Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 November 2018


Environment and Communications References Committee; Reference

6:14 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I, and on behalf of Senator Hanson-Young, move:

That the following matter be referred to the Environment and Communications References Committee for inquiry and report by 30 March 2019:

The impact of seismic testing on fisheries and the marine environment, with particular reference to:

(a) the regulation of seismic testing, and the responsibilities of federal and state governments;

(b) the consultation process regarding the approval of seismic testing;

(c) how potential impacts are taken into account during the consultation process;

(d) applications for seismic testing in the Otway Basin; off the coast of Newcastle, New South Wales; and the waters surrounding Kangaroo Island, South Australia;

(e) recent scientific findings; and

(f) any other related matters.

Of course, senators care about the ocean and marine life and protecting our commercial and recreational fishing industries. Seismic testing—the use of sonic guns to propel sound waves through the ocean to the depths of the ocean floor—and the potential impacts that is having on marine life and on the productivity of our fisheries is a very significant issue for a lot of communities around this country. I proposed a Senate references committee that would look at the impacts of seismic testing. In fact, I'll read this out to senators who are interested in this subject. I know they would all want to stand up for their coastal communities and the industries in those communities. I asked:

That the following matter be referred to the Environment and Communications References Committee for inquiry and report by 29 March 2019—

I put this motion to the Senate two days ago and, sadly, not only did it get defeated; Labor denied me leave to have the chance to talk about the motion they voted down, even though I know that fishing interests in Tasmania have contacted Senator Urquhart and others and urged them to support this inquiry, as I know stakeholders around the country have phoned their senators and urged them to support this inquiry. It was going to look at:

The impact of seismic testing on fisheries and the marine environment, with particular reference to:

(a) the regulation of seismic testing, and the responsibilities of federal and state governments—

There have been some pretty big barneys going on between state governments and the federal government over new permits that have been released for the oil and gas industry. I know Senator Canavan will contribute to this debate, and I promise him that I won't cut him off like I did in the last one. My inexperience led me to jump to my feet and wrap up debate. I will be very interested to hear what he has to say, because I know, to use a quote, he has been 'under the pump'. Fishing interests have contacted his office, as no doubt they have many of his colleague's offices, and raised this issue with him. Keep in mind that a Senate inquiry is a chance for everyone to have their say. It is a chance to call witnesses and look at the evidence. There should be nothing to hide if you have nothing to hide. Nevertheless this inquiry has been shut down. Both Labor and the Liberal Party, I suspect, have been got to by big oil and gas and won't be supporting this inquiry. Let me go back to the terms of reference: we want to look at the regulation of seismic testing, and the interplay between state and federal governments.

There have been considerable concerns over this. I will shortly read from a summary where the New South Wales fisheries and environment minister was very angry that the federal government had thumbed its nose at his recommendations around new seismic permits off Sydney and Newcastle. Why not thrash that out in a Senate process where we can all participate, hear what different parties have to say and look at whether the balance is right? That is all that is. This is why I tried to initiate this inquiry:

(b) the consultation process regarding the approval of seismic testing—

The rock lobster industry in Tasmania approached me and said, 'Senator, in this consultation process we basically have been given a week to provide our industry's feedback through NOPSEMA on new seismic surveys that are being allocated in Bass Strait and off the west coast of King Island.' King Island is one of my favourite places on Earth, it is absolutely amazing on so many different levels. The fishermen are worried about new seismic testing there. The commercial crayfishing industry are worried about new seismic testing. They had a week.

Don't take this from me; the rock lobster industry have been on the record and have spoken to the media. They want this inquiry. They have been asking senators and MPs to support this inquiry, because they are not happy with the consultation process. They believe—in their own words—that it has been a 'box-ticking exercise'. I understand that Senator Urquhart apparently doesn't support this inquiry, because she doesn't believe that the seismic testing is going to occur until next year, but the consultation process has occurred now. That is part of this inquiry. That is why we are doing it. She clearly isn't standing up for the local fishing industry, who want this inquiry, which is very disappointing. The next terms of reference are:

(c) how potential impacts are taken into account during the consultation process;

(d) applications for seismic testing in the Otway Basin; off the coast of Newcastle, New South Wales; and the waters surrounding Kangaroo Island, South Australia—

This relates to the new, controversial permits that have been issued to big oil and gas. The terms of reference continue:

