Thursday, 1 August 2019
Great Australian Bight Environment Protection Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to oppose the Great Australian Bight Environment Protection Bill 2019 because it's unscientific and would unnecessarily threaten the health and security of our nation. I want to start my contribution by telling a story of the great history of the development of oil and gas resources in this nation. Back in the 1950s, the then Menzies government felt that we had a real issue in Australia with the lack of oil and gas developed or produced here. We had a security issue with the fact that we had to import all of our oil and gas needs, and so they set up a variety of different support mechanisms to try to help support the production of oil and gas. They introduce a subsidy scheme for exploration in frontier areas. They introduce a price support mechanism for the sale of domestically produced oil in Australia. As a result of these initiatives, they encouraged a company called BHP to make their own investigations.
At the time, BHP looked around the world for the expertise that could perhaps help them develop resources here in Australia. They hired who was described at the time as the best geologist in America, a gentleman called Lewis Weeks, who was a celebrated geologist around the world. Lewis came out to Australia in 1960. He had a famous lunch with the then chairman and CEO of BHP. At that lunch, he was asked, 'Where in Australia should we drill for oil and gas?' Apparently, without hesitation, Lewis Weeks immediately said, 'The Bass Strait.' And so BHP started the exercise of drilling in the Bass Strait. It was a highly risky activity at the time. At the time, the technology was just developing for drilling in what are rough seas; the Bass Strait is a rough marine environment. The technology for that was only just developing in California at the time, but BHP hired not only Lewis Weeks, the best geologist, but some of the best people in the industry in developing offshore oil and gas. Eventually, they partnered with Esso, now ExxonMobil, to develop these resources.
I tell that story because to think about that showed great foresight from the Menzies government. Most of us would know today that, as a result of those investigations, as a result of that science, as a result of that human endeavour, one of the greatest oil and gas finds was made in the Bass Strait. Victoria in particular benefited from and was lucky and fortunate to be close to one of the best oil and gas provinces in the world. In fact, over the subsequent decades, about two-thirds of our crude oil needs were met by the resources in the Bass Strait itself.
It also came at an incredibly opportune time. The Menzies government and BHP wouldn't have known when they started this endeavour that, in the early 1970s, an oil crisis would hit the world. What had been an abundant supply of oil and a relatively cheap source of energy suddenly become massively expensive and scarce. They weren't to know that. They made those investments and the government supported those investments because they wanted to secure supplies of such an important resource; it wasn't so much around price and availability per se. But that 1970s oil crisis did hit the world, and the fact that Australia had significant domestic Indigenous resources significantly protected and insulated Australia from the effects of the global oil crisis of the 1970s relative to other nations, like the United States, who were in a different position. They were largely importers of oil at the time.
I tell that story because I think it's important that we never close ourselves off from opportunities, that we never unnecessarily say, 'Let's not do this or do that because of the circumstances that might exist today or otherwise.' I do think we have a great need again to search for domestic oil and gas, which I'll come to. Regardless, even if we had abundant supplies of oil and gas right now, we shouldn't unnecessarily say: 'No, let's not do the science here. Let's not do the exploration. Let's take a narrow view where we just don't do things and don't explore.' It would certainly have been the case if we'd had the Australian Greens here in this chamber in the 1960s. They would have been moving bills to oppose gas drilling in the Bass Strait, and, if the government supported that, in line with this bill, Australia would have been a much weaker nation in the 1970s than it ended up being. So we should never be afraid of endeavour; we should never be afraid of enterprise; we should never be afraid of exploration to see what is available here in Australia and right around the world. That's why this bill should be opposed. Ultimately, this bill is an anti-scientific bill. It is a bill that seeks to shut down science; it is a bill that seeks to shut down questions; it is a bill that seeks to shut down exploring some of the more unexplored and undiscovered parts of our nation.
I listened to Senator Hanson-Young's contribution intently but I didn't hear much from her about the history or the experience of drilling for oil and gas in Australia. You would expect that, if this bill were based on science, it would refer to some of the experience and exploration that occurred in the past. Science, if nothing else, is the accumulation of knowledge through testing, experience and running experiments in the real, physical world. Not in this world, not in rhetoric is name-calling, as Senator Hanson-Young engaged in significantly in her contribution, science. Calling people names is not science. Calling people 'big oil' is not science. Calling into question people who don't live here in this country and who don't have businesses here in this country, as Senator Hanson-Young did, is not science.
