Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012; Consideration of House of Representatives Message

5:52 pm

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the committee does not insist on amendments (2) and (4) to (13) and agrees to the amendments made by the House—

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

We can't hear you; the mike is not on.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

My apologies—sorry—

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

It's okay, it sounds better that way!

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

That is what people usually say, Senator Nash! I move:

That the committee does not insist on amendments (2) and (4) to (13) and agrees to the amendments made by the House of Representatives in place of the Senate amendments.

This has a colourful history. The independent—

Senator Birmingham interjecting

Indeed, Senator Birmingham, you are about to eat some humble pie so I would just shut up!

Senator Birmingham interjecting

It is always safer to do it that way; you just pretend it has hundreds and thousands on it when you chew down on this one.

The independent scientific committee was always designed to focus on the protection of water resources consistent with the Commonwealth's responsibilities. The coalition contributions in the House of Representatives celebrated the bipartisan approach to the investigation of CSG on water resources. Celebrated it, Senator Birmingham, celebrated it!

The member for Flinders in fact said on 23 May:

… the opposition 'is delighted to provide its support,

… … …

This is a good bill.

The coalition contributions in the other place did not focus on the consequent impacts on land of salinated water resources. Rather, the coalition talked mainly about the physical impact of coal seam gas extraction on the sites of that extraction activity, and issues of access to land for gas exploration and exploitation.

Senator Joyce, when we started the debate in this chamber, celebrated the bipartisan approach to the legislation. He said:

I think it is important that an issue such as coal seam gas rise above a partisan political position and become something that represents a joint concern.

Senator Joyce's words in this place.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Very wise!

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

They were wise words, it is just that then he did not vote in the same way as he spoke. Unfortunately, all of those opposite decided to let Senator Heffernan and a few others take charge. Some could say that the lunatics were in charge of the chamber for a while. When the division came, even after Minister Burke had provided clarification and even after he provided additional words outside this chamber to reassure people that the bill was designed to do exactly what we said it was designed to do, Senator Heffernan and some others—hello, Senator Xenophon! The good news, Senator Xenophon, is that I know you will vote the same way today as you voted last time. There are going to be some people who are not going to be joining in this time though.

This is what happens when you let the lunatics run the asylum.

Senator Xenophon interjecting

In the Liberal Party! There is no-one over there taking the objection so I think that you are on your own. When you let the lunatics take charge of the asylum in the Liberal and National parties, this is what—oh, please!

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Temporary Chair, I rise on a point of order.

Senator Conroy interjecting

There you go; there you have the minister! No wonder we are held in such low regard! He has accused the opposition of being lunatics for an amendment that I co-sponsored with the Greens, the Liberal Party, the National Party and the DLP in relation to this bill. I ask the minister to withdraw his accusing members of this chamber of being lunatics in the context of this debate.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I would not want to offend anyone in the chamber—

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Minister, we will have some civility.

I unreservedly withdraw. I did not realise that we had such sensitive souls.

I know that Senator Heffernan could take—

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Temporary Chair, I rise on a point of order. Could Senator Conroy take the red underpants off his head?

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Heffernan, the image of you standing over there with them on your head will live with me.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

They are calling you underpants, are they?

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

They would not be red. I have some of that Collingwood, I do.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | | Hansard source

Too much information, Steve!


Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Then, unfortunately, despite the bipartisan talk from those opposite, Senator Heffernan decided that he knew more than everybody else in the coalition put together.

Senator Heffernan interjecting

There are days, Senator Heffernan, where that is true. But this was not one of them, I am afraid. Senator Heffernan suddenly decided that the bill is silent on salt. The legislation is dodgy—that is what Senator Heffernan said. The lower house passed this bill without having discovered that there is a serious hole in it, and on the weight of that and others—like looking at the problem of salt as it affects water without looking at the impact of salt as it affects land and its use—is a serious oversight for which we should forgive ourselves and move the amendment and get on with it.

He went on to say:

I am sorry, but you will not find land or its use anywhere in the statement you have just read, and without that this parliament would look ridiculous.

So the weight of Senator Heffernan's contribution in the chamber moved the entire Liberal-National Party coalition from bipartisan support to supporting Senator Heffernan's amendments.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, what Senator Conroy has just read out has no mention of salt and the impact on the land et cetera that is in this legislation. This legislation is designed to be seen to be doing something when you are doing nothing, because this committee is going to have no power to compel at all.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, there is no point of order.

