Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2015; Report of Legislation Committee

4:23 pm

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

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report by the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee into the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2015.

The Greens have introduced this legislation not once, not twice but three times into this federal parliament over the last four years. In that time, we have seen growing community concern for the scientific impacts and for the impact on health, community and climate of this new, rapacious fossil fuel industry, which is coal-seam gas, shale gas and tight gas or unconventional gases, as is the overarching term. We are seeking to give landholders the right to refuse access to coalmining companies and unconventional gas companies, which come knocking at all hours of the day and night. Currently landholders cannot say no. There is no legal right for them to refuse entry or access to their land, for it to be turned into an open cut coalmine ought to be hydrologically fracked—'fracking' as it is known, for evident reasons. Landholders have absolutely no right to determine that they in fact want to continue to farm this beautiful land.

In Queensland, we have seen the coal-seam gas industry roll out on some of our best food producing land which has some of our best soils, which, sadly, we have too little of. It was with that community sentiment and with the scientific concern in mind that we once again introduced this private member's bill, to empower landholders to protect their land and water and to enable them to continue to produce food, of which we are currently a net exporter, and to continue to address climate change, given the huge fugitive emissions from unconventional gas and given the direct impacts of coalmining on climate.

In the course of this inquiry, we heard some incredibly powerful evidence. I want to take the opportunity to thank all of the communities who took the time to make submissions and to give us evidence at the hearings. It was a deeply emotional experience from many community members who have had their lives and their land overrun and who, in many instances, have suffered personal family health impacts. I would like to take this opportunity to read into the record some of the evidence given by some very passionate community members on that topic. We heard from Shay Dougall and Narelle Nothdurft from the Hopeland Community Sustainability Group. Narelle's family have documented problems with eyes, nose and throat. They have problems with chronic headaches and migraines. She said in a letter:

My seven year old boy … has been suffering fast onsetting headaches for a few years now. They are so severe he bangs his head into the wall or the floor anything to make them stop.

We heard some evidence that there had been some studies recommended by the Queensland Department of Health to be done into air quality. Those studies were discontinued for no apparent or discernible reason and the studies were not in fact then carried out. Two years later the residents are still waiting to find out what sadly they already know from the daily experience—that their family's health is being threatened by this new industry.

We had heard some very serious evidence from the CSIRO and from the Department of the Environment who confirmed that in their studies into hydraulic fracturing they have not even started to look at the impact of fracking on deep aquifers. They also acknowledged that that meant they had not looked at the risks of mobilising naturally occurring carcinogens in the geology, which occurs in the fracking process. Those studies are in their infancy.

We also heard that there have been several jurisdictions, not just domestically. Some of the states, in recognition of the scientific dangers, have placed a moratorium on fracking—that is, Victoria and Tasmania. Of course, internationally many jurisdictions have said that fracking is too risky for our communities and our land—in Canada, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and in Europe, Germany, Wales, Scotland, France, Bulgaria and the Netherlands and there are many states of the USA. We are hearing more and more about the potential dangers of this process, yet we also heard in the course of the inquiry that the big parties do not wish to do anything about it.

I found it incredibly disappointing—that would be understating it—that the report into this bill does in fact acknowledge that there are problems but it then proceeds to recommend doing absolutely nothing about those identify problems. In effect, it is a statement that says, 'This is not our problem; let's leave it up to the state governments. They're doing a perfectly find job.' Clearly, they are not doing a perfectly fine job. We heard evidence from many legal groups saying that the regulation of this industry is utterly woeful, that there are multiple breaches of permits, that there is a real risk to land and water from this new fossil fuel rapacious industry and that national leadership is required to at least put a moratoria on fracking until we better understand the kind of experiment that we are wreaking on communities. In the Greens' view, that evidence is already clear enough and there should be a ban.

Coming back to the key aspect of the bill, which is to allow landholders to say no to large coalmines and unconventional gas and fracking on their land, it was really quite duplicitous, I thought, to hear from industry saying, 'But look at how many voluntary agreements the community signed. They must be so happy with this arrangement; they have signed up to these agreements.' They have no choice to sign. They have no legal right not to sign. That was made patently clear not only simply from the common sense of it but also by some of the excellent witnesses who talked about this imbalance of bargaining power. Drew Hutton, from Lock the Gate, who of course should be acknowledged as the father of that movement, has done fantastic work in unifying communities and giving them a voice and some courage to speak out against this David and Goliath battle between the very wealthy multinational fossil fuel companies and the farming and community groups who have, sadly, been forgotten about by many folk in this place. Drew Hutton said:

The first assumption is that there is some sort of equality in the negotiation that goes on between mining companies and farmers. In fact, as far as we are concerned, there is no equality. It is negotiation with a gun at the head of the landowner.

Rosemary Nankivell, from the SOS Liverpool Plains group, said:

…the bill uses the term 'agreement'. I can tell you unequivocally that, when dealing with a resource company, there is no such thing as an agreement. In some cases, perhaps, a painful type of coexistence results, but it is the farming community that does the giving.

Kirsty Kelly, from People for the Plains, said:

All the power lies with the coal and gas companies; the landholders' only position is to accept or go to legal challenge. There is much discussion about coexistence between coal and gas and agriculture. But how can you have coexistence when all the power lies with one party?

Of course, the legal challenge that she is referring to there is not the ability to say no; it is just to quibble over the price of access.

So it was with great disappointment that, despite the excellent evidence given in the course of the inquiry into this bill that both of the big parties said, 'Not our problem; we’re not going to do a thing about this. Let's leave it up to the state governments. Yes, there seems to be some problem here, but it is not our responsibility to deal with it.' We think that this does need a national approach. Clearly, the vested interests in the coalmining companies and the unconventional gas companies, who make some generous donations to the political parties in this place, have been running the agenda and writing their own rules for far too long. It is about time the community had a fair go and had their rights to clean air and clean water and health protected.

If we are to truly tackle climate change, this notion that unconventional gas somehow burns cleaner than coal needs to be debunked. When you factor the leaking gas and those fugitive emissions that I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears on various visits to these places around the country you find that this stuff is just as dirty as coal. It is no solution to climate change. Clearly, it is not worth the risk to the health and longevity of our farmland and our farming communities.

So I commend the bill to this place. I do not commend the report, but I commend the dissenting report. I urge all members of this place to speak to their communities about this issue. You will find there is a real and growing community concern. People want their land, their water and their communities protected and they want their voice back. They are sick of not being heard and of their needs coming last as opposed to the big fossil fuel companies. I am really pleased to have been able to give those communities a voice in the course of this committee inquiry. We will not give up on this fight.

Question agreed to.