Senate debates

Thursday, 6 March 2014


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

9:32 am

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

I rise to speak to the Greens bill the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2013. As people well know, because this bill has been on foot for quite a while—it was on foot in the last parliament—this bill gives landholders the right to say no to dangerous coal seam gas, shale and tight gas mining on their land as well as to coalmines. Here in Australia, as we all know, we have so little good-quality farmland, so little good-quality agricultural land. It just seems absolutely outrageous to the Greens that the good-quality land we do have is not safe from being turned into massive mines and it is not safe from being pockmarked with coal seam gas wells, shale gas wells or tight gas wells.

The reason that we are so concerned about these new and continuing fossil fuel industries is that they are simply a disaster for water, they are bad for land, they are bad for communities and, sadly, they are bad news for the Great Barrier Reef and they are terrible for the climate. As people may or may not be aware—and I certainly hope there is a growing awareness in this place of the risks of coal seam gas, because it is an issue, I am afraid, along with shale and tight gas, for all of us in this chamber; this is all across the country—you cannot simply punch a hole through an aquifer to get to a coal seam without doing damage. So they pockmark the landscape with these massive wells. They have then got to dewater the coal seam so that the gas can flow. You have got to put that water somewhere. You have then got to blast in a mixture of, again, water and sand and chemical proppants—and who knows what else, because they do not tell us—to fracture open the coal seam so that the gas can flow more quickly. You have then got to suck that hydraulic fracturing mixture out as well, and you have got to put that somewhere. Then you have got to hope that you have sealed your well properly, because when you are punching holes through aquifers to get to something that is underlying, if your well casings are not completely solid, of course you are going to risk contamination.

We also know that those wells create pressure changes, particularly in the Great Artesian Basin. So you have got the potential for the groundwater level to drop and for the residual fracking fluids and even the naturally occurring carcinogens—benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene—which can be mobilised by that fracking process to then shift up into those aquifers. So we have serious risks of contamination of the most precious resource here in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on the planet, water. You have got that potential dropping of the groundwater table, and of course the water that is sucked out of those coal seams is very salty.

I am old enough to remember when salinity was the biggest problem facing this country. Sadly, this industry will only make that problem worse. Once those massive lakes of produced water start to evaporate, what do you then do with the salt? I was on a Senate inquiry into this subject when I first started my role in this place speaking for Queenslanders, and the industry do not have a solution; they do not know what they will do with all that salt. They are now seeking permission to try and bury it somewhere. They had better not do it anywhere in the Murray-Darling catchment or there will be an awful lot of environmental damage done—and it is not just the Greens saying this; it is the scientists.

On that point, the National Water Commission has said that coal seam gas development represents 'a substantial risk to sustainable water management given the combination of material uncertainty about water impacts, the significance of potential impacts, and the long time period over which they may emerge and continue to have effect'. The point is here: water moves really slowly and, if you are changing that pressure and you have not quite sealed your well properly, you might find in 50 years time that your bore has dried up. Of course, the company has up and left by then so all of its promises that it will truck you in water are meaningless, because the company is not there anymore. The wells only have a 20- to 30-year lifespan. That is not the sort of risk that the Greens want to take with our water. It is not the sort of risk we want to take with our food security.

On that point, it is not limited to water impacts. We know that there are surface impacts from coal seam gas and, obviously, from coalmining. It is not just the well pad, as the very highly paid and slick merchants of the coal seam gas industry will try to assuage people's fears on; it is the roads to get to and from the well pad; it is the pipelines to get the gas out; it is often the diesel generators or the overhead powerlines to power the site; and it is the people coming onto your land at all hours of the day and night and you do not have the right to say no. The only right the landholder has is to argue about how much compensation they might get for this potentially irreparable damage to their groundwater and for the massive disturbance in their way of life and their surface-farming operations.

We know that the industry would say this is the solution to climate change—it is so much cleaner than coal. I wish that were the case. Sadly, it is not. Sure, it burns cleaner, but by the time you have extracted the gas and have piped it to the liquefaction plant for export—and much of this is for export, and there is a growing debate about that—you have expended an awful lot of energy and, importantly, those pipes and wells leak. I hope people here have heard of fugitive emissions—it is those leaking wells and pipes. Coal seam gas is methane and it is 26 times more potent as carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. So, when you have leaking wells and pipes and have a massive energy footprint to liquefy this stuff for export, you are cancelling out any of the benefits you might claim at the ultimate burning stage of this fuel. It is no solution to climate change and, in fact, it is every bit as dirty as coal.