I am just trying to inform you, Senator Conroy, because you know that you know nothing about it. It is a legitimate concern, Madam Temporary Chair Stephens. What he has read out is actually true and even though he is rubbishing it, it is actually true.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, you will get the call to make a speech.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I am not rubbishing, Senator Heffernan. Your parliamentary spokesman in charge of this bill says that you are not supporting this amendment anymore. Those in the other place who run this bill for you are saying, 'No, Senator Heffernan, you are wrong.' When we went back to the chamber, Mr Burke moved an amendment to clarify the existing meaning that impacts on water resources to include any impact of associated salt production and/or salinity. Minister Burke went on to say, 'I do not view these amendments as producing anything significantly different from what the government already had.' The shadow minister, Mr Macfarlane, supports the additional amendments.

Now we are back here again today. Let me make it very clear: the scientific review process is to investigate the impact of CSG on water resources including the salinity that may be produced by this resource activity. Why are we worried about the salinity: because it provides a risk for downstream land uses. That is a given. The proper focus of this investigative process is to identify the scope for the salt and other containments to enter our precious water resources. We cannot mandate an extension of the investigation into the impact on land use as that is the constitutional province of the states.

Over my nearly 17 years in the chamber, there have been a number of occasions when those opposite—and Senator Heffernan, if you have a legitimate point of order, please make it, but if you want to give a speech, wait until I am finished—

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Madam Temporary Chair, this legislation can do what it needs to do on salt without interfering with the states, and I understand the state guys got a bit exercised. Senator Conroy, this legislation does not compel the states to do anything other than ignore the science review committee's work if they choose to, and my old mate over in the corner knows that.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, that is not a point of order. You will get an opportunity to contribute to the debate.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

In the 17 years I have been in this chamber, I have been involved in the odd states' rights debate and usually those over on the opposite side refuse—though to be fair, they have broken that along the way—though their general philosophical principle is states' rights. On this one they all decided on the advice of Senator Heffernan to decamp from the shadow minister and come and sit over with the Greens, your new allies—Senator Xenophon, Senator Madigan, and I do not think that Senator Williams gets out of this either, and I hope that you are listening Senator Williams—and, yes, the Swans did win the premiership; you are right and you have sent me enough texts to remind me. Senator Williams was quite vocal on this.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Temporary Chair, on a point of order, Senator Conroy, you would not be in government if you were not in coalition with the Greens in government.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, there is no point of order.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Just interject from your seat. That way you cannot pretend you are taking a point of order. Senator Heffernan convinced all those geniuses over there to sit with the Greens. This was a very, very entertaining debate.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You know nothing about it.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Let us be very clear. The states have rolled Senator Heffernan and they have made sure that the Liberal Party stick to the states' rights debate. The states have said, 'No, no, Senator Heffernan, you are not impinging on our constitutional rights.'

Senator Heffernan interjecting

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order, Senator Heffernan!

I am looking forward to Senator Birmingham's contribution and I am looking forward to any senator's contribution, especially Senator Heffernan's. Senator Heffernan is talking up a big storm over there, but when the bells ring again he is coming to sit with his shadow minister this time. You can try to pretend that the position you are taking today is the same as the position you took a few weeks ago, Senator Heffernan, and you might convince yourself about that, but there is nobody else in this chamber who is going to agree. They are all a little bit embarrassed about what you did last time and they are now in a position where they have brought you back to heel. I am looking forward to your usual colourful contribution, but the bottom line is: those opposite led by Senator Heffernan, who decided to vote with the Greens and every other minor party, are now coming in here to vote the opposite way.

6:05 pm

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have got to say, Senator Conroy, for someone who knows nothing about it, you do bluff your way through well. My sincere congratulations on that. But you know nothing about what this bill is all about. To put it into plain language, as your minister said to me, 'Bill, we have got to be seen to be doing something when we are doing nothing, and this bill achieves that.' This Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012 compels the government to set up a committee because of a deal done with Mr Windsor for $150 million worth of expenditure on we are not too sure what, to get advice from an expert panel made up of we do not know really who or what qualifications they have. The advice does not have to be used by anyone; it just has to be provided. So for you to say that somehow this puts the states in a difficult position because of recommendations on the impact of agriculture's most toxic substance, which is salt, should not be in the legislation because in some way it endangers the states is, I am afraid, flawed, because as you know—you probably do not know because you do not know anything about the bill, but somebody's got to do the job—the advice of this committee does not have to be taken by anyone. It can be absolutely ignored or it can be taken up if they want to, but there is no compulsion at all. But at least that way the government of the day is seen to be doing something about coal seam gas extraction and some of the environmental issues associated with it. Some of these environmental issues have come back to haunt parts of the world to the point where in Bakersfield County in the United States, for example, they are suing a miner for $2 billion for water contamination, and do not ask me how you decontaminate a water aquifer with a cheque in the mail.

