Senate debates

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Bills

Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2013; Second Reading

10:45 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to support the Landholders’ Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2013 wholeheartedly. A large number of farmers and citizens across the country are extremely concerned about the impact that the exploration and production of unconventional gas is having across this country. So I very strongly support Senator Waters's bill. This bill has been introduced as a result of concern around the country from farmers, landholders and the broader community about the impact of gas and coal exploration and production and, in particular, unconventional gas across this country.

It should come as no surprise that we have just heard members of the ALP speak in opposition to this bill and about the benefits of unconventional gas—ignoring, of course, the science. They argue that it can be a replacement because it contributes slightly less greenhouse gas to our atmosphere than fossil fuel does. It is a flawed discussion because, combined with the efforts by the government to allow coal to keep getting mined and to allow the fossil fuel producers to rampantly contribute to our ever-climbing greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry, any money invested in this delays the progress that we absolutely need to make in renewable energy. They continue to pursue a flawed argument. They continue to put the profits of big business and the exploration and production companies above the profits of farmers, above the need for land for food production, above food production and, of course, above damage to our environment.

This bill takes an important step in addressing the proper regulation of unconventional gas. It gives the power back to farmers and growers. It gives them the power to say no, to refuse the rampant expansion of this dinosaur industry across the landscape and across Australia. This bill will give landholders the right that they should have to refuse the undertaking of this mining activity on their land.

I will go into the impacts of this particular industry only briefly because my colleagues have covered it very well. I remind people that the chemicals used in extraction can be toxic to humans, animals and our environment. It can contaminate groundwater. Shale and tight gas drilling requires vast amounts of water. It is particularly problematic in my home state of Western Australia, where we do not have a lot of water. The disposal of the waste water is highly problematic. Drilling can cause land disturbances.

Although people will argue that the regulation of fracking is technically a state responsibility, the federal government has stepped in on this issue more than once in the past few years—in other words, this is a fallacious argument. In June 2013, just last year, a bill was passed through the federal parliament to protect groundwater resources in every state except Western Australia. WA was not included because the legislation was limited to areas where coal seam gas is found; Western Australia's reserves are shale gas. My colleague Senator Ludlam proposed an amendment to the legislation as it went through the Senate in an attempt to include Western Australia and the impacts of shale gas production. Unfortunately, that amendment was voted down by the major parties. Apparently they do not care about the protection of groundwater resources in Western Australia.

Fortunately, a Western Australian parliamentary inquiry has been launched into the effect of fracking in Western Australia. That inquiry is ongoing. Submissions to the inquiry, which I will come to in a moment, have been very enlightening about the impact on Western Australia. It is very disappointing that neither of the major parties care enough about the situation in Western Australia to ensure that Western Australian groundwater resources, which are very scarce, are protected.

I will go into a few of the impacts, particularly on the environment, of this activity. Shale and tight gas fields involve the industrialisation of whole landscapes with numerous closely spaced wells. Typical gas fields can contain thousands of wells. I have flown over a few sites in the Kimberley, just outside Broome, where Buru has already established some exploration wells. You can see from the air the impact that this industry has on the landscape and how it cuts it up with the pads for the exploration wells. This is in bushland. You can see the impact of roads and pipelines dissecting the landscape, which of course results in clearing. In farmland, paddocks are interrupted by thousands of wells and infrastructure. Gas wells also require vast networks of access roads, gas pipelines, compressor stations, processing plants and waste-water holding dams and treatment plants. Tight gas uses large amounts of water. It requires the pumping of acid into the well to dissolve concrete between the rock grains, and the use of toxic chemicals.

We then need to look at the disposal of the waste water. In addition to the chemicals used in extraction flow-back, this 'produced water' can contain naturally occurring substances, such as heavy metals; radioactive metal materials, including radium; and high concentrations of salt. All these of course need to be disposed of in the landscape. Vast amounts of water are used in the extraction process. The amount varies from project to project. However, CSIRO says:

No two wells or coal seams behave identically and water production can vary from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of litres a day, depending on the underground water pressures and geology.

Water extraction during unconventional gas processes is often referred to as 'produced water'. It is generally salty and can contain toxic and radioactive compounds, and heavy metals, as I have articulated. Once this water is extracted it then has to be stored in tanks or holding ponds, which of course are then in the landscape. CSIRO also says:

… quality is highly variable from site to site, but it is generally not fit for human consumption.

There is a high risk of contamination of groundwater and surface water. There is also the issue of how much water the gas companies actually use in their production.

I would like to focus the rest of my contribution on Western Australia because Western Australia often gets left out of the debate nationally on unconventional gas activity. The WA parliament has established an inquiry which, as I said, has not yet reported. It has taken submissions. Submissions from both the Department of Health and the Water Corporation raised public health concerns. They raised concerns about the fracking process and, in particular, highlighted the risk of contamination of groundwater. The Water Corporation noted the trouble—surprise, surprise!—that they had in getting any proper advice from the Department of Mines and Petroleum. Unfortunately, they have changed the assessment process in Western Australia and have put Dracula back in charge of the blood bank. In fact, the Department of Mines and Petroleum now have a lot more control over environmental assessments and determining what needs to be assessed than they did in the past.

