Monday, 10 September 2012
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012; In Committee
I table a supplementary explanatory memorandum relating to the government amendments to be moved to this bill, and seek leave to move the two amendments to the bill together.
On behalf of the government I move amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012:
(1) Clause 2, page 2 (cell at table item 2, column 2), omit the cell, substitute:
(2) Schedule 1, item 4, page 4 (line 30), after "qualifications", insert "or expertise".
These amendments will, firstly, change the date on which the provisions come into force to a single day to be fixed by proclamation. However, if the provision or provisions do not commence within the period of six months beginning on the day that this act receives the royal assent they will commence on the day after the end of that period.
Secondly, we are inserting the words 'or expertise' to clause 505C(5)(a) to clarify requirements with regard to expertise and qualifications for members of the committee. This will require the minister, when appointing members to the committee, to ensure that each member other than the chair possesses appropriate scientific qualifications or expertise that the minister considers relevant to the performance of the committee's functions.
These amendments are now required because (1) the delay in the legislation passing the Senate would otherwise create a requirement for requests for advice on proposed actions to be referred to the statutory committee retrospectively from 1 July 2012 onward, and this would unnecessarily delay project proposals already considered by the interim committee in July; and, (2), paragraph 505C(6), an amendment passed during consideration of the bill by the House of Representatives, stipulates that the minister must ensure that a majority of committee members possess scientific qualifications and expertise in relevant scientific disciplines. This new amendment will make 505C(5)(a) consistent with 505C(6) when read together, because reference to expertise as an employment requirement then exists in both paragraphs. The effect of this amendment will be to allow the minister to consider expertise gained through means other than formal scientific qualifications, for example, relevant experience, in appointing members of the committee.
We have consulted with the opposition in the preparation of these amendments and I commend these amendments to the Senate.
I just indicate the opposition's support for those amendments. The opposition appreciates the consultation that the government has undertaken and also is cognisant of the need to change the dates around the commencement so that there are no issues around retrospectivity. It also appreciates the government's acceptance of opposition amendments in the other place and the clarifications that have been provided around those.
Question agreed to.
I have a number of questions for the minister. I will then, by leave, move some of my amendments. But firstly I am interested in the fact that this bill sets up a committee under federal laws to effectively advise state governments. Just having a squiz through the wording of the bill, I see there is nothing in the bill that compels the states to seek advice from this committee. The only compulsion is contained in the national partnership agreement on CSG, which of course has a $50,000 price tag attached to it if states agree to sign up. So my question is: was any consideration given to reflecting that mandatory nature in the actual bill itself? Secondly, can you please update us as to whether the states have indeed legislated for the need to consider this committee's advice?
I am advised that there is an agreement between the federal government and state governments entitled the national partnership agreement. Within the terms of that agreement, state governments are required by 30 September to identify a protocol as to how they are referring projects through to the committee that would be established by this legislation.
I understand that COAG will be undertaking a review of obligations that the parties have taken on under the national partnership agreement and that it would be enforced through COAG arrangements.
I think the sum you are referring to is $50 million rather than $50,000. Sums of $50 million have already been paid and others will be paid subject to the deliberations of COAG, and the review of the obligations contained in the partnership agreement.
Forgive me; I found your last response a little hard to follow. The $50 million will be 'reviewed' if the states do not meet that 30 September time frame; meaning that money will be subject to be brought back by the Commonwealth? I am just seeking to understand that process.
As I understand it, some of the $50 million has been paid and the remainder will be paid subject to COAG's review of obligations found under the national partnership agreement.
So, of the money that has already been paid, what mechanism is in place to ensure that those legislative amendments at the state level are made in compliance with that agreement, given that the money has already been paid?
Not all of the $50 million has been paid, so first let me clarify that. Second, there is an obligation on states to make legislative changes by the 30 September deadline. The protocol is that the legislative changes would need to be made with effect for next year.
Thank you. I am pleased to hear that there is perhaps some wriggle room in the nature of those amendments. The national partnership agreement terminology is that the states need to amend their laws in order to 'take account of' this committee's advice. I have some very firm views on how that term has been interpreted in other environmental laws, but this is obviously just a partnership agreement and not a law. Can the parliamentary secretary shed any light on his understanding of whether 'take account of' means 'comply with' or whether it simply means 'read and then shred if inconvenient'?