I have to say, Senator Conroy, though you have probably heard me say this before, that the average extraction for the coal seam gas industry in the known tenements with the known three major licences in Queensland, in the Surat and Bowen basins, are going to develop between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of granulated medium-grain salt per annum. As you would know, Senator Conroy, salt stacks in coarse grain form—please note I am not using any notes—at 806 kilograms per cubic metre and it has a gravity stack at 32 degrees. That means if you stack the per annum extraction of granulated salt for the three main tenements in Queensland, you will have a stack that is 10 metres high, 32 metres wide and a little over five kilometres long. The industry have said, 'We are going to store that salt in an approved storage.' The salt that results from the processing of salty water that is extracted was originally stored in evaporation storages, but they did not like the sound of the name 'evaporation storages' so they have changed them to 'storages'—they still evaporate. The outcome is 700,000 tonnes of salt per annum, for which at the present time there is no known commercial use and no known safe storage.

The report from the committee that I chaired said there is no safe storage for that salt—and Senator Conroy, for your information, the government members unanimously signed up to the report. They got into a bit of trouble, I think, for signing up to that, but they had a bit of guts because on the evidence we received you could not come to any other conclusion. The industry has said, 'Maybe we could pipe it to the sea.' We do know, Senator Conroy, that there are approximately—in the scientific vagaries of estimation—200 TCFs in Central Australia. You probably do not know what a TCF is, but it is a trillion cubic feet measurement in gas, in the scientific vagary of estimation. The North West Shelf has one-fifth of that capacity, so about 40 TCFs. The difficulty with coal seam gas extraction is that the industry considers that too far from the market and the port so they are going to ignore that, take it up in all the prime agricultural land and store the 700,000 tonnes per annum or 20 million tonnes over the 35-year life of the mining from the known tenements. Somehow, that is going to be safely stored. You've got to be pulling my leg!

I talked to the government, on background. I asked what we are going to do about it. 'Well, Bill, the thing that you've got to understand is that we don't want to own the problem, we want the states to own the problem.' The reference committee reported on the risks that have not been assessed by the Queensland government—Premier Bligh was the premier at the time. Their own scientific advice said, 'Do not proceed with these mining licences till you have come to an environmental solution.' They have now got environmental tick-offs without an environmental solution. There is no solution on the salt. There is no known reliable information on the low geological fault lines in the aquifers. As I have said many times, Senator Conroy, if you put the two big fat blokes up against a thin wall and one walks away, the other bloke falls through the wall. The same thing happens when you depressurise Mother Nature's naturally balanced aquifers under the ground. If you depressurise one aquifer you absolutely alter the behaviour of other aquifers, which have fine, low geological fault lines which are naturally pressure balanced so they do not leak from one to the other. That is the proposition that has been put by the scientists as to why the Walloon Coal Measures and the Springbok aquifer have contaminated one another, and that is also precisely what happened in the United States. But in terms of the legal obligation on liability, under the rush to get the employment and investment and the royalties for a financially stressed Queensland government—and the New South Wales government is in the same position—they decided to proceed without an environmental solution. Anna Bligh, to her credit, rang me up and said, 'Bill, what the hell do you think you're doing?'—or words to that effect. I said, 'We are just putting the facts on the record, because what you have not done, Premier, is read your own scientific precautionary advice, which also talked about the cumulative impact of coal seam gas.'

I have to say that Santos have been a pretty responsible in their response to it. James Baulderstone did tell the inquiry, putting his own job on the line, that they would not go where they were not invited; he did actually say, 'If we're told where we can't go we won't go there.' But Senator Conroy—through you, Madam Acting Chair; I am not too sure of the right title there—the scientific advice said, 'Please take the precautionary principle first and consider the cumulative impact.' Some of these areas like Roma have had a few hundred wells for 20 or 30 years and are about to have 8,000 or 9,000 wells. We already have a bore drain, south of Mount Isa, from the Great Artesian Basin that is running blue water through contamination, though not from coal seam gas but from another contamination. So how in God's name can we have a scientific committee on which we are going to spend $150 million, because the political imperative at the time was to be seen to be doing something even though it was not known what they were going to do, and the let-out clause is that, whatever they do, no-one has to take any notice of it? And that is a fact, that the advice they give no-one has to give a rat's about. Maybe it will be that stunning that they will feel compelled to do something about some of it.

