientific committee which has, as part of its powers, the capacity to put in place bioregional assessments of catchments which can in fact catch some of these other issues. Even if they did not, I think the issues that member for Melbourne raised in terms of salt coming up from a coal-seam gas well, for instance, and impacting on land are important. There are a number of clauses in the national partnerships agreement. There are also a number in the establishment of the independent scientific committee that indicate that, in those sorts of circumstances, it would obviously be covered.

The other issue that I want to raise is about the New South Wales government's proposal. I raised this during question time, but I will take the opportunity again to raise it with the minister. There was an agreement with the New South Wales government, the Queensland government, the Victorian government et cetera. They have signed off on the national partnership agreement that does give certain powers to the Commonwealth, and certain shared powers between the states and the Commonwealth. One of the issues that has always been there is that, to comply with the national partnership agreement, the states have to put in place a set of protocols to address some of these issues. There are even clauses that may well provide for the states to actually legislate to have those protocols put in place.

I asked the minister in question time today, and I ask him again—and I do not know the answer to this, so I am not trying to play some sort of political game; I just want to get to the bottom of this—to have a very serious look at the aquifer interference policy and the strategic land use policy that have been announced, as well as this so-called gateway process that various industry groups may have to go through to gain acceptance at a state level. Are they considered as addressing the protocols that were demanded in the national partnership agreement? My understanding is that they do not have any significant—if any—legislative backing; they are essentially a policy, which could go anywhere. So the question again to the minister—and I do not expect him to answer it today, but I think it is important that people in my electorate and others have a clear view of this by the end of the week—is, what does that actually mean in terms of the document that has been signed? What does it actually mean in terms of the bioregional assessment process and the way in which the independent scientific committee can bear upon that by way of recommendation? And what does that mean in terms of outcomes from that process?

I think Senator Heffernan has been reported—and I consider myself a friend of 'Wild Bill'—as saying that it is a 'toothless tiger'. I would hate to think that he is trying to subvert that process, as the Senate did once before, because it is a very important process. People are demanding some objectivity in terms of the science of these processes. People—in my electorate, at least, and I think I speak for other areas as well—are not opposed to these industries going forward in certain areas, as long as the precautionary principle and the objectivity of science is clearly there—and this process would allow for that. (Time expired)

5:01 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank those members who have contributed to this debate on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill. I can confirm to the member for New England that in relation to the issues he raised during question time I commenced a process, on returning to my office, to get more information on the direct interaction and to make sure that the New South Wales principles sufficiently meet the expectations of the Commonwealth. And I am not sure if it has been communicated to the office of the member for New England yet, but I have also instructed that a briefing be made available for the member this week so that officials are able to directly update him and also answer questions back and forth. I do respect the long-term interest he has in making sure we get the science right on this issue and making sure that the state governments meet the expectations that we would hope.

I should also flag for the benefit of members that, if we are successful in having the House disagree with the amendments that are before us, then the next thing I would do after that vote is move some alternative amendments that deal with the issue of salinity. I know some members have been questioning whether or not that will occur, and I want to leave all members of the House in no doubt that it will.

Effectively, there have been a number of occasions now when I have been encouraged to make decisions without having, completed and in front of me, the best-quality scientific information that I would want. I am grateful for the work the member for New England has done to make sure that, in relation to the impact on underground water of coal seam gas and large-scale coalmines, scientific work is now being done, well in advance of individual applications coming forward. It provides a much better base for decision making. When people ask, 'Is it a toothless tiger?' I would say: knowledge never is. This is about making sure we get the knowledge and we get the information.

I was in a similar situation when the Queensland government in the Alpha dispute wanted me to make decisions without full surveys and without my taking into consideration all the information I needed to be able to make a proper environmental decision. While as late as yesterday the Deputy Premier was whingeing about delays, I make no apology for making sure that we get the information before we make the decisions. The debate we dealt with on the supertrawler last week was no different. If the answer to significant questions is simply, 'Well, we haven't studied that bit of it yet,' then I want a better answer before we hit time in order to be able to make a decision.

I commend these amendments to the chamber. Hopefully with the amendments that follow we can meet some of the concerns that are out there in communities without embarking on the pathway of deeply questionable policy that somehow possessed unexpectedly a few members of the coalition in the Senate.

Question agreed to.

I move:

That the amendments set out in the schedule circulated to honourable members be made in place of the Senate amendments which have just been disagreed to.

(1) Schedule 1, item 2, page 3 (line 29), after "water resources", insert ", including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(2) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 17), after "water resources", insert ", including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(3) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 23), after "water resources", insert ", including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(4) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 2), after "water resources", insert ", including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(5) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 5), after "water resources", insert ", including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(6) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 9), after "water resources", insert ", including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(7) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 13), after "development", insert ", including from any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(8) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 17), after "resources", insert ", including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(9) Schedule 1, item 6, page 7 (line 15), after "area", insert ", including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity".

