Senate debates

Wednesday, 1 March 2006

Offshore Petroleum Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Annual Fees) Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Registration Fees) Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Repeals and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Royalty) Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Safety Levies) Amendment Bill 2005

Third Reading

10:38 am

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I am not going to go back over the argument, but, from an environmental perspective, the Offshore Petroleum Bill 2005 is not just a farce, it is a tragedy. It is a tragedy that this wonderful nation of ours in the year 2006 has a government which believes the environment counts for so little, that it has a government which uses the words ‘intergenerational equity’ but does not care at all about the environmental inheritance of the next generation, the generation after that or the numberless Australians without the vote whose interests we are dealing with here and now. What is on the table here is a go-ahead to corporations—and they will usually be multinational corporations—to extract what they can from the seabed. That includes invading marine protected areas. This is a go-ahead for that process in Australia, where we should be protecting more, not less, of the marine ecosystems.

There is no doubt that the marine commons, as Senator Christine Milne has described them this morning, are now up for grabs. But a little further down the line it will be adjacent planets and space territory that the rush will be on for. We do not have the technology for that yet. Written into this bill is the potential for revoking the protection that is there for Antarctica at the moment. They will do it ecologically sustainably, but, if we accede to this legislation as it is written, we are acceding to the government and opposition who see nothing getting in the way—no probity, no environmental care and sensitivity and no equality for environmental considerations when it comes to Australia’s natural heritage.

We are the country amongst the rich nations with the greatest number of species that have been made extinct in the last two centuries and the largest number of creatures, so far as we know, on the edge of extinction. We are rapidly, almost day by day, discovering new and amazing creatures in our marine territories. Science simply does not know how those ecosystems work, and we are giving the go-ahead to the oil industry to get in there—into marine protected areas, for goodness sake; that small percentage that is protected—to do as it will in the interests of extracting profits. There is no boundary for this government—there is no limit. Nothing is sacrosanct. We believe a line should be drawn. We believe that probity is in the ultimate long-term interest of stability, both social and economic as well as environmental. This is not good sense, it is not good planning, it is disastrous policy and we cannot support it.

10:42 am

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to say how disappointed I am with the government’s response to the amendments I have put forward in relation to the Offshore Petroleum Bill 2005. I think Australians will be shocked to know that the oceans and the marine environment hardly get a mention at all in this bill. In fact, I think people would be horrified to learn that the words ‘marine’ and ‘ocean’ do not appear in the bill at all.

This legislation should have been framed in the context of Australia’s oceans policy. It should have been framed in the context of ecosystem based management, ecologically sustainable development, multiple user management and regional marine planning, and it is not. We have a situation where all of those things are left simply to policy or to regulations. That is why oceans policy implementation is problematic—it has no legislative backing. The government should have taken this opportunity to better integrate one of the major marine resource statutes and it has not. There is a need for formal recognition of oceans policy principles in the bill and a major oceans policy structure—for example, regional marine planning—so that it becomes more consistent with supposedly major government policy governing our oceans.

It is with deep regret that I note what we are seeing here is only an editorial rewrite of legislation that is more than 40 years old. As a result, we are seeing just a naked statement of an Australian government giving resource security to the oil and gas companies in 2006 when the imperative of looking after the ocean is so great and so much before us. It is also tragic that we now have a situation where the Australian community will have to go to the courts to get back its own marine commons. That is an appalling situation—understandable 40 years ago, understandable even a decade ago, but certainly not understandable now.

I find it appalling that, throughout this debate, the government refused to say whether whales or cetaceans are included in the only reference to conservation in this document—which is when they talk about the ‘resources of the sea and seabed’. There is no reference to the marine environment. I asked repeatedly throughout the debate whether ‘resources of the sea and seabed’ include whales and cetaceans, and there was no answer. So I am assuming that ‘sea and seabed’ are simply jurisdictional matters referring to the territorial sea and the bed of that sea, and that is why the reference to the marine environment does not appear—this act does not cover the complexity of the marine ecosystem and the marine environment. What we have got is an offshore petroleum bill which is giving the mining, petroleum, oil and gas industries access to the territorial sea, which that act says includes everything there, including the seabed. There is no veto for the Department of Environment and Heritage. There is no reference to oceans policy. It is an absolute disgrace that we are in this situation with a 600-page rewrite of 1960s legislation and the government seems to think that it is adequate, and the Labor Party is supporting it.

People around the world will be horrified at just how far behind Australia is getting. The one thing Australia could hold its head up about in recent years was oceans. Australia is a disgrace on refugees, it is a disgrace on climate change and it has undermined the UN processes in relation to the war in Iraq. Whenever it has turned up at environment conferences the only thing it could be proud of was the marine environment, because of the Great Barrier Reef, the planning that has gone into that and the fantastic work that has been done up there to get the zoning sorted out and so on. That is something to be proud of. But, instead of learning from what has gone on with the Great Barrier Reef, we are now just entrenching all of the bad processes that led to that horrendous, long, drawn-out conflictive situation that finally got to a good outcome. We could be pre-empting that by setting up appropriate regional marine planning, and we are not. I think the Howard government has now undermined itself in relation to yet another global focus, and that is the marine environment.