(e) recent scientific findings …

I want to tell a story about this. This is a true story—of course, all of the stories I tell are true. When I started as a senator in 2012, a friend of mine that I went to school with contacted me over in Western Australia. He is a commercial snapper fishermen. He has a boat and he goes out and catches snapper, and that's how he makes his living. He contacted me and said, 'Peter, I've got big problems with seismic testing in my fishery—not just problems of nearly getting mown down and run over by seismic boats but not having a say in when these seismic boats fire their massive sonic guns down into the ocean and the ocean floor.' He actually had a Mexican stand-off with a seismic boat that could have been really ugly. That's how desperate he's become, because he was being pushed out of his fishery. But he had mapped, through his own fisheries data, the massive decline in his fishing productivity when the seismic testing had occurred, in the years that the seismic testing had pushed him out of his fishery. He was told when and where he could fish by the oil and gas industry. That was his view. It was interesting at the time, because I said to him: 'You know what? In my home state of Tassie, the commercial fishing industry can open doors in state parliament and in federal parliament.' They get supported by a lot of senators in this place, and I've had my share of barneys with them over the years.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I thought they were your friends.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I've had my share of barneys with them over the years, Senator Canavan, around supertrawlers and the impacts of salmon aquaculture on the pristine waters of Tasmania. I have had my barneys with the commercial fishing industries over the years. I know how good they are at getting what they want in this place. But do you know what I said to my mate? The pun wasn't intended. I'm not going to name him in here today, because I know he's actually had threats of violence against him because of the stance he's taken against seismic companies. I said: 'You know what? There is a bigger fish in the pond than you in Canberra and in your state parliament, and it is the oil and gas industry.' Senator Canavan knows that very well. They are the ones who will rule the roost here. I said, 'So, even though your commercial fishing interests may have support in parliaments, you are not going to get what you want if you cross the oil and gas industry.'

Senator Canavan interjecting

I would very much like to call my friend under parliamentary privilege to give his evidence—a real businessman with a real business impacted by seismic testing. This is the point I was getting to before Senator Canavan so rudely interjected—something I would never do in this chamber! I said to my friend, 'I will look into this for you,' and in 2013 I spoke to Senator Colbeck about seismic testing in fisheries, and Senator Colbeck said to me, 'There's no evidence that seismic testing impacts the productivity of fisheries.' So I said, 'Okay.' I went and looked and, lo and behold, Senator Colbeck was right in one sense: there had been no studies. Considering how big this industry is—a multibillion- or trillion-dollar industry around the world—there had been virtually no studies.

I've got the reports here in front of me, and I haven't got time to go through them today. There was some data used from 1984-85 that was quoted in a report in 2002, which I'm happy to table, that looked at some impacts off US coastal areas. Recently there have been some reports and some studies done, including a study done in 2015, which I have here, on the impacts on the scallop industry, another industry that has been very concerned about the impacts of seismic testing. But very little has been done. It's completely underscrutinised, considering the size and importance of our commercial fishing industry.

I spoke to the new head of AIMS, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, at a Great Barrier Reef Foundation briefing recently. He said to me, 'I know you are trying to get an inquiry up on seismic, Senator Whish-Wilson. I want you to know that we have just received funding to do a proper study, an independent study, of the impact of seismic testing on fisheries.' I asked him how long it would take and he said about 18 months. So, some funding has been given to this industry. Through you Chair, I ask Senator Canavan: considering the uncertainty and the precautionary principle, why are we proceeding with giving out tens of thousands of kilometres of acreage to seismic companies without a proper study of its impact on marine life?

You all know that I care about cetaceans and ecosystems, and I do care about the livelihood of people like my mate in WA who is a commercial snapper fisherman, and I care for the rock lobster industry in Tasmania, and the scallop industry. Everything has to be in balance and this issue is one that we need to scrutinise. So, why has this Senate rejected a references inquiry? Once again, all I've got out of Labor is that they don't think it is a priority and they can deal with it next year, if they get into government—and I, of course, have no guarantee that they will. They don't believe that the seismic testing is occurring off the west coast of King Island until next year, even though the consultation process, which is the key issue the industry has, has just occurred and is not good enough. I know NOPSEMA has started to take a bit of extra action on consultation, since we have shone a light on it already. But this needs to be looked at thoroughly, including the regulation of this industry.