(10) Schedule 1, item 7, page 7 (line 20), after "water resources", insert "(including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity)".

(11) Schedule 1, item 10, page 8 (line 8), after "resources", insert "(including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity)".

The amendments I am proposing now clarify a few things. First of all, they clarify that I must obtain advice from the committee when I believe a coal seam gas or large coalmining development will have a significant impact on water resources, including but not limited to the impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity.

Salt production and consequent salinity impacts are major issues in considering coal seam gas and large-scale coalmining proposals. Salt and related salinity impacts may arise from co-produced water during coal seam gas development, including aquifer interactions and groundwater and surface water diversions from large coalmining developments. They are therefore relevant considerations in working out whether these developments will have a significant impact on water resources. The amendments make it clear that the coal seam gas Committee will have to consider the impact of salt production and/or salinity.

I have to say, I do not view these amendments as producing anything significantly different to what we already had. I am not sure how you can take into account the impact on a water resource without taking into account the impacts on salinity. It would be a strange study of a water resource that managed to ignore the issue of salinity, but I am told that this will help us with Senators! So I am moving it.

5:06 pm

Photo of Ian MacfarlaneIan Macfarlane (Groom, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

The coalition will be supporting these amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012. Obviously, as we mentioned in the earlier debate, it is important that the level of confidence in the community on this issue of coal seam gas is raised. We do have confidence in the expert panel. During the passage of the legislation in relation to the establishment of the expert panel the minister agreed that there would be people on the panel with expertise in certain areas, and those people have been nominated already.

The coalition does support the coal-seam industry, where it does not impact on underground water and on the quality of land and its productivity. It goes without saying that there has been a huge economic boost to rural communities. I say to those people who oppose the coal-seam industry, regardless of what it does to ensure that it is protecting the environment, that they should go out there and have a look at communities that, during my 57 years of life, have done nothing but go backwards. I always quote the example of the property I farmed single-handedly, and the one next door that I also farmed single-handedly, prior to leaving active farming. When I was a boy those properties employed seven full-time-equivalents and, as I said, I managed those properties by myself.

So if you wondered why rural communities were dying, it was not because their productivity was falling—in fact it is going up. It is just that you do not need the people out there in rural communities. The other half of the story is that when I left my district and moved to Toowoomba the school actually came with me—they put it on the back of a truck and it is now out at Glenvale School. In the district where I grew up, where my daughter went to school and where my sister and brother went to school no longer exists.

If we are serious about reinvigorating rural communities, we will not just do it with agriculture and tourism. We need active industries out there. The coal-seam industry has injected 7,000 jobs into Queensland in three months, predominantly in rural areas. While we do have to be extraordinarily careful with this industry to ensure that we protect our long-term legacy, we should with one hand be guiding and steering it and ensuring that protection, but with the other hand we should be thanking it for the economic contribution it is making to areas I genuinely thought we could never save, in terms of their communities and the facilities available in them, and of course in terms of the economic value to the state—about $1 billion worth of royalties. And, of course, with everything like this the inevitable taxes go to the Commonwealth, which I certainly support being paid in this instance.

I support the minister's amendments. The coalition will be supporting them.

5:09 pm

Photo of Tony WindsorTony Windsor (New England, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I also support the amendments, although, as I alluded to earlier, I do think that a technical amendment is superfluous to the arrangements. But, nonetheless, if it helps people clarify what the words mean it is a positive thing.

The member for Groom, the shadow minister, made some important statements—I though the school following him was quite interesting! He talked about the reinvigoration of communities. There is no doubt that in certain areas that is happening, and no doubt there are other parts of Australia where mining and coal-seam gas are having negative impacts on communities. Also, there is the fly-in-fly-out issue, which is being looked at at the moment. There are ebbs and flows and positives and negatives.

But the one thing that the scientific committee, the National Partnerships agreement and people's genuine concerns express is that they do not want to rush in to some of these things. I am opposed to the people who are just opposed for the sake of being opposed. I do not agree with those people at all. There has to be an objective process that makes a determination that people on all sides can have some faith in. Regrettably, in New South Wales—I cannot speak for Queensland, although I think there are some aspects of it there—the community has had very little faith in the decision-making process, particularly when it is applied to some of the more sensitive lands that have groundwater and surface water issues, productivity issues and perhaps even salinity issues.

I physically live 800 metres from a coal mine, and I hope to live there for a long time. It was a coal mine 80 years ago, too, and new people came along and wanted to open it up and get into other seams. I was one of those people who actually encouraged it, back in about 1996, when I was a state member of parliament. I do not come from a perspective where I am anti these things. In my view there are plenty of areas where mining can take place and there will be very little impact on water resources, whether it is ground or surface water flows. All human activity has some impact. We are not going to get away from an impact-free world. What I have been arguing is that some of these more sensitive areas should be sussed out before we make decisions.