But, Senator Conroy, the reason I originally put the land in is that is where the salt does the damage. Salt water is salt water. You would know through your great knowledge of agriculture, where you go to Woolies or Coles and get a loaf of bread and that is the end of it, that salt is the most toxic substance to agriculture. While there are some scientists and commercialists looking to find a commercial use for the salt, at the present time they do not have one, so they are going to have to store it. Twenty million tonnes of salt is something like 100 metres wide, 50 metres high and 25 kilometres long; it is a bloody big stack of salt. I am damned if I know why any responsible government or minister of a government would think that it is a fair thing for Australia's agriculturists and farmers to store that salt in the Murray-Darling Basin. A lot of that country up there can get six or eight inches of rain overnight and all of a sudden you have a salt surge which absolutely sterilises the land for hundreds of years. We have seen an example just in the cowboy attitude of Eastern Star Gas in the Pilliga Scrub up there where they thought that in test bores they would get away with just a few ponds of a few hundred metres, which overflowed in a storm event and then for the next few hundred yards all around every living plant and tree was killed. The committee I was on and I think Senator Nash was on—

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I was.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We travelled around and we saw illegal low-point drainage from the pumping of the gas where they were bleeding the salt water into the local creeks. And you do not think Australia's taxpayers should be interested in this and the federal government should take some responsibility, and you imagine that we can just come in here and joke about the politics of Senator Bill Heffernan doing something and senator someone else doing something else. This is us worrying about where we are going to be in 50 or 100 years time and not looking back and saying, 'Why did we do what they have done in Bakersfield in the United States or in a lot of the western river systems there, which have stopped running because of the poor administration of the extraction of bore water? Why in God's name did those politicians back in 2012 let that happen; because they wanted to play politics with one another?'

The referee of the Earth is Mother Nature and Mother Nature is more powerful than anyone in any parliament anywhere. We need to absolutely work in conjunction with and assist Mother Nature to assist the human race to feed itself. I repeat that barring a human catastrophe, Senator Conroy, by 2050—Senator Nash is sick of hearing me say this—with nine billion people on the planet, 50 per cent of the people on the planet will be poor for water. The world's freshwater is three per cent of the world's water and two-thirds of that water is permanently tied up in snow and ice. There is more water in the clouds and the ice than there is in the rivers and lakes. And the world is losing one per cent of its agricultural productive area of land per annum due to a number of reasons. By 2050, with nine billion people on the planet, 50 per cent of the people will be poor for water. All science has value, all human endeavour has failure, and it might only be 50 per cent right, but even if it is 40 per cent or 30 per cent right it is a big problem. Two-thirds of the world's population will be living in Asia and 30 per cent of the productive land of Asia will have gone out of production, the food task will have doubled and possibly 1.6 billion people on the planet will have been displaced. By 2070 with 12 billion people in a place like China that country will have to feed half its population from someone else's resource. At the present time we spend $40 billion on agriculture research and $1.5 trillion on defence. The world's food task for the future does not have a solution; the world's energy task has umpteen. In the future what is in your fridge is going to be far more important than what is in your garage.

So we need to take this legislation seriously, and to not have included the impact of salt upon the land is irresponsible. Senator Conroy, we did agree to an amendment and I have spoken to the minister's office on this. It is a sensible amendment because it includes salinity. (Time expired)

6:20 pm

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

I rise to speak again on coal seam gas and I am pleased to have the opportunity to do so in this place because it is an issue of huge importance that communities right across the country continue to be incredibly concerned about. I will run through some of the reasons for that concern before turning to my concern at the changing position we have seen from the coalition on this issue. We have been banging on about coal seam gas and its problems ad nauseam for quite a long time now. The reason for that is that it is not just a risk to our groundwater and hence our food growing ability but it is also a risk to the climate, it is a risk to those regional communities and it is a risk to the Reef with most of it destined for export, requiring huge dredging for new ports to get all that liquefied natural gas out of port.

I remain concerned that when we have bodies like CSIRO and the National Water Commission who speak to us loudly and clearly and regularly review their advice and reiterate it, we still do not understand the long-term impacts of coal seam gas mining on groundwater resources because we do not know enough about the connectivity of aquifers and therefore we are potentially gambling with the long-term water supply for some of our food growing regions. Why on earth are we still steaming ahead giving this industry approvals? When we have unanswered questions that go fundamentally to where we get our water and food from in this country, surely that is an issue that everyone is concerned about. Why on earth are we still racing ahead and giving it approvals?

