House debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Regulations and Determinations

Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program; Disallowance

4:23 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Industry Research and Development (Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program) Instrument 2021 made under the Industry Research and Development Act 1986 on 13 May 2021 and presented to the House on 24 May 2021, be disallowed.

This instrument gives effect to the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program. The Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program aims to provide businesses with funding to accelerate exploration and appraisal activities in the basin. The Beetaloo Sub-basin is a gas field approximately 500 kilometres south-east of Darwin, extending across an area of approximately 28,000 square kilometres. The basin is just one of five such basins that the government plans to open up around Australia, in complete contradiction to our international commitment to keep global warming to under two degrees and against all expert advice that no new gas fields can be developed if the world is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The program will cost some $50 million of public funds over two years, alongside several hundred million dollars of taxpayer money that has been directed to the Beetaloo Basin. The Australian people are paying for this folly, and it is entirely unacceptable.

It is extraordinary that, on a day when we learnt that the Great Barrier Reef may be listed as in danger by UNESCO due to our climate change impacts and due to the lack of strong climate change policy from this government, the government and the opposition are voting against a motion to disallow the exploration of one of the most polluting gas basins in Australia. Both the coalition and the ALP are absolute hypocrites when it comes to a climate change commitment. It is astounding that, despite claiming to be committed to net zero, the ALP are supporting the government on this gas folly. The Beetaloo could result in an almost eight per cent increase in our domestic emissions, and that is not just carbon dioxide but also methane, which is almost 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time line. By funding the drilling in this basin the government makes a complete mockery of its commitment to the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees and under two degrees.

At a time when the Bureau of Meteorology has already told us that we are currently on track to have over three degrees of warming globally and, in the Northern Territory, over four degrees of warming, it is astounding that this government continues on a path of self-destruction to make our country and the Northern Territory uninhabitable. The government's own department stated that the emissions from the developing of onshore shale gas in the Northern Territory may be difficult to offset and could impact on Australia's progress in meeting the Paris Agreement commitments. And what has hardly been said is that we're talking about fracking here, which is deeply unpopular with so many of the regional communities that this government and the ALP are pretending to represent.

The call to stop further fossil fuel expansion is backed by one of the most conservative energy agencies in the world, the International Energy Agency, which traditionally the government was very happy to quote from because it had a conservative approach to transitioning to clean energy. But it has made clear in its Net Zero by 2050 report that there must be no new fossil fuel projects from this year onwards to keep warming to 1.5 degrees and at least under two degrees. So, remember, when this government claims that this is for the Northern Territory, that it's for northern Australia, it is gaslighting the very people who will be on the front line of global impacts.

One of the reasons that I'm sure the minister will come up and gaslight us about will be jobs. The government and the gas industry will deliver talking points and spin about the jobs relating to these projects. They're notorious for promoting gas as a big employer, but the facts actually speak for themselves. The real figure is that only 0.3 per cent, or some 42,000 jobs in Australia, are actually in the gas industry. The gas industry is actually ranked 55th in terms of employment out of 105 industries in Australia. We don't need more gas.

The next argument you will hear is that this is about supply and price. This is just more gaslighting. The supply from the Beetaloo Basin won't help Australians. Let's be really clear about that. From 2015 to 2019, the supply of gas has more than tripled, yet I haven't seen a reduction in prices. In fact, prices have increased by 130 per cent. So, since the coalition have been in government for a significant number of years yet the prices are rising, it begs the question that the policy is not working, and that is because the Beetaloo will help only exporters of gas and not manufacturers—and not domestic prices.

Only one per cent of Australian gas is used as feedstock in manufacturing—a reason that's often promoted by the government. Some 70 per cent of gas goes offshore to export markets. In fact, the gas used in manufacturing has declined in every state in the last several years. The Australian Energy Market Operator is projecting that the industry's use of gas will decrease from 2022. Ironically, the gas industry uses more gas just processing gas so that it can be exported than the entire manufacturing industry does. This is like a vicious circle of atrociousness, and the justification we hear from the minister in this place is just amazing. Manufacturing employment has declined since the 1980s, when Australia did in fact have cheap gas, but it's government policies that have actually enabled most of the gas to be exported. The real question is: if you want to reduce prices, change those laws, keep the gas domestically. Of course, that's not what they want to do; they just want to open up more, because why not make the problem bigger and put your head in the sand for a little bit longer?