There is a lot of talk about the importance of the coal-seam gas industry. In fact, the gas industry themselves were running ads in New South Wales that in known deposits there was something like 5,000 years of gas for powering a city the size of Sydney. If this is the case, couldn't we just wait a little while, if that much is known now? It is not an energy security issue that is going to paralyse the city or the state. We need some more objective science in terms of the sensitive areas.

Essentially, the debate that has been going on for many years now. I congratulate people like Tim Duddy, on the Liverpool Plains, and people like the Namoi Catchment Management Authority, which regrettably has been politicised since the change of government. Those people were the forerunners. The minister is well aware of the water study that was part funded here and part funded by the industry—the shenanigans that have gone on with that as to who will have access to what.

I agree with the member for Groom that it is very important to reinvigorate our communities, but it is very important that we do not desolate them in the future. If we make major decisions in the absence of objective science, whether it is through salinity, poor floodplain management or the mixing of a whole range of aquifer waters, irrespective of how it happens, if we run that risk you cannot reverse it. We have to be very careful to err on the side of certainty. The precautionary principle should apply. There is plenty of gas and coal there in other deposits. (Time expired)

5:15 pm

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I will just speak very briefly. I want to put on the record the importance of this legislation and welcome the news that it does look like it will pass this chamber with some minor amendments. I would like to congratulate, in particular, the member for New England. There are a couple of us who stood on our digs through the mining resource rent tax issues of last year, but I certainly acknowledge the lead of the member for New England in making sure this change was considered as part of that process so that we are now seeing a very real and material outcome as a consequence of those negotiations.

I know there are plenty of people who say plenty of things about minority governments. I know there are plenty of views within political parties about how difficult the parliamentary chamber can be to get passage of legislation through. This is yet another example of the importance of allowing more than just an executive voice in the decision-making process. This has allowed the community voice that was very loud but struggling to be heard into the process and for the executive to respond in what I think is some sensible legislation that has recalibrated the balance for some legislation that was all about large-scale mining and coal seam gas mining at the expense of independent science in the process and at the expense of the community voice and concerns around loss of amenity within that process.

I am comfortable that we have taken some steps forward with this legislation. The concern now is whether there is the investment from both the Commonwealth and the states in using this legislation in the intended spirit of the negotiations between the Commonwealth and the states and between crossbenchers and government. That is the next chapter in this. I congratulate organisations like the various farmers' bodies, the New South Wales farmers, the Country Women's Association, who stood on their digs and stood outside parliament for the first time in their 90-year history over this topic, and the various other bodies. I also acknowledge Adam Bandt, the member for Melbourne, representing the Greens in the chamber.

This has been an unusual coalition, but it has been a coalition that gives a damn about land, the land sector, the next boom for Australia, which is food production, and making sure that community amenity and community voice is not lost in the chase for taxes and royalties in harvesting resources. I also thank the minister in the chair for listening to that and for driving a sensible process. In planning terms, it has been pretty quick to turn this around in six months. It is appreciated. Now I challenge the minister to make sure it is used appropriately. If the states fall out of line and do not listen to the scientific advice, we will have to revisit this to make sure those community concerns are heard and respected in the future.

5:18 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all contributors to the debate. I acknowledge in particular the contributions from the crossbench and the high level of community passion that the members there are representing. There was some doubt as to whether or not these amendments had been fully circulated in advance. Just to ease that, I formally present the schedule of amendments and the accompanying explanatory memorandum. I would urge all members to support the amendments. If any of you know a coalition senator, please talk to them and let's just get this thing moving.

Question agreed to.

There were two amendments moved within the Senate that I think we should agree to. I move:

(1) Clause 2, page 2 (cell at table item 2, column 2), omit the cell, substitute:

(3) Schedule 1, item 4, page 4 (line 30), after "qualifications", insert "or expertise".

The first of these amendments deals with the fact that when we sent the legislation across to the other place we thought they had plenty of time to get it through so that the starting date could be 1 July. It is now clear that they have not approved it by 1 July this year and so, with that in mind, we have changed some words to allow it to commence on a date to be fixed by proclamation with the proviso that if the provisions do not commence within the period of six months beginning on the day the act receives royal assent they then commence one day after that period. That needed to be tidied up simply because of the delays in the Senate in dealing with it.

The second amendment is consequential on an amendment that was carried, I think, unanimously in this place and moved by the member for Groom where there was a clarification of the expertise required for membership of the committee. That relevant clause actually appeared in two different places in the bill. This House only amended one of them. The Senate then corrected that, and the House should support that amendment.

Question agreed to.

I have also been advised that, for amendments which were carried last week in this House on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill, a number of explanatory memoranda had not been prepared at the time; those have now been prepared and I present them to the parliament.