A lot of the export process is through the Great Barrier Reef. I am from Queensland. Queenslanders love our reef, Australians love our reef and the world loves our reef. It is World Heritage listed and is an international icon. It is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is now being pocked with massive ports that are either expansions or new ports, and a massive dredging program that is the biggest the reef has ever seen. A lot of that dredge spoil, that sludge, then gets dumped offshore, creating even more water quality problems and problems for the coral, the seagrasses and the feeding and breeding grounds for turtles and dugongs. If all of these projects go ahead, we will see one ship every hour and a half going through the Great Barrier Reef. Is our reef simply a highway for coal and gas ships? I think it is a biodiversity icon that we should be doing everything we can to protect.

These are the reasons that the Greens are opposing coal seam gas. It interferes with farming operations; it potentially damages water supplies forever more; it is terrible for the climate; it is terrible for the reef; and it is ripping apart communities. Farmers are being forced to sign confidentiality agreements so they cannot speak with their neighbours about how much compensation they got. People know they have no right to say no. They are being worn down after years of pressure from these big companies. In the end they are forced to sign up and then cannot talk about it. This is really ripping communities apart. I am proud to say that in Queensland and now in the southern states, which are learning from Queensland, there is a really strong community movement that is opposing this dangerous industry.

I want to pay tribute to people from Lock the Gate Alliance who are in the public gallery today: Phil Laird, the National Coordinator of Lock the Gate Alliance; Anne; and Innes Larkin, who is a Queenslander. They have come here this week to speak with all of you. I hope people have made the time to meet with them. Some of these people are conservationists. Innes is an ecotourism operator. Phil is a farmer. We have got Indigenous people in the delegation as well. There is a broad range of real people who are concerned about coal seam gas. They have met with us. I hope they have met with you. I know they have been meeting with a number of other parties. They have taken the time to share their concerns. Innes is an ecotourism operator in the Scenic Rim, the green cauldron of Australia. It is a beautiful area; in fact, it is one of the 16 national landscapes that were recognised by the previous government last year. Ironically, as Innes was telling me yesterday, 11 of those 16 landscapes are threatened with coal seam gas or coalmining. What an absolute farce? Doug Balnaves, who is also in the delegation, is a vigneron from South Australia. There are many folk in this chamber who not only indulge in some wine now and then but also are vignerons themselves. You simply cannot have industries coexisting with coal seam gas. It destroys the land, it destroys the water supply, it rips communities apart, it is no solution to climate change and it is destroying our reef.

The genesis of this bill were some remarks made by Tony Abbott, of all people, back in 2011. He was not the Prime Minister at the time, but he commented that he thought landholders should have the right to say no to this industry. We welcomed those statements and within a few days we were able to have a bill drafted and brought into this place for debate, giving landholders that right to say no to coal seam gas. Sadly, Mr Tony Abbott, now the Prime Minister, changed his mind in the space of 24 hours. He backed down from those comments.

We do not give up. We have continued to work on this issue. We are bringing this bill forward again. The coalition, likewise, still purport to hold these views. In their own election document they say that access to prime agricultural land should only be allowed with the farmer's agreement, that the farmer should have the right to say yes or no to coal seam gas exploration and extraction on their property. We welcome that commitment and we would just love you to follow through on it here in this federal parliament. You have the legislation before you. Hell, do your own if you do not like ours. We do not care whose name is on the bit of paper. These landholders just need the right to protect their land from this dangerous fossil fuel industry.

Mr Tony Abbott recently visited Tara, one of the beautiful places in my home state of Queensland with its gorgeous bushland. A lot of people suffering there have a very low socioeconomic background and a lot of people have gone there for some peace and quiet. Sadly, their lives have been destroyed by a multitude of different coal seam gas exploration companies. Tony Abbott, when he was in Tara, made a promise to Debbie Orr, one of the residents there. He said no-one should be forced to have a gas well on their property. Well, what are you going to do about it? If you purport to hold these views, please follow through on them. From what I have heard so far—and the government will speak for themselves; I do not wish to verbal them—I understand they purport to hold these views but they do not think it is up to them to give landholders that right. They think that should be up to the state governments.

Two things on that: the state governments have done an absolutely rotten job in protecting our land, our water and our climate from coal seam gas. This industry has just steamrolled ahead. There has been virtually no constraints on it whatsoever. Promises are sometimes made but are rarely followed through on. I, sadly, have very limited confidence in the state government's political will to seriously address this problem or to represent those people, as they should be doing.

The second point, of course, is that there is no reason why this needs to be left up to the state governments. There is no constitutional limitation on the federal government stepping in and giving landholders the right to say no to coal seam gas, shale gas, tight gas and coal mining on their land. There are myriad powers that the Commonwealth could rely on. The corporations power is perhaps the most obvious but there are others. There is no excuse for not taking this step other than: actually, you are in the pocket of those fossil fuel industries. I was incredibly saddened, although not surprised, to see that the National Party in South Australia has taken donations—more than $200,000—from Santos, one of the big coal seam gas companies. That was very shocking to me. That came to light last week. It may well explain, sadly, the position that they have taken.