The Australian Energy Market Operator has projected that residential and commercial consumption of gas is actually going to decrease. We know that the cheapest electricity comes from renewables. People know, so they will switch their home heating to electric and they will switch their hot water to heat pumps. Gas is in decline, but that's not what the government and the ALP want to hear. They want to promote the industry for longer. They want to ignore the science. Customers are moving away from gas. There's no future in this. Even our export markets know that there is a time limit on this. This huge amount of public funding going into opening up these basins will have no significant return for the public. Public money is being wasted because there is not going to be the time line return to actually justify any of this public spending.

China, a major customer, will be peaking emissions before 2030 and will hit net zero by 2060. We're always hearing from members of the coalition: why should Australia do its bit when no-one else is committing? But here we are: it's 2021, and the rest of the world is committing. They have committed to net zero, and the only player that hasn't is Australia. If only the government would listen to its own rhetoric of why we should be committing or following the pack. Japan, our largest market, have committed to almost halving their emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. So too will Korea, our third-biggest market. They've committed to net zero by 2050 as well. Some 70 per cent of our two-way trade is covered by net zero targets, so we can't bank on these markets providing any kind of substantial return for this public investment.

Is gas a transition fuel? We'll hear that. We'll hear grand words coming from the dispatch box. But it's just more gaslighting. About a decade ago you could have argued that gas was a transition fuel, but those days are long gone.

Gas power supplied only 7½ per cent of energy in the grid last year. The reason I'm optimistic about the decline of gas is that there's been such a remarkable shift in the business case for batteries. A study commissioned by the Clean Energy Council found that batteries are a superior choice for electricity peaking, outcompeting gas. The study compared a gas peaker plant and a grid-scale battery and found that the battery provided a cost saving of more than 30 per cent. So, for a government that is focused on sensible economic management, you would think that there would be a focus on the technologies that are actually commercial.

Batteries attract no carbon risk or exposure to volatile gas prices. They are attractive to investors, and that is why the market is speaking time and time again. But it's not where the government's going and it's not where the ALP is going. The proof is in the numbers. Fifteen large-scale batteries were announced this year. That's $4.3 billion in investment. The future is in renewables, not gas. We can either buy the dystopian reality this government is selling or reach for a different reality—one where our economic prosperity is actually underpinned by clean jobs. With the sunny and flat expanses of the Northern Territory, there is so much opportunity to support an abundance of renewable energy projects, and they will deliver energy overseas and domestically.

More concerning is the information we've had about the process by which Indigenous and First Nations' consent has been obtained in relation to the Beetaloo Basin—native title consent. I met last week with traditional owners of the Beetaloo Basin and nations that live downstream from where the drilling will be conducted. The traditional owners said there has been no process of informed consent for the exploration to occur, no scientific explanation, no translators provided to those community groups, no information about the long-term impact and risks to water tables and their livelihood and the land on which they live. They're concerned that even the mining companies have not been able to tell them where the exploration wells will be, how they will impact the underground water, what the final production level mine would look like or how many wells are being proposed. It's outrageous that the government is coming into this place, and the ALP is coming in this place, to support this going ahead when there has not been proper informed consent, and the risks have simply not been addressed or properly assessed.

While traditional owners live in poverty, they're seeing the government give a mining company $50 million worth of public money to drill and frack for gas on their land. This is the land they use to survive; it's their source of food and water, and it has been so for over 60,000 years. It was where we went to escape the threat of COVID. It's where they want their children to grow up to continue the tradition of living on the land. They are very real; they live on that land. They rely and need that water to be clean. And people in this place are carelessly compromising that. As one of the traditional owners said to me: 'We want our children to grow up in nature and with nature, to learn about it. We need to preserve it.'