There has been a decision made about what is found in the legislation and what is found in the agreement, and it is the view of government that those arrangements are sufficient to meet the intent of the bill and the intent of government.
Thank you. So clearly the intent of government is to set up a committee which has no teeth, which can provide advice if requested by the federal minister—which he then cannot act on because he has no water power—and which may be requested by the states and then can be ignored. Is that accurate?
I do not think that was really a question, was it? Obviously that is your view or perspective on the proposition that is before the Senate. It is not the view of government.
Thank you. I certainly would have preferred to see a much stronger bill than the one before us. If the view of government and the intention of government were in fact different then perhaps they ought to have reflected that in the bill before us. But I would like to move now to a matter that I just alluded to, and that is the ability of the federal minister to even act on the advice given by this new committee. I refer specifically to proposed section 131AB, which is item 2 of schedule 1 of the bill. It is clear that the minister has to seek advice if he thinks there is going to be an impact on water resources, as long as there is also going to be an impact on a matter protected by part 3, which is a matter of national environmental significance. Does the parliamentary secretary understand that my interpretation is correct in that the federal environment minister still cannot act on this advice unless there is going to be an impact on an existing matter of national environmental significance, of which water is not one?
I am getting some advice for you on that, Senator, but I understand that it is broader than you have described it and that the minister has other triggers to act as well. But perhaps I will take that on notice.
With respect, it is a fundamental question. I would expect that the drafters of the bill are fully aware of the existing triggers in our environmental laws, as I am. Water is not one of them, and the whole basis of the bill is only enlivened if there is going to be a significant impact on one of those matters. My question is: is it correct to say that the advice of this committee will have no influence whatsoever over a minister's approval decision unless there is a matter of national environmental significance that is already protected by the act? That is, if there is a coal seam gas development, it will not matter a whit what this committee says because there is no water trigger in our environmental laws.
I will now read it for the benefit of the senate, you will be thrilled to know, Senator Heffernan:
(b) the Minister believes that the taking of the action:
(i) is likely to have a significant impact on water resources; and
(ii) may have an adverse impact on a matter protected by a provision of Part 3.
I understand that those powers mean that the minister has a wider discretion than you are describing.
With respect, I would ask you to check with your advisers on that point. The whole purpose of having an adverse impact on a matter protected by part 3 is that part 3 only protects those matters from significant impact. Therefore, the threshold is not lowered from the standard test in the act. I would be thrilled to be corrected, but my understanding is there is still no power for the minister to act on this advice, even if the advice says there is going to be terrible impacts from coal seam gas or large coal mining, unless the impacts are on one of those listed matters of national environmental significance, of which water is not one.
I think it is also worth noting that sitting alongside this are the state referrals that go through the protocol, which means that state ministers, or for that matter territory ministers, can also take account with regard to state matters.
That did not really answer my question, but I think it does serve to illustrate that my understanding is correct. This bill sets up a committee to primarily advise the states who only need to take account of the advice according to an agreement—not this bill—and who can take account of and then shred the advice. The federal minister cannot act on it unless there is an impact on a threatened species, a Ramsar wetland, a migratory species, a nuclear reaction, Commonwealth waters or a World Heritage site. When will the government consider adding water to our environmental laws so that they can actually do something to protect it from coal and coal seam gas?
I do not have an answer to that question, Senator. The legislation is before you. I obviously take account of and note your critique of that legislation, but I am not in a position to comment about what future governments and future legislation might encompass or not encompass.
Clearly, this is evidence—and I have studied this for a long time—of what I said earlier in the day, that this legislation would be good if it got the right set of teeth, but as it is it is designed, as the minister—not Minister Burke, another minister—said, to make sure the Commonwealth does not own the problem. That is all it is about. You can take as much advice as you like, but you do not have to act on it and the states can do whatever they like. Sure, we need the advice and, as Senator Colbeck has pointed out, we do not really know what is going on with the aquifer. It would be good if this brings forward some science, because the CSIRO does not even know. The CSIRO tells the Senate committee: 'It could take 400 years to rebalance the aquifer, but we do not really know. And we do not know why the Springbok and Walloon aquifers were contaminated and we do not know why those cattle—'. There is actually a bore drain south of Mount Isa that is running blue water, but they do not know why.