As I said, in Durban in 2003 at the World Parks Congress, Australia, like everybody else, stood up and signed on to the prospect of 10 per cent of the world’s marine area being in protected areas within the next decade to catch up with the terrestrial environment. And here we have legislation which just does not even consider that context. It is not only a lost opportunity in terms of making a step forward, it is an insult to the National Oceans Office, it is an insult to those in the Department of the Environment and Heritage and it is an insult to all of the people in the non-government organisations and communities that have been working for years to get recognition of conservation of marine ecosystems and of the marine environment. All they have ended up with is a reference to conservation of the sea and the seabed in a territorial jurisdictional sense and not the marine environment. That is why I will be voting against this bill.

I find it utterly shameful that the government has refused to incorporate a definition of ‘ecologically sustainable development’ as an object of the act and that it has refused to incorporate the precautionary principle in terms of the environment plans that have already been approved for the oil industry. Those plans will not be able to be revoked if new and significant information comes forward in terms of the environment.

10:48 am

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise only to correct a couple of matters that have been dealt with in the debate so far. I am not trying to prolong the debate, but it is important to note that, at a time when the world faces an uncertain energy outlook and the vast majority of its oil is located in unstable areas of the world, it is more important than ever that Australia has a clear picture of its oil prospectivity, and that as much as possible is done to find and map prospective reserves. But, having said that, we also believe that there should be a proper environmental assessment process, and we are assured that the regulations will provide for a continuation of that.

We are also satisfied that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act continues to apply to proceedings under this legislation. I am reminded that, in terms of the regional forest agreements legislation, the Greens repeatedly called for that act to apply to the regional forest agreement areas. In this case, they are now saying that we should have it in this act and not in the EPBC Act and that the EPBC Act is a farce. I understand that is what Senator Milne said. You cannot have it both ways. If you are going to suggest to the parliament that there should be a pre-eminent environmental protection act—and, whatever criticisms the Greens may have of the EPBC, they have suggested that in relation to other legislation—to criticise the opposition because we hold that view in relation to this is just pure inconsistency.

We did not support the amendments because, as we stated early in the debate, we believe that it is not appropriate to deal with the environmental assessment provisions in this legislation as such. We believe that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. But we are also aware that under the current arrangements applications for exploration have been rejected on environmental grounds. That was not mentioned by the Greens during the debate, but those are the current arrangements. Everything can be improved upon. We are not uncritical of this government in terms of its environmental credentials. This legislation is a rewrite of existing legislation, but we do accept that the environmental protections can be upgraded continuously through the process—and not merely by amending the act but also by the promulgation of regulations—and we would like to see that happen.

10:51 am

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to clarify a couple of things, as Senator O’Brien has done, in relation to some comments that were made by the Greens on the Offshore Petroleum Bill 2005 and related bills. In relation to the veto, I quite clearly put on the record the fact that the Department of the Environment and Heritage does have the capacity to veto. That was denied by Senator Milne in her final statement, and it is just not true. It was quite clearly put on the record during the committee stage. Not only can it happen; it has happened. So let us not go down the track of pretending not to hear something that has been quite clearly put on the record.

As Senator O’Brien has just said, the environmental considerations that apply as part of this act are dealt with under the regulations that are attached to the act. As for the processes and all of those things being 40 years old or more, in relation to the regulations that is simply not true. The regulations were updated in December of 2005, in consultation with the environment movement. They sat around the table as part of that process. The Greens continue to deny the involvement of the environment movement as part of this process, and yet they are involved. The government does see the protection of the environment as being important, so there is a process of continuous improvement. Senator O’Brien mentioned it in relation to the regulations, and that is appropriate.

Senator Bob Brown said several times during the debate that fishermen have been kicked out of marine parks. Again, that is not true. I am surprised that the party that purports to be supportive of the environment does not have an understanding of the marine protected area process that is being conducted in Australia at the moment. It really does surprise me. It concerns me even more, given that Senator Brown and Senator Milne are from Tasmania, where there has been significant debate over the last three or four months about marine protected areas in their own home state—the state that they represent—and they do not understand the process. It is just staggering that they come into this place without understanding that process.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

You don’t understand it. That’s the problem.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration) Share this | | Hansard source

I am really staggered, Senator Brown, that you come in here continually making statements about what can and cannot happen in a marine protected area. You obviously do not understand it. It is very concerning. Obviously you do not support the fishing industry either; otherwise you would have taken a real interest in it.

Finally, in relation to the capacity of companies to hang on to areas that they have, a company cannot just sit on an area without doing what is required of it under the conditions that the permit was granted for—including looking after the environment. It cannot just sit there and not do the exploration that was agreed to as part of the application. So there were a number of things that I felt needed to be corrected in the final part of this debate that were continually repeated by the Greens and that simply are not true.

Question put:

That these bills be now read a third time.

Bills read a third time.