This is the responsibility of every person in this place. It's very clear that steps need to be taken to address climate change, and that's what this motion is ultimately about. For all of the members who talk a big game on climate change, this is an opportunity to show who you are. I call on all the members in this parliament to vote with their conscience on this motion. It's not enough for government members to fall back on their miserly ambition of 2030, and 'preferably' by 2050—mind you, we know that probably isn't worth much these days with the dysfunction of the coalition party room. But the facts have changed and the science has changed since the last election. I say that to the ALP, because their justification is, 'This was a promise in 2019, and we have to stick with it.' It's hypocritical of all MPs in this place, both coalition and ALP, to tell their electorates that they're committed to action against climate change, but then, when the opportunity arises to take action where they can have real influence and show that they oppose a project that science tells us must not go ahead, they don't show up. They don't vote against it.

The coalition can't be trusted to take action, not with renegades in their own party room. The Labor Party is held hostage to its own elements. It's clear the Australian public need to know that this parliament is not genuinely committed to taking real action on climate change. If it were, under no circumstances would we be approving an instrument to spend $50 million of Australian public money at a time of record debt on a project that is not the future of Australia, that will doom us to more global warming and that will not deliver for future generations. It is shameful on every member of this place that fails to stand up and oppose this instrument.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder for the motion?

4:38 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. I rise to support this motion moved by the member for Warringah to prevent the government from proceeding with its plan to fast-track drilling in the Beetaloo Basin. It's not difficult to see why we've got to stop this. The environmental risks are astronomical, the local traditional owners are opposed to it and the economic returns are so poor that not even the gas industry itself was willing to invest in it. The government only ever talks about the Beetaloo Sub-basin in dollar figures and petajoules, but what you'll never hear them talk about are the carbon dioxide emissions it will produce, the falling demand for gas in Australia and abroad, the First Nations groups who've been frozen out of this process or the half a billion in subsidies and infrastructure that will be stranded in the blink of an eye, all in the name of a gas-led recovery.

The economics here simply don't stack up. Gas might've been a viable transition fuel decades ago but that moment has long passed. Industry forecasts show gas will fall from 7.5 per cent of the National Energy Market in 2020 to just one per cent by 2030—that's right, one per cent by 2030—replaced almost entirely by dispatchable storage solutions. Our key gas export markets across China, Japan and South Korea will hit peak emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050. Even if this instrument passes today, and the government dishes out its $50 million in subsidies to the gas industry tomorrow, Australians wouldn't see new gas from the Beetaloo in the National Energy Market until at least 2025. Let's just think about that for a moment: this government is pumping millions out the door in gas subsidies for a market that will simply never exist. In what universe is this good economic management? Even the government's own Beetaloo Strategic Basin Plan admits this is straight-up bad economics, listing 'the closing window of gas demand' as a 'serious challenge'. Well, this is more than a serious challenge; this is a fatal flaw.

The gas industry is also a minuscule employer in Australia. It's one of the least resource-intensive industries and employs a mere 0.2 per cent of the Australian workforce. According to Rod Campbell, the director of research at the Australia Institute, 'Investing in almost any other industry would be a more effective way of creating jobs as part of the COVID-19 recovery than through the Beetaloo Basin plan.' For every $1 million of output the gas industry employs around 0.4 people in Australia. By contrast, the same output in health and education employs more than 10 people. That's right, more than 20 times the return on investment for jobs. Imagine what we could do with that investment in health care. At a time when GP offices are shouldering the burden of the government's vaccine rollout and regional Australia is facing critical skill shortages in aged care, disability care and child care, spending almost half a billion to prop up a small number of jobs in a dead-end gas industry absolutely beggars belief to this regional Australian and to so many other regional Australians.

The Beetaloo Basin plan totally misunderstands economic needs and opportunities of regional and remote Australia. Regional Australians are watching this government—they are—and they don't like what they see. Communities across my regional electorate of Indi aren't asking for gas subsidies and an expansion of hydraulic fracking. If anything, regional Australia wants a bigger slice of the renewable energy boom which, unlike gas, continues to grow.