The one thing we do know is that the Commonwealth does not want to own the problem. This legislation could be good legislation if the Commonwealth accepted responsibility for the problem, but they do not. The responsibility for the problem is with the states and this legislation ensures it stays there.
Minister, I now want to move to the question of salt. It was raised by a number of speakers in the second reading debate on this bill—that is, the sheer vast amount of salt that will be produced as a result of coal seam gas mining. I would like to confirm whether my understanding is correct. In looking at clause 505D of this bill, which talks about the functions of the committee and what they will be asked by the minister to consider, it seems to me that they will only consider a significant impact on water resources. They will not consider the impact on the environment more broadly from issues like the vast amounts of salt or, for that matter, from the fugitive emissions on our climate. Can the minister explain whether or not the government turned its mind to including salt—or climate, for that matter—when drafting this bill?
That will be a matter for the committee. Obviously this committee has been established to explore and ensure that there is better understanding of the various challenges that exist in this space. I suspect, with respect to salt and fugitive emissions, you have described two of those issues. Those issues are very much the kinds of issues that this committee is being established to deal with.
I am pleased to hear that but unfortunately I am perplexed, because that is not reflected in the wording of the bill. Can you take me to the section where the committee is empowered to consider the impacts on our environment from the greenhouse gas emissions of coal seam gas and the salt produced from the mining? I am afraid I am not able to find that myself in my reading of the bill.
The committee is not constrained from looking at the matters you have described and on a reference from the minister would be one of many ways in which the committee could do the kind of work you are describing.
With respect, Minister, I think the committee is constrained by the functions set out in clause 505D, which all come back to the impacts of coal and coal seam gas on water resources rather than on the climate, on the land, on regional communities, on the reef or on anything else for that matter. Again, I would be happy to be wrong about that, Minister. Could you please clarify that.
The salt will have an impact on the land because there is no known safe storage. We are talking about 700,000 tonnes of salt per year for which there is not an approved storage. It is the most toxic substance to agriculture. Forget about the connection to water; this is after the brine has been distilled. What we are talking about is 20 million tonnes of salt for the known tenements for the life of that tenement for which there is no known commercial purpose and no known safe storage, and it is not included in this legislation because this legislation is dodgy.
Minister, I was pleased to hear you express earlier that you thought that salt and climate should be within the remit of this committee, and I would be very eager for you to raise that with your colleagues and amend this bill accordingly, because certainly the Greens will support that. I would now like to move to the issue of the scope of the bill generally and its framework, where it is setting up an advisory committee effectively to advise the states, and the view expressed by both sides of the chamber during various iterations of debate on this topic that somehow coal seam gas should only be a matter for the states and that the federal government should have very little to do with it. Can the minister please advise whether or not the government shares that view.
I am advised that while states do have responsibility for these matters, this legislation has at its very heart the notion that better scientific analysis and better transparency will be achieved through the agency of Commonwealth legislation.
The legislation deals with most serious problem we have got besides the contamination of the aquifers, which we do not understand. CSIRO does not understand it; no one understands the interconnectivity at the low geological point fault lines with the repressurisation of the balances. How does this legislation enable anyone to deal with salt? Do not give some bureaucratic, BS answer.
With great respect, that absolutely makes the point. This is completely and fundamentally flawed legislation. Salt is the most toxic substance tied to agriculture and yet this legislation, as the minister points out, is silent on salt. I presume, Minister, you understand that it is the most toxic substance for agriculture. I presume you know that the 700,000 tonnes is a big heap—5½ kilometres long, 32 metres wide, 10 metres high, stacked at 32 degrees, per annum—and this legislation is silent on what you do about that. How inadequate and how boofheaded would the parliament of this nation be not to address that.
Minister, I want to take you back to your answer to my previous question when I asked what the government thought was the role of the federal government in this sphere in regulating coal seam gas and you said you thought this bill would deliver better transparency. My question is then why are we are not waiting for this committee to do its research before issuing more approvals for coal seam gas? If you indeed want that transparency, why are you not letting this committee do its work before just approving yet more coal seam gas wells across the entire nation?
What I am saying is that while this legislation will, in the government's view, strengthen the process going forward, it does not bring about a moratorium on current investment. The industry does not cease to exist until this committee is established and has completed its work.
by leave—I move Australian Greens amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 7233 together:
(1) Schedule 1, item 4, page 4 (line 29), omit "(other than the Chair)".
(2) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 9), at the end of subsection 505C(6), add:
; (e) public health.
