Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2015; Second Reading

3:38 pm

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

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.

Leave granted.

I table an explanatory memorandum and I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—


The Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2015 will provide landholders with the right to refuse gas and coal mining activities on their land. It will also ban the practice of fracking ('hydraulic fracturing') for coal seam gas, shale gas and tight gas.

Over the last decade we have witnessed a huge community campaign of resistance against coal, coal seam gas and shale gas which has united city and country, farmers, environmentalists, scientists and Indigenous Australians. We note in particular the work of the Lock the Gate Alliance and the many other individuals and groups who have resisted the destruction of our land, water and climate in the public interest. I wish to place on record the Greens' support and admiration for this grassroots movement. On behalf of the Greens I have been privileged to play a role in that community campaign, and I look forward to continuing to do so. Very few predicted its success, but the campaign has upended the old certainties to challenge the fossil fuel industry and shown that organised people can defeat organised money. It is in their honour that I introduce this bill.

The intent of this bill is to allow farmers, graziers, residents, local councils and native title holders to say 'no' to gas and coal mining on their land. Right now, the balance between multinational mining companies and landholders is hopelessly skewed towards big coal and gas. This bill's other purpose is to ban fracking, which poses an extraordinary risk to our land, water, climate and healthy rural communities.

There is rightly considerable concern within our community about the impacts coal and gas mining activities are likely to have on Australia's food security. When Australia has so little good quality agricultural land, we must protect it from all other inconsistent land uses. Queensland farmers in the Darling Downs, for example, rely on the aquifers of the Great Artesian Basin for their water source. Without detailed understanding of the connections between underground aquifers in the Great Artesian Basin, coal seam gas activities risk a drop in the groundwater table from dewatering of coal seams to allow gas extraction, or contamination of aquifers with hydraulic fracturing fluid or naturally occurring BTEX carcinogens mobilised by fracking. Farmers in the Liverpool Plains and up in the Gallilee Basin equally have their livelihoods, and their ability to continue contributing to Australia's long-term food security, threatened by the rapid expansion of water-intensive coal mining in their regions. And yet across Australia landholders have little to no rights under state laws to say no when these destructive industries seek to exploit coal and gas on their land. This is simply not right.

The surface and amenity impacts of coal and gas mining can have extensive impacts on farming operations, and pose significant risks to their surface and groundwater resources. Land farmed by families for generations is at risk of being lost by the myopic coal tunnel vision of current governments at both state and federal levels if the inadequate current regulation of these industries is not strengthened.

Native title holders too are unfairly excluded from decisions about the long-term future of their country. It makes a mockery of our commitment to self-determination for Indigenous communities that decisions about the most destructive and irreversible activities on their land are taken out of the hands of traditional owners.

Landholders must be given the legal right to decide that they would prefer to be able to keep farming or living on their land, and for their children and grandchildren to have that option, rather than be forced to negotiate merely the price of entry with big coal and gas companies. Without the right to say no, this David and Goliath situation forced upon families and communities across Australia is even more weighted in favor of big coal and gas.

This bill facilitates the right of landholders to decide whether or not they want coal and gas mining activities to take place on their land. It does this by requiring gas and coal corporations to secure the written authorisation from relevant landholders before they can enter their land. That written authorisation must contain an independent assessment of the current and future risks associated with the proposed mining activities on, or affecting, the land and any associated ground water systems. The landholders must also be informed that they should seek independent advice and that they may refuse to give written authorisation if they choose to.

If the corporation unlawfully enters the land, they commit an offence for which a significant penalty accrues daily. Landholders can also seek an injunction from the Federal Court to restrain the entry where relevant authorisations are not in place, and the corporation must pay the costs of that application irrespective of the outcome.

The bill applies to all persons with an ownership interest in the land, which is broadly defined to include all persons with a legal or equitable interest in or right to occupy the land. This would include native title holders or those with native title rights and interests. It would also include local councils who own land such as road reserves. A corporation must obtain prior written authorisation from all persons with an ownership interest in the land before they may commence coal seam gas activities.

Importantly, this bill does not alter the ownership of the resources, which remain vested in the states. If the federal or state government decide that those resources are so needed, they may seek to compulsorily acquire the land, paying compensation on just terms or in accordance with state acquisition of land statutes. Those existing laws are a sufficient safeguard against a landholder 'unreasonably' refusing access authorisation, so this bill does not seek to address that issue.

The bill will only apply to gas and coal activities which begin after the bill's commencement.