The Australian Local Power Agency Bill I've introduced to parliament would put the half a billion dollars this government is spending on subsidies and stranded infrastructure in the Beetaloo Basin to much better use—to use that Australians want—and it would build jobs that Australians want. The ALPA's job would be to drive investment in locally owned renewables in regional Australia and put profits back into the pockets of communities, not multinational gas companies.

Last year Australia installed seven gigawatts of renewable energy—a record year. That's enough to replace the Hazelwood power station more than four times or enough to power 3.1 million home, and almost all of that was built in the regions. Unlike gas, this upward trend will continue and it's clean too. What if we used these subsidies to train up young people to build solar panels and batteries locally and to construct, operate and maintain renewable projects? What if we use these subsidies to build up an industry of small businesses in the regions supplying and supporting renewable energy projects?

These investments won't come with the environmental risks that plague hydraulic fracking.

Origin Energy's own environmental report for 10,000 square kilometres on the Beetaloo Basin warned that drilling 'would pose a risk of causing aquifers under some properties to leak into each other', deteriorating the quality of existing and future groundwater supplies. The ecosystem in the outback is fragile and precious. Drilling will have unknown consequences for traditional owners, for flora, fauna and farmers. You won't find these risks with large-scale wind and solar.

Last week I had the privilege of sitting down with the member for Warringah and a delegation of traditional owners from the region where the government plans to drill. We heard from Nicholas Fitzpatrick, Joni Wilson, Asman Rory and May August, who spoke on behalf of some of the many First Nations people who feel they have been flatly ignored by the government in their opposition to drilling on their lands. They told me that, from a Western worldview, you can play with geography and the environment on a topographical map and reprint the new version on the map the next day; but in their world, if you disrupt the geography and the environment, the songlines are lost forever. In a heartfelt letter, their community said the following:

We speak as Traditional Owners and custodians of and around the lands and waters that you call the Beetaloo and connected basins. Although we come from many Nations, we have come together to put an end to the ongoing threat of fracking on our countries, which will denigrate and desecrate our lands.

…   …   …

Together, we fight for it.

Our connections to country have been established and proven time and time again by the white man's law. We hold Native Title and Land Rights - a system that is meant to protect and enforce our rights. These have been denied to us.

For years, we have been told lies by the gas and oil corporations. That there would be no damage to the country or poison in our waters. These companies won't even answer the most basic of questions - where they plan to drill or how many wells they want to build.

These gas corporations lack any respect for us as Traditional Owners. They have failed to follow proper process in consultation with us, failed to acquire consent, failed to provide transparency in their dealings with us, and have systematically excluded our voices from the decision-making process for activities on our Country.

We don't have the same resources as these corporations. The system is already set up against us.

This Federal Government coming in over the top of what little processes we have undermines our land rights as Northern Territory Traditional Owners. The same Government who has never come out to our communities to sit with us or meet with us. They are failing to represent us.

What a painful sentence to relay to this House from the traditional owners of the lands upon which this government proposes to drill: 'They are failing to represent us.'

Who are the government representing here? Whose interests are being prosecuted? It's certainly not the traditional owners and it's certainly not the Australian taxpayer, whose money would be better spent elsewhere. Many would tell me to look at the coffers of the government's political donations bank accounts to find a few answers to that question. How are we to know without much-needed electoral finance reform and a robust federal integrity commission? Without a permanent Indigenous voice to parliament as envisaged through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, my greatest fear is that this government and future governments will forever hear that painful sentence from our First Nations communities: 'They are failing to represent us'.

It is an honour to second this motion from the member for Warringah to prevent the government from proceeding with its plan to fast track drilling in the Beetaloo Basin.

4:49 pm

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

It's astounding that the government and Labor aren't even prepared to get up and speak to defend this outrage. This is a climate crime. This vote today will condemn Liberal and Labor in history, because not one Liberal or Labor MP has turned up to oppose the opening up of the Beetaloo Basin on public funds. The Northern Territory Labor government wants to open up the Northern Territory and light the fuse on a giant climate time bomb. The federal Liberals are behind it and the federal Labor Party is supporting it as well.