This is extremely concerning, given that the Western Australian government has a poor track record of late when it comes to following due process and environmental assessments. I need go no further than using the example of James Price Point, in Western Australia, where in fact the court has now outlined the flaws in the process. A lot more effort would have needed to be put into it had Woodside not pulled out, very sensibly, from putting their infrastructure onshore at James Price Point. However, there were numerous errors both in the process and in the documentation for that assessment. So people in Western Australia do not have confidence that they can rely on their state government to ensure that a proper environmental assessment process occurs.

Oil and gas exploration and development are occurring in some of the most sensitive areas in Western Australia. I will start with the Kimberley, where it is well known that it will be ramping up this year, with the state government proceeding with their acquisition of land at James Price Point and still talking about putting in infrastructure there. They have granted 25 new fracking leases in the Canning Basin. We have heard a great deal of concern expressed by the community in the north-west. Some of these areas include coastal permits around Roebuck Plains and Roebuck Bay. This is a particularly important area. In fact, it is a most beautiful area. It is also a critical part of the internationally recognised Ramsar wetlands, with much of this land being inundated by floodwaters in the wet season. Of course, that raises the issue of the inappropriateness of allowing this form of unconventional gas activity and the exploration and proposed development in areas that are subject to inundation.

I would also point out that, over the years, there have been numerous mining attempts in Roebuck Bay. It is extremely disappointing that, time after time, the community has to keep fighting these inappropriate developments in some of the most beautiful and environmentally significant areas. The same goes for farmland. We have to keep fighting proposals as they come up. This also applies to areas around the mid-west, which I will come to in a moment.

Not only do you have these sorts of problems on land itself, on farms and in these really sensitive areas, but infrastructure has also been proposed. There are proposals that Buru Energy expand port facilities in Broome. That will of course impact on Roebuck Bay—again, impacting on an environmentally sensitive area, an internationally important Ramsar area, where people from around the world come to observe the birds that stop off in Roebuck Bay on their migration every year. So, on one hand, we have the Premier of Western Australia saying that we need to industrialise the Kimberley to make a lot of money out of the resources that are there; yet, on the other hand, we know that this will directly impact on other industries, such as tourism—not to mention disrupting the birds' migration paths.

Other proposals, targeted by Key Petroleum, include Mandora marsh and wetlands—again, extremely important areas on the coast of Western Australia. When considering development of the Canning Basin reserves, clear boundaries need to be established that specifically exclude unconventional oil and gas exploration.

There is a strong push in the Western Australian community for a moratorium on fracking, which I strongly endorse. Community groups are opposed to the practice of fracking developing across Western Australia because of the rampant approach of this industry in parts of our state that have not only important environmental values but important gardening and food production values. Fracking is now popping up in the mid-west of Western Australia. Local groups have been liaising with the Lock the Gate Alliance nationally and I thank the alliance for the support that they are giving the groups in Western Australia. Frack Free Geraldton has been holding forums in Geraldton as well as towns around the mid west aiming to inform the public and raise their concerns.

It is extremely concerning to see the proposals to develop unconventional gas in the mid west, particularly in the area around Lesueur. This is particularly poignant for me, because 25 years ago I helped lead the campaign that stopped coalmining. At that time we knew that coalmining in that area and the power station they wanted to put up there were totally inappropriate. It was dinosaur technology. A group working with farmers and landowners up there recognised the inappropriateness of the development as well as the biodiversity value of the Lesueur area. It is one of the most biodiverse areas not only in Western Australia but in the whole of Australia, with endemic species that are found nowhere else. It has the most beautiful heath-type vegetation you could ever hope to see. But here they are again, 25 years later, proposing inappropriate, dinosaur developments of products that are at the end of their life as a fuel for the globe. This is a dinosaur industry, and farmland that we need for food production is being threatened. It has never been more important that we ensure that we are protecting our farmland for food production and giving our farmers the right to say, 'No, this is not an activity that is appropriate on my farm', to enable people to farm. We need this bill to enable landholders to say, 'We don't want this activity on our farm'. Western Australians need this bill so they can say, 'We don't want this activity on our farms'.

I would like to finish by quoting Ian James, a farmer from Cunderdin, whom I have worked with quite a lot. He is a wonderful man and very insightful. He said, about unconventional gas:

It's a landscape holocaust, which is really going to be unstoppable under current laws.

The farmers have absolutely no rights, and the gas companies are intent on opening up and mining on all this land.

I want to help Ian James, to give him some power to refuse this rampant activity on his farmland and on other farmland and to give landholders the right to say no.

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