These two amendments effectively add to the experts that this committee needs to be comprised of. Currently there are only four areas of scientific expertise that need to be included on the committee specifically, and that is geology, hydrology, hydrogeology and ecology. This amendment seeks to add public health to that list. The reason for that is the huge concern in the community about both coal seam gas and large coal mining and their impact on community health. There is a litany of examples in the coal-mining sphere, and the Hunter Valley is obviously the most pressing one, but there is also a huge concern within the medical community, as well as within communities themselves, about the health impacts of coal seam gas, particularly the chemicals that are used in hydraulic fracturing fluids—or fracking fluids, as they are known—and the naturally-occurring chemicals that can be mobilised through that fracking process. This amendment seeks to ensure that the committee can have experts amongst its members who are able to reflect on those impacts and address some of the concerns in the community and the medical community about public health.
This amendment is not supported. The intent of the committee is adequately met through the provisions of the bill, including the amendment moved by Mr Macfarlane and agreed by the House of Representatives. Relevant expertise will be sufficiently represented. It is important that the chair can bridge science and government, and the government will be seeking a chair that has that capacity. The second amendment is not supported. The clauses covering the composition and expertise of the committee that are included in the bill do not preclude the appointment of experts in other relevant discipline such as public health.
Minister, I am sure you would have listened to my second reading debate contribution to this bill.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
I am sure you would have been listening, Minister. I was just making the point that I hope you make better decisions on the appointments to this commission of inquiry than you did, for example, to the climate commission. I will not repeat it and malign the chairman yet again, but clearly the government has shown a lack of any sense or reasonableness in the appointment of some of its committee chairmen, and I gave an instance. I would just like to know, before voting on this bill, what the process is going to be. Is the minister just going to slip around to the local Labor Party branch and see which members might be looking for a job this week, or is there some process or some form for how people who have a real interest in this have an input into the selection process? If this is to work it has to be a genuine, above board and competence based process. I am interested to know, before I vote on the bill, just what the process is going to be.
I am not sure we will be able to provide you with all of that information the you sought in the chamber in the time left for debate, but I am happy to see what information can be made available.
Minister, the time left for the debate could be five minutes or it could be five hours. As far as I know, the Greens have not agreed to guillotine this bill through the chamber so I suspect the debate will go on for as long as is necessary. There must be a process. I am sort of joking when I say you just do not slip down to the local Labor Party branch and find out which one of them has not got a job from your government yet and appoint them if they happen to have some sort of university science degree. I am pretty certain that is not the case. There must be a process. If you are not aware, Minister, your advisers should be aware of just what that process is. It would be useful if you could just tell the chamber what it might be.
The old Prime Minister's Christmas card list has been the style in which your previous government made major appointments, but I can assure you we do go to greater lengths than checking Mr Howard's Christmas card list before we make those appointments. That may be your suspicion because of how you are used to making appointments and how your party and your previous government made appointments, but I can assure you we will have a proper process. As I said, if there is any information that I am able to gain for you in the near future I will see what I can gather for you.
Thank you, Minister. I had hoped that you might be able to do that before we actually have to vote on the bill. There must be a process, surely. This is the chamber, this is the time, this is the process for telling the elected representatives of the people just what the process might be. Perhaps your advisers are writing out a note for you to say what that might be.
While I wait for that answer, could I ask a further question. How will this commission interact with, for example, the Queensland's GasFields Commission? As I am sure you heard me say in my speech in the second reading debate, it has already started doing similar work to what I understand this process will bring. In my speech I indicated this was a bit of a catch-up. The Queensland GasFields Commission has now been operating for some time and it is, broadly speaking, seeking to achieve the same end result as this particular bill. My question is: what will this bill do for the coal seam gas issue in my state of Queensland that the Queensland government's GasFields Commission is not already doing? The commission, with this amendment, which I think was brought on with a bit of pressure from our side, actually signifies, as I understand it, the qualifications or the various areas of expertise that the scientists might be required to have.
The Queensland commission does have scientific expertise, but because it is looking at other issues of land management, which only the Queensland government can deal with, it has on board a lawyer and two or three mayors who are representatives of the local community, and a former mayor who has also been involved in action groups. So it is a slightly broader proposal than this one, which seems to be solely and purely scientific. Just summarising my questions: what will this commission do that the Queensland government's GasFields will not do, and how will this commission interact with the Queensland commission?