On the very day that we find out that the Great Barrier Reef might end up on the endangered list, Liberal and Labor are voting to open up a huge new gas basin in this country. Climate change is killing the reef. Coal, oil and gas are fuelling the climate crisis. If we want to save our reef and save Australia from climate collapse, we have to keep existing coal, oil and gas in the ground. It is as simple as that.

This is 2021, and every Labor Party member and every Liberal Party member is on notice that we need to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground, because we are running out of time to stop the climate collapse. You can't say that we are facing a climate emergency one week and then come into this place to open up a climate time bomb that is bigger than Adani the next. We will make sure that every voter in the electorates of Cooper, Macnamara, Higgins, Kooyong, Griffith, Brisbane, Ryan and Richmond knows that today their member of parliament supported opening up new gas fields that have, in that whole Northern Territory area, the equivalent of 68 years worth of Australia's pollution.

If we open up these Northern Territory basins, we can say goodbye to the reef. We can say goodbye to Australia doing its fair share of keeping the climate crisis under control. We know—because we've been told it by the International Energy Agency, the G7, the scientists and the students who are marching in the streets—that, to have any chance of stopping the climate crisis becoming a runaway chain reaction that will lead to four degrees of warming during the lifetime of today's primary school students, we need to keep existing coal, oil and gas in the ground and we need to phase out coal, oil and gas as quickly as we possibly can. We have been put on notice. Every Liberal, National and Labor Party member has been put on notice.

And the thing is that this isn't one small project. In the Northern Territory, these connected basins—of which Beetaloo is a part, as I have said, have 68 years worth of Australia's pollution. Doing this and opening this up could increase Australia's pollution by up to 23 per cent, on some estimates—just this alone. Why? Well, methane is much more toxic than CO2 as a climate gas—up to 86 times more toxic. To get this methane out of the ground, you need to go and drill huge holes, called fracking, which not only threatens the water that so many farmers and traditional owners in the area rely on but also leaks methane. The leakage rates from doing this are so high that, when you take that into account, gas is as dirty as coal. This is not a replacement fuel or a transition fuel. Gas is as dirty as coal. And if you don't want to believe the Greens, listen to the former Labor premier and foreign minister, Bob Carr, who has made the point that, on industry figures, gas is as dirty as coal.

So what you Labor and Liberal members are voting for today, as you stand together to vote to give public money to open up a new gas field, is worse than Adani, and it condemns Australia in the eyes of the rest of the world. But, worse, it fast-tracks climate collapse. We don't have time left to open up new coal, oil and gas deposits, but that is what this government is proposing to do. I think public money should be spent on schools and hospitals, not given to tax-dodging coal, oil and gas corporations to go and make the climate crisis worse. There's at least $50 million—as part of a several hundred million dollar program going from the government—that is at stake in this bill. Let's put that money into free education, building renewables and improving hospitals, instead of giving it to these big coal, oil and gas corporations that are going to make the climate crisis worse.

The thing is: this isn't just a climate crime; this is state sanctioned corruption. What is happening here is that the Liberals and Labor are giving public money to corporations that in many instances pay no tax. But what they don't tell you, because they don't even have the guts to stand up and defend this motion, is that those very same corporations make donations to the Liberal and Labor parties. Between Santos, Origin, Empire Energy and Gina Rinehart's subsidiary, Jacaranda Minerals, there has been $3.6 million in donations to the Liberal and Labor parties. That is why they come in here and vote to light the fuse on a giant climate time bomb. We should be asking these big corporations to pay tax. We shouldn't be giving them public money when they pay no tax. Why do we have this situation in Australia where the scientists are telling us, 'You need to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground,' and the Liberal and Labor parties say that they listen to the science but then come in here, in 2021, and open up a massive new gas basin? Why does it happen? It happens because the Liberal and Labor parties take money from these big corporations that pay no tax and that fuel the climate crisis.