I now want to raise the litany of disasters that we have seen with coal seam gas—and these are not just concerns about long-term impacts; there have already been impacts. A few months back we saw gas bubbling up through the Condamine River close to a CSG mining operation. Of course, the company says it is not their fault, but the EPA, Queensland's environment department, were very slow to investigate. So it is hard to know what the real incidence is, but locals say this has never happened before. So one has to have suspicions. There was also the contamination of the Springbok aquifer with CSG mining operations back in 2009. The list goes on. There was the release of polluted waste water during the 2011 floods. There was a gas well blow-out and a drilling fluid leak near Chinchilla and there was the spill in the Pilliga Forest that I was privileged as a member of the Senate committee that Senator Heffernan chaired to go and inspect and see the damage that that CSG fluid had done to the local vegetation and the water in the creek that was flowing nearby. So despite this potential for damage and this potential for long-term damage and impact on our groundwater resources, Australian farmers still do not have the right to say no to coal seam gas. We think that is wrong, and we would like to give them that right. I have a bill to do that; but, unfortunately, it still remains lacking in support from either of the big parties. But, never mind; we shall persist.

I have three times now moved for a moratorium on coal seam gas until we understand better those risks that we are taking and those long-term impacts that we may have—potentially irreversible long-term impacts. Once again, unfortunately, the Greens have received no support from the coalition or the government for that moratorium. I also moved a motion which included an extract from the National's coal seam gas policy. Sadly, they did not come into the chamber to vote for their own policy—something which I find found very disappointing. I have also proposed an inquiry into coal seam gas—a national inquiry. It is not just one that will look at Murray-Darling Basin impacts, which this place has examined, but one that will actually look across the country, including shale gas in WA, which has the similar problems with hydraulic fracturing. It is one which will also look at those specific marine impacts from all of that dredging to dig new ports in order to get this gas out for export. And it is one which should consider the impact on household gas prices, given that much of that gas is now headed for the export market, which is putting pressure on domestic prices. Again, the Greens had no support on that, despite the fact that 68 per cent of the community are worried about the long-term impacts of coal seam gas and despite the fact that we all like to eat on a daily basis.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Nothing escapes you.

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

Well, food is a very important part of my life and I am proud of that. I would like to eat locally grown food and support our regional communities, as I am sure you would, Senator. That brings me to this bill. It is a very small improvement and, of course, that is why the Greens will be backing it. But, frankly, it is too little, too late. I am particularly concerned that there is not going to be a pause on coal seam gas approvals while this research committee does its research work. It seems to me to be patently ridiculous to charge a body with looking at the impacts of coal seam gas bioregionally, as we should be doing, yet not wait for its advice before more approvals are issued. I do not know whether anybody else thinks that is ridiculous. I think it is ridiculous. It flies in the face of the precautionary principle and it adds insult to injury that you bother setting up a committee and then not wait for its advice.

Senator Heffernan made the point—which is correct—that nobody actually has to listen to this committee. I wish that were not the case. I wish that were wrong. But, as we can see clearly from the National Partnerships Agreement, the state governments will only have to consider the advice of this committee. It will just be one of a list of considerations, and I am afraid as an environmental lawyer 'consider' is very weak. They can consider it and then they can decide to do something completely different. Effectively, they can ignore the advice of this committee, and they are getting paid $50 million each to boot. That is a very sweet deal for the states and, frankly, it is a very sweet deal for the government, who can now appear like they are doing something on coal seam gas when in reality this research body will have no impact at all on any of the approval decisions.

That brings me to the point about the limitations of our federal environmental laws and the fact that it is great that we have this science body who will now give the federal environment minister some advice on the water impacts of both coal seam gas and large coalmining but the environment minister will not have the power to act to protect our water resources. He only has the power given to him in that environment act for species, wetlands, World Heritage areas, Commonwealth waters, nuclear actions and the Great Barrier Reef—there is a list of about eight of them. Water is not on that list. So what good is this committee going to do to be providing advice to the federal minister that he cannot act on? I mean, for God's sake! Excuse my language, Chair. We need to give the environment minister power to act on the advice of this committee. If the committee says there are going to be long-term impacts on groundwater, our environment minister needs to be able to do something about that. This is why I have another bill on this matter before this place to give the minister the power to add that water trigger to our laws. I would urge all senators to reconsider their previous opposition to that bill, because it would certainly improve decision making.

I want to talk now about my disappointment in the backflip that we have seen from the coalition. We saw an amendment co-sponsored by Senator Xenophon, Senator Madigan, some coalition MPs and me to expand the purview of this research body to include land and its uses—that is, the impacts of coal and coal seam gas on land and its uses. It was quite a broad amendment and I was incredibly supportive of it. I had had a similar amendment which I had moved, but unfortunately it did not get support. So I was pleased to see that this slightly modified wording was then able to pass this place. I am very disappointed that the House saw fit to reject it. And I am dismayed that the coalition backflipped, changed their mind, and agreed with government on a much smaller amendment which was solely focused on the impacts of salt production and salinity.