I have talked about the need for federal action. We have had some action in this place. We now have a water trigger in our federal environmental laws. That is a good start. It says that if you have a big coalmine or coal seam gas operation that is going to have a significant impact on a water resource, the federal environment minister needs to have a look at that and the approval of that minister is required before the operation can proceed. When that legislation was coming through this place the Greens tried to amend it to expand it to include shale gas and tight gas to help our communities in Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and of course Tasmania—all those places at risk from shale gas and coal seam gas. Sadly, we did not get support for that at the time, but I pay tribute to the efforts of the community in creating the pressure for the water trigger to be passed. I also pay tribute to the former Independent Tony Windsor for his seminal work in working with the Greens as well as the community and the government of the time to pass those laws. The problem is that those laws give the environment minister the ability to say no to coal and to coal seam gas, but nobody ever has. There has not in living memory been a coal seam gas project or coalmine that has been refused under these laws or even under the previous laws. That is exactly why we need landholders to have the right to say no. It is all very well to give the minister the ability to do so, but if you are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry it is no wonder that you just tick off on everything that passes your desk.

I am really proud that we have had folk here from the Lock the Gate Alliance. They are here to support this bill. They are here to support their own right to protect their land and continue to farm it into the future and to provide the food that we all rely on. Some people say that this is just a country issue. It is not just a country issue. We all eat and we all drink. You cannot eat coal and you cannot drink gas. I know that in Brisbane there is a growing movement of people—I am convinced that it is around the country as well—who want to support our farmers by buying locally produced food. They want to keep their own carbon footprint low and they want to support their local farmers. This is an issue that touches all of us in Australia.

Last weekend, I worked with our mining spokesperson in New South Wales, Jeremy Buckingham, to fund the travel of a rancher from Wyoming, John Fenton. If you have watched the movie GasLandif you have not, please do—you will know that his ranch has been completely destroyed by fracking for shale gas. His water has been poisoned to the extent that the authorities have said to him, 'You'd better leave the windows open when you take a shower because your water might actually explode.' That is no joke; it is actually what John and his family are living under. It is what could happen here if we do not arrest this dangerous industry. Seriously, are we going to let that happen to our own people? I hope not. This bill is one way of helping to stop that.

If you will not listen to the science, and we know that science ain't so popular anymore under this government, more's the pity—we have no science minister, as we all know, and apparently climate science is still crap—if you want to listen only to the polls, there have been some recent polls in New South Wales that show that 75 per cent of voters oppose coal seam gas on agricultural land. That follows an earlier poll that showed that 68 per cent of Australians want to stop coal seam gas until it has been proven safe for our land, our water, our environment and our communities. Clearly, this is a concern to Australians. It is something that represents a massive risk. It is an industry that has rolled out so quickly it has gotten ahead of the science. I think that in Queensland it almost got ahead of the communities, but now we have strong networks of people, both in the bush and in the city, who are standing firm to protect land and water from coal seam gas.

I do not want to finish my contribution without mentioning that this bill also covers coalmining. We know that massive destruction that coalmining can do to forests. We know the interference that it can have with the water table. Of course we know the massive climate impacts it has. I will mention again Phil Laird, the coordinator of Lock the Gate, who as I said is in the gallery. He lives near the Leard forest, which of course is going to be hugely impacted by the Maules Creek mine, a 23-megatonne coalmine that is proposed for there. Interestingly, of course, approval for that mine was given, because apparently all we do here is tick and flick when it comes to fossil fuel projects. That mine was required to offset the damage to the vegetation that it would clear—critically endangered box gum woodland; we do not have much of it left. An offset was required to be provided to offset the damage of the loss of that critical habitat. In fact, the offset that is now proposed has got five per cent box gum in it. The rest of it is a completely, entirely different ecosystem. The farce that is these approvals that are handed out with almost no scrutiny to an industry that is dangerous for the climate, rips up communities and undermines our precious habitat boggles the mind. The state laws are too weak. Landholders across the country, in the main, do not have the right to say no to this dangerous industry. They should have that right. This industry has rolled out too fast. It has gotten ahead of the science. We are doing potentially irreversible damage to our groundwater table and to our climate.

I have been out to these communities. I have been to Tara, I have flown over and seen the grill—it is hard to describe. There is a grill pad of wells. It does not look like a landscape anymore; it is pockmarked with wells. I have been out to Narrabri. I have been to Roma. I have been to the Kimberley. I have seen the beauty of these places and the damage that can be done. Please, today, search your consciences. Have a look at the science. Take the chance to speak with the people who have come from your state, from Lock the Gate Alliance, to speak with you and raise their concerns. Please think seriously about following through on the government's own election commitment to give landholders the right to say no. Don't just leave it up to the states—they are not doing it. That is why we need this bill. We have got to protect our land, our water, our communities, our climate and our reef from this dangerous industry. We have the opportunity today. I beg you to seriously consider supporting this bill.


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