This is a fight that we'll be taking up on behalf of the farmers in the area, who are now going to have to contend with these projects that will suck up to 34 million litres of water out of the ground as well as threaten groundwater supplies. We'll be taking this fight up on behalf of the traditional owners, who, as previous speakers have said, do not want this happening on their land, have not been consulted and are worried that this lifeblood they call country is now under threat. And we'll be taking this fight up on behalf of the students who march in the streets because they can read the science. They're not on the take from the big coal, oil and gas corporations. They know, when they march, that we cannot open up new coal, oil and gas mines.

But we also find ourselves now in the situation where the Greens and the crossbench are in line with Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, the G7, the world's scientists and the energy chiefs in the International Energy Agency, who have all said, 'We've got to call time on new fossil fuel developments.' If you want to know why our Prime Minister has to be babysat when he goes to the G7 meetings and why Australia is not being taken credibly, it is in large part because of our climate policies—because this government, with Labor's support, wants to open up new coal, oil and gas developments. We may find carbon tariffs being imposed on our exporters. This government's and the Labor Party's climate recklessness is now putting our exporters at risk and at a disadvantage, because the Liberals and Labor are still wedded to new coal, oil and gas projects.

For everyone around Australia who cares about climate, know this—and we will make sure that everyone knows this before the next election: coal and gas are the leading causes of climate change, and, if you don't have a plan to phase out coal, oil and gas, you are not serious about it. The Liberals and Labor want new coal, oil and gas projects in the time of a climate crisis. This is what today's vote shows. That is why they will be condemned.

4:58 pm

Photo of Keith PittKeith Pitt (Hinkler, National Party, Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the contributions of those on the crossbench but also note that they represent areas like the inner city Sydney beaches, inner city Melbourne and, of course, regional Victoria. I think that the individuals who live in those areas would probably notice if the gas were removed and turned off, and I don't see how those on the crossbench can say to the people of northern Australia and the Northern Territory, 'You can't have a job.' That is what this is about.

The Beetaloo Basin has the potential to create some 6,000 jobs by 2040. It has the potential to transform the Northern Territory economy. It has the potential to supply gas into the domestic market in Australia for decades. This is an incredibly important project. It is a key part of our gas-fired recovery and, as the Prime Minister has said, what is central to our agenda is getting access to our domestic gas supplies. We need to get gas from under our feet. So we're investing in key areas across the gas supply chain to unlock that supply, to deliver efficient transportation and to empower consumers. This is because we are a government that delivers. The strategic basin plan program is a key plank of our plan to bring on that new gas supply to help address that domestic shortfall, to manage prices and to re-establish a strong economy.

On 14 January the government released Unlocking the Beetaloo: The Beetaloo Strategic Basin Plan to accelerate exploration and development in the Beetaloo Sub-basin. We have provided $224 million for drilling and road infrastructure projects. The Beetaloo Sub-basin is potentially one of the largest undeveloped onshore gas resources in the world. It is a new world-class gas province with an estimated 200,000 petajoules or more of gas. Very conservatively, if 10 per cent of this gas proves to be commercial it could supply all of the east coast demand for over 30 years—over 30 years! So we will continue to work closely with the Northern Territory government and local industry in the Beetaloo to build the necessary infrastructure. That includes $173.6 million of Commonwealth funding for the Northern Territory Gas Industry Roads Upgrade program under Roads of Strategic Importance. Just that alone is expected to provide support for over 400 jobs.

We will get on with delivering more efficient and effective regulatory processes, including enhanced regulator capability, and we will reduce regulatory duplications. And, of course, we will work with local communities. The Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program has been considered carefully. It's a key plank of our plan to bring on new gas supply and is designed to address domestic shortfall, maintain affordability and continue to grow a strong economy.

In conclusion, the best way to ensure a long-term gas supply to support jobs and industry in Australia is to develop new gas basins and new gas resources. The government knows that unlocking gas reserves is key to Australia's economic prosperity and recovery from COVID-19. Only this government can be trusted to bring on new gas, lower the cost of energy, revitalise manufacturing and ensure thousands of jobs in this time of COVID uncertainty.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion be disagreed to.

A division having been called and the bells having been rung—

There being fewer than five members on the side for the noes in this division, I declare the question resolved in the affirmative in accordance with standing order 127. The names of those members who are in the minority will be recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.