Given the enormous threat climate change poses to all that Australia holds dear—our land and water, our environment, health, livelihoods and food security—the Greens believe it's high time that the fossil fuel age be rapidly brought to a close. Unlike the old parties the Greens do not support ongoing encouragement of these destructive industries across our landscape. The case against the expansion of these climate destroying industries is only compounded by the localised impacts these industries have on our water resources, our communities, and fragile marine ecosystems impacted by ever increasing pressures from industrial ports. The Great Barrier Reef is at risk of being listed as World Heritage In Danger due to the rapid expansion of coal and gas ports along its coastline being facilitated by dredging of fragile inner reef regions. The Greens are working to reign in the many impacts of these destructive industries.

This bill seeks to address one of these critical aspects by giving Australian landholders the right to say no to coal and gas mining on their land.

This bill also bans the practice of fracking for unconventional gas, including coal seam gas, shale gas and tight gas. This ban is warranted due to both the unprecedented level of risk and scientific uncertainty associated with fracking and due to the groundswell of community concern in the face of those risks.

Fracking presents an unprecedented risk to surface water, ground water, clean air and a safe climate. The evidence from across Australia and around the world has been mounting over recent years.

Threats to water resources from fracking are not adequately understood, but the evidence is mounting that they are severe and have potentially devastating consequences. Huge coal seam gas projects in Queensland were approved with minimal baseline data and hopelessly inadequate groundwater monitoring. Both of the major parties have approved huge fracking operations without adequate scientific certainty about their impacts.

Even though federal approvals for the Santos and British Gas Group gasfields were given in 2010, and further approvals were given to Arrow Energy in 2013, the scientific work to assess the risks of those projects has not been done. The CSIRO, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) and the Environment Department's Office of Water Science have not even commenced scientific work on the impacts of fracking chemicals on aquifers.

The current round of studies will not establish with any certainty the risks associated with mobilising naturally occurring BTEX carcinogens. Officials from the agencies concerned freely admit that the work on those risks is 'preliminary'.

Risks associated with aquifer contamination, fracture growth, leaks from well casings and earthquakes caused by fracking are all poorly understood but potentially very grave.

Alarmingly, the human health impacts of fracking are also very poorly understood although mounting evidence shows that they can be severe. Gas leaks caused by faulty equipment and fissures in the earth, as well as contaminated drinking water are unacceptable risks for our rural communities to endure. In the gasfields of Queensland, at Tara and Chinchilla, residents have reported headaches, nose bleeds, skin rashes and nausea amongst children. In March 2013, a report into those complaints recommended that an air quality monitoring program be established, but two years later those residents are still waiting.

Studies in the USA have shown that the fugitive emissions of greenhouse gas from fracked shale gas are vastly higher than for conventional gas. The claims of the gas industry that CSG, shale and tight gas are low-emissions alternatives to coal simply are not supported by robust Australian studies. The CSIRO's preliminary study of fugitive emissions from CSG found that further work was required. No investigation is planned to investigate fugitive emissions from fracked shale and tight gas, even though exploration permits have already been granted.

The precautionary principle, to which Australia has committed and which is written into our national environment laws, demands that where an action presents a risk of harm to the public or the environment, the absence of scientific consensus is not an excuse for regulators to do nothing. This bill implements the precautionary principle to ban fracking.

Across the world, the movement against fracking is building. Bans or moratoriums are in place or imminent in Canada in Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. In Europe, they are in place or imminent in Germany, Wales, Scotland, France, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands, and in regions and cities in Switzerland and Spain.

In the USA, New York State and Vermont have banned fracking. Cities and counties in California, Colorado, Texas, Hawaii, Delaware and Washington DC have also imposed bans or moratoriums. Citizens in Poland have recently seen off an attempt by Chevron to open up their heavily agricultural country to intensive fracking after a 400-day campaign.

In Australia, moratoriums on fracking exist in Tasmania and Victoria. Local communities—too many to name individually—from Queensland to Tasmania are already leading the way by declaring themselves 'gasfield-free'. This bill would align Australia with the growing international movement against this environmentally and socially reckless technology.

This bill would implement a ban on fracking by creating a civil penalty for any constitutional corporation with harsh penalties for non-compliance. It would allow the Minister for the Environment or other interested persons to seek injunctions to stop any proposed fracking operations.

I commend this bill to the Senate.

I seek leave to continued my remarks later.

Leave granted. Debate adjourned.