I do have a little bit of extra information for you. I understand that there will be some consultations between the minister and his state counterparts, but as to the interaction, I have no confidence in the commission, following the savage cuts that the Liberal-National Party government in Queensland is engaged in at the moment. Sit down boofhead!
I am not sure that, following the savage cuts to staffing that are taking place in Queensland—all of those good Queensland public servants that are losing their jobs because of the Campbell Newman government—are going to be in a position to fully undertake their remit. I would hope they are, but I do not have any confidence. But I am very confident—
If it is a point of order, Bill, cool, but you do not get to comment until I am finished.
I would hope that commission gets its opportunity following the savage cuts that are coming from that Liberal-National Party government; but in terms of this committee, it will be doing its job. And if that committee in Queensland is left able to do its job after those savage cuts then it might be worth a conversation.
I enter into this debate to try to get some serious answers. The second reading speech people spoke far and wide across a range of issues, but in the committee stage I am trying to get some answers. If Senator Conroy has nothing to do but sit here and trade political insults then I am quite happy to do that all day and all night if needs be.
But I asked a serious question. Just responding to Senator Conroy: if you want to know, and clearly you did not hear my second reading speech, the previous Labor government went to an election some time ago promising to create X number of jobs: a completely baseless promise—a bit like the promise that there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead. It was a promise made by a leader of the Labor Party, which she had no intention of meeting—notwithstanding her trying to rewrite history last night in a very soft interview with what I mistakenly called the ALP but I corrected myself to say the ABC. It is hard to tell the difference at times. Ms Bligh was trying to rewrite history, but the mere fact of the matter was that she promised she would create thousands of new jobs and had no intention of doing it. She had no money to do it; she had bankrupted the state. The only new jobs she created were make-work jobs for public servants in the back room and no frontline services. Fortuitously, as a Queensland taxpayer, I am pleased that my government is now getting rid of those public servants who were not actually making a contribution to the job. Leaks in the paper suggest that more and more workers at the frontline will be engaged after the budget is brought down this week in my state of Queensland.
Wait and see. You were the one who wanted to have a bet with me on who would win the Queensland election. At least most of your colleagues would only bet on how big the margin would be. I think you are saying that the Labor Party was going to win it! So I take no notice of your predictions of what a decent government in Queensland might be.
The Queensland coalfields commission is made up of a number of people, as I read out in my second reading speech. They will be there until the job is finished, Senator, so there is no suggestion of them not having the wherewithal to do what they want to do. But I come back: it makes a bit of a mockery of the system when this committee stage is meant to try and get sensible answers to reasonably sensible questions—I say 'reasonably' because I do not want to get—
Well, he will, too, and he has a very sensible question. But can I repeat mine? There are now three questions that I would like answered: can you tell me the broad parameters of how your commission is going to be selected? There is no rocket science in that; no great secret about that. Surely, the government must have a view on how you appoint people to these commissions rather than slipping down to the local Labor Party branch and seeing who has not yet been given a job? Surely, you can tell me what that is?
Secondly, you can tell me what this commission will do that the Queensland GasFields Commission is not already doing? That is a reasonable question. Thirdly, I am just trying to get an indication of how this scientific commission will interact with the Queensland GasFields Commission, that has actually now been operating for several months. It has been building up a bit of expertise and it has broad community support—mayors, scientists, lawyers, farmers and landowners in Queensland, all contributing towards an outcome which I assume that this commission being set up by this legislation is also intending to achieve.
So they are three reasonable questions, Minister, and I would appreciate an answer.
I think that you have actually repeated at least two of those for the third time. And I can understand why you are actually embarrassed about what is going on in Queensland. You may be happy to be sacking public servants, Senator Macdonald, you may be happy—
Madam Temporary Chair, I rise on point of order. I am disgusted, the point of order being that this is a—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order! There is no point of order. Minister, you have the call.
All we have had now for 20 minutes is just garbage—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order! Senator Heffernan, that is not a point of order.
As I said, Senator Macdonald, I will see if there is any further information—I have said this now three times—that I can obtain for you while this debate is going on.
Minister, you are fresh in the chamber on this bill: could you just confirm to me that this bill, which is designed to do research on the coal seam gas industry, excludes in its ambit investigating the problem of salt and the land? It does include the impact on water but not on land. Could you just confirm that?