Just a small segue: the Greens often like to put themselves out as a welcoming and multicultural, global party and then they come into this chamber and start slagging off people from Scandinavia for no reason at all. Senator Hanson-Young didn't present any evidence on the records and practices of Equinor. I've had some significant dealings with Equinor and found them to be an extremely professional company. Indeed, they're probably recognised as one of the leading companies, globally, in this space in terms of their professionalism, their practices, the seriousness with which they take their business and the protections they put in place for the environment, their staff and their scientists. To call into question a company without evidence just because they are foreign—and that is exactly what Senator Hanson-Young was referring to—is well below the level of debate that should occur in this place. And it's certainly extremely hypocritical coming from the Australian Greens.
We know, from the science that has been done, the actual experimentation and the actual experience with drilling around Australia, that we can safely regulate, monitor and oversee the exploration for and the production of oil and gas in our nation. Indeed, this bill does refer to the Great Australian Bight, but, although it is a frontier area, drilling has occurred there. It's instructive and reflective of Senator Hanson-Young's position here that she referred to none of that history in her contribution. I'm not sure if she's aware of it, but you'd think, if you are proposing a bill to carte blanche ban activities across such a large swathe of Australia, that you'd make yourself familiar with the experience of oil and gas drilling in the area you're seeking to ban them.
I've asked our experts about that experience and I've made myself aware of what has occurred in the past. In fact, we have drilled 13 drills in the Great Australian Bight since 1972. All of them have proceeded without incident. Unfortunately, none of them have made the kinds of discoveries that have led to larger investments and the production of oil and gas, but, as I say, that is how science progresses. It progresses by us experimenting on the natural world. Just as those explorers did in the 1960s in the Bass Strait, I think it is important for us to explore these other areas of our country. And we should do this in a safe, sustainable and regulated fashion, as we have done so in the past—quite clearly as we have done in the Great Australian Bight.
The Great Australian Bight, as I said, is a frontier. It's not a producing oil and gas province at the moment. Thirteen wells is more than Senator Hanson-Young referenced in her contribution but it's not a huge number in the scheme of things. We've drilled thousands of wells just in Australia in our offshore areas—almost all without incidents. There have been very few major incidents across Australian waters over the decades of experience. That is because we have extremely robust, independent and rigorous regulation of this sector. That is what we should do. That is what we should have. But, again, Senator Hanson-Young completely ignored that. She completely ignored any consideration of discussion of what is in place right now to ensure that things happen safely in our offshore waters.
No-one is denying that these are difficult circumstances and challenging environments to work in. But they are also highly rewarding ones for the scientists involved, for the extremely hard-working men and women who put themselves in these positions. I want to place on the record my great respect for the workers who go out there on offshore oil and gas rigs on platforms spending months, at any one time, in a remote environment away from their families. I have been out on these rigs and I've got enormous respect for those men and women who put themselves in this position. They are great men and women who do that. They deserve our respect, because it's their hard work, their isolation and their resilience that helps us to enjoy so much of the products in the modern world that come from the production of petroleum products.
We have those robust environments in place through the independent regulator NOPSEMA, who I meet with regularly to discuss these matters. They are a great organisation. They have, as I said, presided over the safe drilling for oil and gas across all our waters. They don't just regulate the environmental matters of importance here or pay attention to the Australian Greens. They also make sure that workers' health and safety is protected. We have had, fortunately, a significant reduction in incidents and fatalities in the last decade in this industry. It's something I always discuss with industry to make sure we maintain. We have those arrangements in place for a reason, to make sure that the industry does meet the high standards that the Australian people expect, and they do that everywhere across Australia.
While I've mentioned southern Australia and the Bass Strait, the history there and the potential opportunity in the Great Australian Bight, we must also not forget the other areas of our country that produce enormous amounts of wealth and opportunity for Australians and continue to be very strong oil and gas provinces.
What concerns me about this bill is that while it talks about the Great Australian Bight—and takes, as I said, an unscientific, narrow-minded view in reference to that—if this bill were to pass it would establish an extremely unfortunate precedent and example for those other areas of our country. If the Greens are saying, 'We don't think the risks of doing the proper science, regulating it properly here in the Great Australian Bight, are worth the potential billions of barrels of oil, wealth and jobs for our country,' why wouldn't they apply the same test into the Barrow Basin or the Carnarvon Basin, or the onshore areas—the coal seam gas areas—Surat and Bowen Basins in Queensland or the burgeoning and fledgling Beetaloo Basin with enormous opportunities in the Northern Territory. Potentially the same principle would apply, and that would be and extremely dangerous precedent given that Australia now benefits to the tune of more than $40 billion through the export of our gas resources. We are now the largest LNG exporter in the world. It is an enormous industry for Western Australia, and Senator Hanson-Young has no reference here about the potential effects on that great state. It's become an enormous industry for onshore resources in Queensland, where Senator Scarr and I are from. There's no reference there. There's no reference from the Australian Greens about how reducing our production of oil and gas would affect the domestic economy.