Of course, salt is a huge problem and I do not for a moment claim that it is not. It is one of the largest problems with coal seam gas as well as those general groundwater contamination and depletion impacts. But my concern about limiting the scope of the committee to just salt production and salinity rather than the broader land and its uses, as this place originally insisted on and as the Greens will insist on again today, is that it excludes a whole lot of other impacts. It means this research body will now not be able to look at, for example, whether coal seam gas and farming can really co-exist, as the industry likes to claim at every opportunity but as producers say, 'No. In fact, that is an impossibility.'

It also means that this committee won't now look at the real impacts of subsidence from coal seam gas wells being sunk or from pipelines being laid for that matter, which is a massive problem both for farming operations and for the topography as it will lead to run-off problems.

Another issue that this committee will now be precluded from considering because of the unfortunate backflip by the coalition is a related issue: erosion from collapsing pipelines. I am sad to say that I have seen a few of those collapsed coal seam gas pipelines already—again on that Senate inquiry that I was privileged to participate in last year. Likewise, the impacts of land clearing for the roads, the pipelines and the wells themselves will now not be considered by this research committee. Interference with farming operations from coal seam gas will now not be considered. Fire safety and chemical storage, that now will not be considered. And, lastly, impacts from the actual infrastructure footprint of coal seam gas operations, which are significant—pipelines, roads, power lines, generators—will now not be considered.

We took evidence in that same Senate inquiry from some Darling Downs farmers who said that in fact the grid that was proposed for coal seam gas operations would inhibit their farming practices. They also said they had purchased some equipment that would have enabled more efficient and directed application of various fertilisers and pesticides, but they were now not able to use these because of the grid of the coal seam gas pipelines that would now be laid on their land. This is a direct example of where the surface impacts on farming from coal seam gas are going to be huge, and of course costly, for those farmers, not to mention costly for the environment.

All of this could have been considered by the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining; it could have been considered by that committee under the amendments that this place insisted on. And yet the House, and the backflip of the coalition in agreeing now with the government to constrain the breadth of that research back to just salt production and salinity, means that all of those impacts are now not going to be examined. I think it is a great shame that we have seen senators in this place speak out on those important issues, only to get rolled by their colleagues in the House. I am sure Senator Joyce in particular is dismayed that he has been rolled by Mr Abbott.

I want to conclude by saying that I was really pleased that as a result of that Senate inquiry there were some strong recommendations made. They were multiparty recommendations; everybody signed off on that report. In fact, there were recommendations for action on all of those land-use impacts that I just listed: recommendation 8, which talks about subsidence; recommendation 16, which talks about erosion from collapsing pipelines; recommendation 17, which talks about protecting strategic agricultural land from coal seam gas and having no-go zones; recommendation 20, which talks about fire safety and storage of chemicals on farmland; and recommendation 24, which talks about buffer zones for small communities subject to interference from coal seam gas. When this place and the House had the opportunity to put into action those recommendations, they squibbed it. They folded. They have been rolled. I think that is to the great disservice of all of the regional and urban communities out there who are really concerned about coal seam gas and who want to know that our groundwater, our land and our regional communities—and our reefs and our climate for that matter—are going to be properly considered in this absolutely unseemly rush to dig as many coal seam gas wells in this country as possible.

We will be insisting on those amendments. I would like to think we would have some company, but I suspect the two old parties will again remain with the coal seam gas and large coal mining industries and vote against proper scrutiny of all of those land-use impacts that this committee would otherwise have had the purview to look at.

6:34 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate that I too believe that these investments ought to be insisted upon, notwithstanding that Senator Conroy said that these amendments were an 'act of lunacy'. Let us put this in perspective. The points raised by Senator Heffernan, which were the trigger for these amendments and which were supported by a rainbow coalition, if you like, of the Greens, the DLP, the Liberal Party, the National Party and an Independent, indicate that there were some genuine concerns here that what was being proposed was simply not good enough. What the government has come up with is a compromise. That compromise is still an improvement on what was initially proposed, and I think it is an acknowledgement that the legislation needed greater clarity.

I want to make reference to an advice that I received from the Deputy Clerk of the Senate in relation to these amendments. I will seek leave to table it in due course, but I do want to read from that advice because I think it is important to put it in perspective because an issue has been raised about the constitutionality of what has been proposed. This is advice from the Deputy Clerk of the Senate, Mr Richard Pye, dated 12 September 2012. I will read that into the Hansard. I see the deputy clerk is in the chamber, and I am sure he will not mind because his advice is as transparent as always. The advice says:

You have asked for advice regarding amendments proposed by you (also on behalf of a number of other senators) and made by the Senate to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coat Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012.