While you are confirming that I have to say that we have been in touch with the minister on this issue.
I am sure that he enjoyed your personal visit.
I am advised that the legislation is to provide scientific advice to the environment minister in relation to proposed coal seam gas developments or large coal-mining developments that are likely to have a significant impact on water resources.
Thank you very much, that is an excellent answer. What it does is point out the complete flaw in and the urgent need for an amendment to this legislation to include the impact of salt, not on water but on land. It is the most toxic substance in agriculture, and yet that is outside the ambit, allegedly, without an amendment to deal with it. This is cuckoo land stuff! I would hope that the minister's office is listening—he has his adviser there. All we need is an amendment to include the impact of salt on bloody land! For God's sake!
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Waters—
Senators! I am going to draw us back to the question before the chair, and we might return to general debate. We have had some indulgence in broader debate. The question is that Greens amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 7233, moved by Senator Waters, be agreed to.
I rise to speak on Australian Greens amendments (3), (5), (7), (8) and (9) on sheet 7233. They relate to the scope of the committee to set its own agenda, if you like, rather than simply be asked by the federal minister to investigate certain matters. Clearly the importance of this amendment is to enable an independent committee to be independent and to ensure that the relevant experts on the committee—which sadly do not include public health, following from the vote we just had—can, of their own volition and their own expert judgement, investigate the various impacts of coal and coal seam gas on water resources.
In the government's bill, there are a handful of things that the committee is able to investigate of its own volition. Unfortunately, they are only three out of a reasonably long list, and those are: improving the consistency and comparability of research; publishing information about the development of standards for protecting water resources; and collecting, analysing, interpreting and disseminating scientific information about coal seam gas and water. So my first question, Minister, is: what resourcing will be provided to the committee so that it may have the capacity to perform the functions that, as written, it is currently allowed to perform of its own volition without a reference from either the state or the federal minister?
These amendments are not supported. The committee provides its advice under direction from the appropriate minister of state. This is critical to ensure that the committee's work is focused on the priority issues under its mandate and to ensure consistency with the arrangements agreed between the Commonwealth and states under the national partnership agreement.
Minister, I draw your attention to proposed section 505D, subsections (1)(e), (f) and (g), where the committee is able, without reference from the federal environment minister, to perform those functions that I listed before. If your rationale is that the committee may not ever use its own judgement, why the existence of those sections?
Certainly. My amendments go to expanding the scope of the committee's work program so that it can do more of its own volition. Your comment in response to my first question was that you thought the committee should not have any of its own discretion to do its own work. My question is: why have you got sections in there that enable it to do so if that is your view?
I was just consulting with the officers. They are in a position where they could put suggestions to the minister, but essentially the work plan is at the direction of the minister.
Okay. That is not really what is written in the bill, but if that is how you are intending to interpret it then well and good. I ask that you perhaps clarify that for the officers who will be responsible for implementing these provisions. I have made clear that our view is that this committee, if it is to be a genuinely independent committee, should in fact have its own ability to determine the issues that it considers, and I have moved amendments to that effect. I understand the government does not support those.
I would also like to ask you, Minister, while we are looking at this particular section, to clarify. With respect, I raised this with the parliamentary secretary earlier, and there was a little confusion as to the scope of the government's bill, so perhaps you might put beyond doubt the government's response. The scope of this committee to consider impacts of coal and coal seam gas is to my mind very clearly limited by this section to their impacts on water resources. It will not be able to consider the impacts of coal and coal seam gas on anything other than water resources—land, climate, people or the Great Barrier Reef.
Yes, Senator Heffernan did take up that issue after I raised it in the chamber, and I completely agree with him on that front. I think this committee should expand out its consideration of impacts not just on water resources but to coal and coal seam gas on the environment full stop. I understand the minister's office may have something to say in that regard shortly and I await that with great interest. Without further ado, I seek leave to move amendments (3), (5), (7), (8) and (9) on sheet 7233.
(3) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 13), before "within", insert "on its own initiative or".
(5) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 18), before "within", insert "on its own initiative or".