I make no bones that I don't want to see more oil and gas exploration off the coast of Tasmania, in our pristine waters and in our fisheries, which, let me tell you, are under so much pressure. Our oceans right now, with warming waters, with ocean acidification and with plastics, are under pressure that is unprecedented in our history—I am talking about anthropogenic history. Off the east coast of Tasmania, 90 per cent of our giant kelp forests are gone. That evidence was presented to my Senate inquiry in Hobart by a diver, Mick Baron from Eaglehawk Dive Centre. In the December before the March inquiry, he said, ''Whishy', I want you to come out and bring your cameras and I want you to dive on these kelp forests before they are gone.' Then, when he presented at my inquiry in March, he said, 'You're too late. The last ones have gone.' They were an ecosystem that stretched from north-east Tasmania, from Mount William, all the way down to the south-west wilderness area. They were 10,000 years old and as important to the ecosystem of Tasmania as the Barrier Reef is to Queensland. They are gone. I'll tell you, Senator Canavan, there will be information out shortly, which IMAS currently has, and we have been waiting for for some time, about the impact of urchin barrens, Tasmania's version of the crown of thorns starfish, which is killing the reef. I know that nearly a third of Tasmania's reefs are dead from urchin barrens, the infestations that have occurred through warming waters and pressures on our reefs from overfishing. The only thing that kills the urchin barrens is lobsters. There is a lot of pressure on our fisheries. This year, our abalone industry, for the first time, voluntarily didn't catch their quota. In fact, they didn't even catch a single abalone off the east coast of Tasmania. They are under that much pressure. We have seen Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome cripple our oyster industry in Tasmania, because of warming waters and new diseases and new viruses. We have seen algal blooms shut down our recreational fisheries, including scallops, and we have seen declining catches in just about every fish species in state waters, including the sentinel species that used to be held up as the robust example of how our fisheries management is working—that is, flathead.

I don't think anyone I speak to on the east coast of my state would disagree that the oceans are in trouble. So why are we adding extra pressure to our oceans unnecessarily by firing massive sonic guns for the oil and gas industry down into our waters when preliminary studies done by IMAS on the scallop industry show they have an impact? They do have a productivity impact on the larvae of scallops. That's only a preliminary study.

This is a very, very serious matter and it's not just an issue in my state. Senator Hanson-Young is going to talk about South Australia, and I know there will be a lot of New South Wales senators or MPs, if they could, who would like to talk about their serious concerns that off North Sydney and Newcastle is the biggest area that has been opened up to seismic oil and gas exploration and potentially oil rigs—you name it. It's coming at a time when our ocean is broken. We have to take a stand. All I am asking the Senate to do today is support a Greens inquiry to provide some transparency on this. Everybody gets their say—the oil and gas industry, the seismic industry, NOPSEMA, the commercial fishing industry—and we do the job that we were elected by the Australian people to do: to look at this. There's no reason not to support this inquiry. I implore all senators to rethink the position they took two days ago of voting down this inquiry.

6:31 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

The government will not be supporting this motion. It won't be supporting this motion, because, as was clearly outlined in Senator Whish-Wilson's contribution, this is not an inquiry that is being established to get to the bottom of the best science on these very important matters. It is not an inquiry to do a consultation in good faith. It is an inquiry that is intending to try and shut down a very important Australian industry. That's the objective of the Australian Greens.

For the Australian Greens to come into this place and try to present themselves as somehow a defender and supporter of the proud Australian fishing industry is taking the hypocrisy of the Greens to a whole new level. We've seen their hypocrisy time and time again in this place, but today they have taken it to a new level. This is the party that has tried time and time again to shut down Australian fishing. They try and shut down Australian fishing. They've moved motions this year to try to lock out more Australian family fishermen from their grounds to try and provide for their families. That is their agenda.

We in the government support all Australian industries. We want to see Australian businesses flourish. We want to see Australian families be able to provide for themselves in our fishing industry, in our resources industry, in our agricultural industries and in our small businesses right across the length and breadth of this country. We have a very proud history of oil and gas production, including in the areas that Senator Whish-Wilson outlined. I note, and I'll make some comments on, the proposals for seismic testing off the Victorian coast that Senator Whish-Wilson referred to.