As you know, the bill amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) to establish an Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coat Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. Under the bill, this committee is an independent statutory committee set up under a new Division under Part 19 of the EPBC Act. The amendments provide that the committee may advise on "land and its use", in addition to "water resources" in the context of its research and advice to the Minister in relation to particular coal seam gas issues.

In my view, these amendments do not raise constitutional issues, for a range of reasons.

First, the amendments are within the existing constitutional authority of the Commonwealth in this area, as reflected in the EPBC Act. Under the EPBC Act, the Commonwealth Minister for Environment is responsible for assessing and making decisions on coal seam gas proposals, if those proposals are likely to impact on matters protected under Commonwealth environmental Law. Although the states have primary responsibility for environmental protection, the Commonwealth has authority over defined matters of national environmental significance (of which approval of coal seam gas projects, in certain circumstances, is one). Neither these amendments - nor the bill for that matter - disrupt the existing responsibilities of states in respect of environmental matters. The amendments are solely limited to conferring an additional ability on the Committee to look at "land and its use" (in addition to "water resources") in the course of its advice to the Minister and do not expand the Minister's powers in any way.

Secondly, the committee is established to provide advice, primarily to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment, on a range of matters to do with coal seam gas and large coal mining developments. The committee does not exercise any power, and its advice is provided to inform the Minister prior to him or her deciding whether or not to approve a project. The Minister is not bound by the committee's advice, and any decision that the Minister took would of course need to be within the bounds of the Minister's constitutional power, and that of the Commonwealth (through the EPBC Act, and other relevant Acts).

Thirdly, section 13 of the EPBC Act confirms that the Act is not intended to exclude or limit, in any way, the operation of a law of a State or Territory. These amendments, having amended a bill which seeks to insert new provisions into the EPBC Act, will be subject to section 13.

Essentially, that is the advice of the Deputy Clerk in relation to this. I thought it was best to read it because his advice articulates it much better than I could ever have set it out. I seek leave to table that advice from the Deputy Clerk.

Leave granted.

I believe these amendments ought to be insisted upon. I understand that, as a result of negotiations between the government and the opposition, there is a different position in respect of salinity. I will not criticise the coalition for going down that path. I regret it but I understand that there were a number of constraints upon them and that this is a compromise that they have reached based on the initial amendment, which I still believe is a worthy amendment and I will be voting with my colleagues in the Australian Greens in respect of that amendment.

It is clear that this committee is only an advisory committee, as the advice from the Deputy Clerk points out. This committee is there to give advice to the minister and, by including 'land and/or its use', it is simply making the work of the committee clearer. It is simply making this piece of legislation more functional and more effective to deal with coal seam gas and the impact it can have on communities. Simply to narrow its use to 'water resources' is too narrow. Including 'salinity', of course, impacts on land use, and that is a welcome development. So the compromise position is an improvement, but I still maintain that including 'land and/or its use' would not only not be unconstitutional—in other words, its constitutionality is not in question; it would have been a sensible amendment to the legislation.

I am grateful to Senator Heffernan, who I think ought to be acknowledged in this place by all sides of politics as having enormous knowledge of the land and the use of land, of farming and its practices and of water resources, for raising this issue. What we will end up with is disappointing, but it is still better than the original bill. Therefore the exercise has been a useful and productive one in terms of making this piece of legislation more effective and, in a sense, more transparent, but, above all, hopefully it will lead to an outcome of providing the appropriate scrutiny of coal seam gas developments and, therefore, we should maintain that these amendments be insisted upon. I am a realist and a pragmatist, and I know that what we will end up with will be less than perfect, but it will still be an improvement on the original bill.

6:41 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | | Hansard source

I note the time of the Senate and the eagerness to see this matter dealt with so I will try not to take up the time of the Senate for too long.

Senator Conroy interjecting

I do want to address a few matters, including some of your comments, Senator Conroy, but I want to pick up Senator Xenophon's comments, in particular on the constitutional issues, and the comments of Senator Waters on some of the more general themes, and to highlight the challenge when it comes to this legislation and the issue of coal seam gas more generally. Senator Xenophon, I am sure, is correct in the advice he is relying upon from our esteemed Deputy Clerk.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | | Hansard source

Indeed. We get unanimous agreement around the chamber on that for Mr Pye. The advice may indicate that certain changes to this bill may be constitutional; however, what I hear when I listen to Senator Waters and other contributors to this debate, and indeed to many commentators in this space, is that people do want to see an exercise of power by the Commonwealth that goes far beyond what was intended in the drafting of our Constitution. I think that is a concern. We do need to appreciate that the challenge we have in this debate is that there are many passionate contributors. We have heard from Senator Heffernan, and most undoubtedly he is one. Senator Nash is another on this side. There are those who are passionate about this topic, and I know that Senator Xenophon, Senator Madigan and Senator Waters are equally as passionate about this topic. But we do have a clash where we have land use powers that are traditionally the domain of the states and that many are seeking to have legislated or dealt with at a federal level. That is a challenge.