(7) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (lines 24 to 32), omit paragraph 505D(1)(c), substitute:
(c) on its own initiative or at the request of the Environment Minister—to provide advice to the Environment Minister about:
(i) how bioregional assessments should be conducted in areas where coal seam gas development or large coal mining development is being carried out or is proposed; and
(ii) priority areas in which bioregional assessments should be undertaken; and
(ca) at the request of the Environment Minister—to provide advice to the Environment Minister about bioregional assessments commissioned by the Minister;
(8) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 33), before "at", insert "on its own initiative or".
(9) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 22), before "at", insert "on its own initiative or".
I indicate that we have just had a vote on the issue of whether land use will be included in terms of the Greens amendments that were defeated. There was a line of questioning of the government by a number of members of the Senate, in particular Senator Heffernan, on the issue of salinity. I think there is a genuine concern that what this bill is intended to do will not be effective unless it also includes the issue of land use. I foreshadow, given the responses of the government in respect of this and discussions I have had with both Senator Heffernan and Senator Waters, that I will be seeking to move quite urgently an amendment on the issue of adding to the scope of what the committee can look at to include not only water resources but land use. I am hoping that that amendment can be circulated very shortly as a direct result of the line of questioning of the government in respect of this. I am very grateful for what Senator Heffernan raised about issues of salinity, because I do not think it has been adequately covered by the responses of the government.
I understand that the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities may have something more to say about this shortly, but I think the way to guarantee that this committee will do what it is intended to do is to include references to land use in addition to water resources. So, as a result of the discussions I have had with Senator Heffernan and also a discussion I have just had with the shadow minister for the environment, Mr Hunt, as well as my colleague Senator Waters, I wanted to flag that to my colleagues and to the minister. I think it is important that we get this right and we make sure that it is what it is intended to be: a robust scientific analysis of the impact of coal seam gas. It will be incomplete if it simply includes water resources. It will not necessarily cover the issues of land use—for instance, the issue of salinity.
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?
This amendment is not supported. The provisions as they currently stand are appropriate and any such addition would increase the committee's remit beyond the original intent of a focus on the impact of coal seam gas and large coalmining on water resources. If there were impacts on water resources, including water quality, the consequential impacts—
Senator Waters interjecting—
I am happy to start again. This amendment is not supported. The provisions as they currently stand are appropriate and any such addition would increase the committee's remit beyond the original intent of a focus on the impacts of coal seam gas and large coalmining on water resources. If there are impacts on water resources, including water quality, the consequential impacts to the environment and health will be assessed within the current remit of the bill.
Thank you, Minister. Yes, that is my understanding of this limited scope of the bill. My question went to a broader issue: what can the federal environment minister do if he is given advice by this committee about the impact on water of coal or coal seam gas mining and there are no other impacts on matters of national environmental significance identified? Can he put conditions on?
The remit was established, and this is the legislation to create what was agreed between a range of parties. As I said, you are seeking to broaden the scope, which is your entitlement. This is what the committee was set up to do, not to go into some of the areas that you are suggesting that it should.
With great respect, Minister, that did not answer my question at all. I will put it for a third time: what can the federal environment minister do if he is provided with advice by this committee that signifies there will be impacts on water resources but no other impacts on matters of national environmental significance? What is the federal environment minister empowered to do to act on that advice in that circumstance?
You are asking a hypothetical. We are happy to see if there is anything further that the minister would like to add. At this stage, your proposition is a hypothetical: if X happens, what will the minister do in response to X? I am happy to take the question to the minister to see whether there is any further information he is able to provide to you.
Thank you, Minister. My question was not forecasting or crystal ball gazing. My question is: what powers will the federal environment minister have to act on the advice provided by this committee? It is apposite. It is by no means a hypothetical question, Minister. It goes to the very purpose of establishing this committee in the first place. We all know that there were political intentions and reasons behind its establishment but I am asking about the actual functioning of the committee legally, and I do hope that the minister is paying attention, because this is the fourth time I have asked the same question. What powers will the federal environment minister have to act on this advice?
And this is the fourth time that I will give you the same answer, which is that I am happy to take this to the minister to see whether there is anything further he would like to add.
Minister, the answer is none, because there is no water trigger in our environmental laws. It is a very basic point that I would hope folk in here would be familiar with. It goes to the fact that this committee will be entirely toothless and, frankly, a waste of money. I very much look forward to a detailed response from the minister that confirms the limits of his jurisdiction. What I would really like to read about is when the minister would like to expand his powers rather than shrink them. It seems perfectly obvious that our environmental laws are insufficient to deal with these issues.