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

1:48 pm

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

I want to discuss with and ask some questions of the minister about the scope of the committee's work program. It is something we touched on already today. My earlier amendment to add public health experts to the committee was unsuccessful, which I think is an absolute travesty given the huge health impacts of coal mining on communities across this nation and the huge concerns—valid ones, backed by medical experts—of the health impacts of coal seam gas on communities. I think it is an abrogation of public duty that health is not going to be included in the remit of this committee.

The amendments I moved earlier, which were unsuccessful, are reflected in some other amendments that I will move in due course to extend the function of the committee to properly consider those matters. Now even if we do not have a public health expert specifically listed as part of the committee, the minister explained that that did not preclude a public health expert from being a member of the committee and therefore I certainly think that my subsequent amendments are incredibly worthwhile. These amendments would extend the program of the committee to consider not just information requested by the federal or the state minister about coal and coal seam gas mining on water resources but also, importantly, any associated environmental and health impacts. This fundamentally goes to the scope of the committee's work.

Of course impacts on water are the main concern with coal seam gas mining, but there are also increasingly serious concerns about salt, as has already been raised by a number of senators in this chamber, and the land impacts of salt. I am old enough to remember when salinity was the biggest problem facing this country—before climate change rightly supplanted that, but of course the two are linked—so my amendments would enable the committee to properly consider those impacts on land from the vast amounts of salt that are extracted as part of the coal seam gas process.

It would also enable the committee to reflect upon the climate impacts of coal seam gas, which frankly have never been properly examined in this nation—certainly not in an independent way. There have been some industry studies done in Australia and there have been some non-industry studies done in other jurisdictions, but there has never been any Australian independent science looking into the genuine climate footprint of coal seam gas. There are a lot of claims made by the industry that it is clean and green. Unfortunately, that is not backed up by any independent evidence. We in this chamber, certainly Senator Milne and a number of the other Greens, have been urging government to step in and properly consider whether those claims do in fact hold water—not to mix metaphors—and to do its own studies in the genuine footprint of coal seam gas when it comes to climate.

It is not just the burning and transport of the gas or the liquefaction so that it can be exported—that is, of course, an incredibly energy-intensive process; it is also the leaking wells and pipes. That is not only a massive concern for the climate but also a public health risk. This stuff is flammable. I have actually stood on a pipe in the Pilliga as part of the Senate committee inquiry into the Murray-Darling, which had some subsidiary terms of reference to consider coal seam gas. I went to the Pilliga, where I stood on a very rusty pipe and heard gas escape. If that is not an advertisement for the need for not only better maintenance but also better studies about the effect of those leaking pipes, I do not know what is. It seems incredibly obvious that, particularly in a state forest which have not seen rain for a while, you do not want flammable gas leaking out. Particularly in an age of climate change you do not want methane, which is incredibly greenhouse gas intensive, far more than CO2, leaking out unaccounted for.

I understand that the NGERS process requires some accounting, but there is no proper monitoring of the pipes and wells that leak. So this seems to me to be an incredibly necessary scope for this new committee to consider the climate impacts and the salt impacts, in fact any associated environmental and health impacts of coal and coal seam gas mining. As I said, the impacts on water resources are a key concern in relation to coal seam gas, but the impact on public health are of immense concern, particularly for communities such as the Hunter Valley. I know my colleague here Senator Rhiannon has spoken regularly of her concern and the community's concern about the impact on the health not just of adults but of children, whose lungs are far more susceptible as they grow to particulate matter and other pollutants in the air.

This amendment would enable the committee to effectively and properly consider not just the water impacts of coal seam gas mining but also the impacts broadly of this industry on our environment and on human health. It is a great shame that this chamber seems to be profoundly uninterested in properly regulating coal seam gas. We have here a bill that the government was, effectively, strong-armed into in order to get a vote for the minerals resource rent tax out of Tony Windsor. Credit has to go to Mr Windsor for extracting this bill, which does at least improve the situation a little.

I remain concerned that this is a beat-up, because this committee with its very narrow scope of inquiry does not need to have its advice acted upon in any event. My question for the minister is: if the minister receives advice from this committee on that very narrow question of the water impact only of coal and coal seam gas mining, what conditions can the federal environment minister place on an EPBC referred project to deal with those water impacts of coal seam gas? If there are no other matters of national environmental significance affected, what can the federal minister do to act on this advice?

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