However, there has been a lot of concern particular to water, and it is the concern about groundwater that has seen this legislation brought forward. When I listened to the rant from Senator Conroy before—unfortunately, I was not here for the two sitting weeks prior to this week.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You missed it.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | | Hansard source

I unfortunately missed the opportunity to have carriage of this legislation at that time but here I am now, getting to deal with it. If you listened to the rant from Senator Conroy, though, you would think that the legislation that has come back to us is in exactly the form that the government first presented it. That is not the case.

I acknowledge that, notwithstanding Senator Conroy's theatrics, Minister Burke has worked cooperatively with coalition members in the other place to get amendments—initially amendments to this legislation that we believed improved the bill and the credibility of the committee in terms of the qualifications and expertise of the members of the committee; and then following the changes that were made in the Senate there are further amendments, particularly in relation to salinity. I will quote from Minister Burke in his contributions to make clear that in fact we are accepting and the Senate will accept not the exact amendments that the Senate had agreed upon last time but some important changes that do in particular reflect the concerns Senator Heffernan had about salinity issues and that he spoke on so passionately before. Quoting Minister Burke:

The amendments I am proposing now clarify a few things. First of all, they clarify that I must obtain advice from the committee when I believe a coal seam gas or large coalmining development will have a significant impact on water resources, including but not limited to the impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity.

Salt production and consequent salinity impacts are major issues in considering coal seam gas and large-scale coalmining proposals. Salt and related salinity impacts may arise from co-produced water during coal seam gas development, including aquifer interactions and groundwater and surface water diversions from large coalmining developments. They are therefore relevant considerations in working out whether these developments will have a significant impact on water resources. The amendments make it clear that the coal seam gas Committee will have to consider the impact of salt production and/or salinity.

So there are some changes and they are important changes. I think what I can say is that, inelegant though perhaps the law-making process in this regard has been at times, the process has provided and produced a better outcome as a result—a better outcome that sees a stronger committee, a more credible committee, and indeed a committee that will now also ensure the minister must consider and be advised not just on groundwater factors but specifically on salinity factors overall.

With that, can I indicate that the coalition is happy with the amendments that have been brought back by the government and that we will support the passage of this legislation. We have always wanted to see the passage of this legislation. We know that this at least will provide a basis to develop, hopefully, a credible expert platform of information about groundwater and the impact on groundwater by coal seam gas operations. We hope that it will provide the community with greater certainty and greater confidence in this important industry that is important for Australia's export industries, for our energy needs and for our future but does need to enjoy a level of confidence in the community that its environmental impacts are not adverse and that they have all, of course, been considered. We welcome the strengthening of this legislation that the parliamentary process has provided for.

6:47 pm

Photo of John MadiganJohn Madigan (Victoria, Democratic Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Listening to the debate on this issue this evening, for every action there is a reaction—in this case there is an impact. The fact is that the majority of the land in Australia is not usable for agriculture. Yet we continue to put what good land we have at risk, the communities that use that land at risk and our ability to grow our food at risk. Anybody can go to the urban sprawls around our major capital cities and see the amount of market gardens et cetera that have been built on—good farmland. We should be building on our worst land, not on our best land. I hear the figure that was raised tonight—the $150 million—that was for advice or research that nobody has to pay any attention to. And then we wonder in this place why the public have become so apathetic as to the state of the parliament and why we have such a high informal vote. It is because people have lost faith in the political process and the fact that we do not seem to learn from past mistakes. We have the benefit of hindsight and how future generations will judge us. We have limited resources that can be used for the benefit of Australians and for feeding the rest of the world. In this place often we hear people say A, B, C and they do X, Y and Z. That is how the public judges us. That is how rural communities judge us. We expect them to feed us; we expect them to give us food that is good, clean and affordable. Yet we continue to destroy the very thing that provides us with that very food.

We also hear 'sovereign risk' thrown up continually in this place to talk people down. The Australian people are sick to the death of the bickering and the quarrelling instead of us sitting down and working out what is in the best interests of our nation. We continue to do that in this place. As such, I will not be voting for this bill.

Progress reported.