Senate debates

Monday, 10 September 2012

Bills

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

9:14 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Minister, the final poll was in August 2011. It was a Galaxy poll, and it was Australia wide. It found that 68 per cent of Australians wanted a moratorium on coal seam gas until the long-term health and environmental impacts were understood. So it is with the knowledge that there are serious concerns widely held by the majority of Australians—certainly at least those polled if they can be deemed representative of the rest of the community—and in the context of that concern I will now move amendment (14) on sheet 7233, which calls for a five-year moratorium, or less if the full research program of the committee takes less than the five years it was projected to take as per the advice given to me in estimates. It requires that we wait and let this committee do its work before we issue any more approvals. That is not to say that the assessment process will cease, because certainly the assessments do not happen overnight—although, frankly, they need to happen with a level of rigour and I am not proposing that they be contracted in any way.

One important point that the amendment includes is that it does not apply to scientific research that is done to better understand the interaction of groundwater systems and coal seam gas mining. We are not seeking here to preclude the filling of that information gap—not at all. We want that information. What we are seeking to preclude is coal seam gas drilling through aquifers without understanding what its long-term impacts are. Frankly, this is the most basic iteration of precautionary principle that you could write. It is not rocket science. It is a principle that has been reflected in many of our laws for many years. It is a standard process when you have a lack of information about potentially irreversible long-term impacts that you do not do something that might stuff it up.

So it is with great pleasure that I move this moratorium on coal seam gas—a moratorium for five years or until the committee can do its work. It seems to me a bit ridiculous to waste $150 million to set up a committee and not even wait for the results of its work. So this amendment, I think, is very necessary. It goes a long way to addressing the concerns of the community, as I cited in those polls—67 per cent of Queenslanders, 68 per cent of Australians and, over the weekend, 88 per cent of Northern Rivers residents, who are concerned about coal seam gas or want a moratorium until we have better information.

You have stated previously that it is not the government's intention to stop industry investment. I would have thought that it is the environment minister's job to protect the environment and conserve biodiversity, as he is charged with doing under the EPBC Act, so perhaps you could reflect on that in the decision as to whether or not you will support this amendment. This amendment is needed. We have already discussed throughout the day the unfortunately large numbers of flaws with this committee and the fact that it could have been much stronger. There have been various amendments to strengthen it. Of course, we have one coming up from Senator Xenophon, supported by a number of others, including the Greens. It seems to me a gigantic waste of everybody's time and of $150 million to set up a committee whose advice does not need to be paid any heed to and that will not stop any approvals being issued while it does its scientific work. Of course we support science based decision making, and that is why we are voting for this bill despite the fact that it is weak in the extreme. But it is almost ridiculous to have this committee spend five years doing work that is going to be ignored in the interim. So, without any further ado, I move amendment (14) on sheet 7233:

(14)   Schedule 1, page 8 (after line 14), at the end of the Schedule, add:

12 Aquifer drilling—moratorium

(1)   A person commits an offence if:

  (a)   the person takes an action; and

  (b)   the person takes the action for the purposes of, or in connection with, coal seam gas mining; and

  (c)   the action is, or results in, drilling through or into an aquifer; and

  (d)   the drilling occurs before the earliest of the following:

     (i)   5 years from the commencement of this item;

     (ii)   the conclusion of the full 5-year research program of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development.

Penalty: 2,000 penalty units.

(2)   Subitem (1) applies only if:

  (a)   the person is a corporation to which paragraph 51(xx) of the Constitution applies; or

  (b)   the action is taken for the purposes of trade or commerce:

     (i)   between Australia and another country; or

     (ii)   between 2 States; or

     (iii)   between a State and a Territory; or

     (iv)   between 2 Territories; or

  (c)   the action is taken in a Territory.

(3)   Subitem (1) does not apply if the action is taken to facilitate scientific research to better understand the interaction of groundwater systems and the impact on those systems of coal seam gas mining.

(4)   This item has effect despite any provision of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 or any other Act.

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