We have had an experience of high gas prices in the past couple of years. I do not have time to go through all the reasons and the wherewithals of that issue. But, clearly, if we are to reduce our supply of domestic oil and gas, that is going to have an impact on the price of oil and gas here in Australia, particularly gas, which would threaten thousands and thousands of jobs in our manufacturing industry that I want to keep and fight for. I want to keep those jobs. I want to make sure that we can continue to have a manufacturing industry in this country, and to do so we need to use our natural resources in a safe and sustainable way.
In the time I've got left, I do want to return to the theme of our national domestic security. With that history that I mentioned of the Bass Strait, and the development of the Carnarvon Basin subsequently, we were actually able to maintain a self-sufficiency in petroleum products to a greater degree than I think most Australians realise. We obviously operate in a global environment, so oil and gas resources are traded across the world, some are exported from Australia and some come back as refined products. But when all is taken into account, on the eve of 11 September, almost 18 years ago now, Australia produced 95 per cent of its petroleum product needs here in Australia. We had enough petroleum production to meet 95 per cent of our domestic needs—as I said, some of that was exported and some was re-imported back. But, if the worst happened, we could meet almost all of our petroleum product needs from our own production. Eighteen years on, that figure now stands below 50 per cent. So in 18 years we have dropped from almost self-sufficiency in the production of petroleum products—that includes oil, gas and other products on that spectrum—and we now are not self-sufficient by a long way. Less than half of our needs are met by our production of those products.
We live in a volatile strategic environment. Notwithstanding the dreams, wishes and fairytales of the Australian Greens, the need to have access to oil and gas is a key requirement, and a necessary condition for us to be able to adequately defend our island nation, out here on the outskirts of the Asia-Pacific region. And, while I don't have a magic wand to make sure we can produce more oil and gas, in this strategic environment we should not be closing off any options to potentially jump back up to that level of self-sufficiency, of which the Great Australian Bight is, potentially, one option. It is commonly seen as, perhaps, the most prospective frontier offshore area in the world, and we do not know exactly what will be there. Perhaps, if approved through our independent process, future wells in the Great Australian Bight may not produce and may not lead to discoveries and investment. But there are a lot of people who think that they may. And, if they did, it would revolutionise and change our domestic security environment. It would make sure our country was safer and more secure. And I don't quite understand the abandon with which the Australian Greens come into this chamber and threaten that national security, with very little consideration for that issue at all—with no attempt to rebut and say, 'What would we do if production remained insufficient here?' Or, 'what would we do, if we look back in 10 or 20 years time and say that maybe we should have made different decisions then?'—that is, if the Australian Greens get their way. I fundamentally reject this bill, because it is unscientific, and would threaten our own security.
I also want to finish by commenting on the continuing hypocrisy of the Australian Greens. If only we could capture, bottle and use the hypocrisy of the Australian Greens to produce electricity in this country, we would never have another blackout! There are abundant renewable resources of hypocrisy from the Australian Greens, because they come into the chamber and talk about climate change and talk about the need to reduce fossil fuels, and I see no evidence from any of them that they're reducing their own use of these products themselves. It's fine to come in here and talk about the evils of global corporations. It's a different thing to do that and then continue to use the products that are produced by those global corporations, with gay abandon. I don't see them reducing their car travel; they certainly keep coming up to Queensland annoying us about different issues, as they like to do in country areas. They're still doing that. I don't see them reducing their use of plastics, Tupperware, mobile phones—all of these things have petroleum products in them. I see protesters in Brisbane, right now, supergluing themselves to streets and other objects around the CBD, with little understanding—I think none of them would actually know—that most, or almost all, modern superglues come from the production of fossil fuels, and come from hydrocarbons. You do not have modern superglues without petroleum products. That's how they're generated. They just use these things. They don't get it. They want to impose morality on others without leading the moral life themselves. It is hypocrisy. This bill should be rejected. It's inane and unscientific, but it is also a mass array of hypocrisy.