What Senator Whish-Wilson failed to refer to in his lengthy contribution on this debate—this goes to his agenda to shut down the industry; he's not approached this particular issue in good faith and he has decided to ignore clear facts that are inconvenient to his particular arguments. What Senator Whish-Wilson has completely glossed over is that just north of the state where he lives, near the seismic testing Senator Whish-Wilson has referred to, is the Bass Strait, where we have produced oil and gas in this country for more than 50 years, including through the use of seismic testing to explore areas. That has supplied Australia with hydrocarbons for half a century. It was of great assistance to this nation, particularly in response to the OPEC oil crisis. We were very, very fortunate that that particular field started to be developed just before the OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s. That was more luck than planning, but we were very lucky that it came online in the 1970s. It meant that during that period we were not affected as severely as countries like the United States were, because we were self-sufficient or almost self-sufficient in oil and gas thanks to the Bass Strait. And of course we benefited from the higher oil prices as a large oil and gas producer. So our economy was insulated in the 1970s thanks to the production in the Bass Strait. Since then, we've continued to produce a significant amount of, largely, gas these days—not oil—from the Bass Strait, and we've done so in an incredibly safe way.

If Senator Whish-Wilson had real evidence, he would be able to point to areas where our regulations and our oversight of the industry in the Bass Strait have been inadequate, and that evidence is simply not there. It is not there, because we have in this country a very robust regulatory process that we take extremely seriously, and it has served our nation well. We've been able to protect our environment as well as provide the essential inputs for a modern economy, which include oil and gas.

I would take a bet that at least one of the Greens senators here in the chamber right now, probably all three of them, got here today not on a horse and probably not on their own legs—

Senator Steele-John interjecting

but in a car powered by oil and gas.

Honourable senators interjecting

They hopped into a car powered by oil and gas.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I see them all the time getting into Z-sleds out the front of this place.

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Canavan!

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

They don't have horses hitched to the front of Parliament House!

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Canavan, resume your seat.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

They don't have any horses—

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Canavan, resume your seat, please.

Honourable senators interjecting

Could I have a bit of silence in the chamber, including from those talking to my left. I'm trying to listen to Senator Canavan. And, those down the end, please cease your interjections. It's disorderly.

Senator Urquhart interjecting

Because I can't hear, Senator Urquhart. Continue, Senator Canavan—in peace and quiet, hopefully.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

All of us, all Australians, rely on oil and gas. Unfortunately, because we are not producing as much, particularly oil, from the Bass Strait anymore, our reliance on overseas imports to serve those needs have increased rapidly, particularly in the last 20 years. At the start of this century, on the eve of September 11, we as a nation produced enough petroleum products to supply 95 per cent of our nation's needs—95 per cent of our nation's needs in 2000-01. Sixteen years later, in 2016-17—the latest figures we have—we only produced enough petroleum to serve 48 per cent of our nation's domestic needs. Most of that comes from northern Western Australia. It is exported, too, because of its proximity to those markets. But the fact is, in the space of less than 20 years, we have gone from being effectively or almost self-sufficient in petroleum products to being able to supply only half of our domestic needs. That is a serious issue. It is a serious issue for consumers in Australia. But it is probably more of a serious issue for the security of our nation, given our vulnerability now due to the need to import such important products as oil.

We should continue to search for new areas like the Bass Strait, which has served us so well for 50 years. We should bring the best science to bear to do that. And, of course, in doing that, we should make sure we consider, listen to and protect other Australian industries that might be affected by that search. That is why we are actively engaged in this. Senator Whish-Wilson touched on this and glossed over it a bit.

As I said, we have a very robust independent regulatory process. All applications to conduct seismic testing or petroleum production in Australia require approval from NOPSEMA, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. It is an independent agency. It is incredibly robust. I think it is staffed with extremely well qualified and diligent public servants, and they independently assess all of these plans. Again, Senator Whish-Wilson just glosses over the facts that aren't convenient to his cause. He didn't mention that one of the large seismic proposals he was speaking about, a proposal by CGG for off the coast of Victoria, was recently sent back by NOPSEMA. NOPSEMA thought that CGG's plans, their proposals, were not up to scratch and NOPSEMA sent them back to CGG—which they do all the time. They are very diligent regulators. And, by the statute NOPSEMA operate under, they must not accept environmental plans that pose a risk to the environment which is not as low as practicable, and they take that very, very seriously. This of course includes assessing the risks to other industries, including our very important fishing industry.

That's why we as a government are very actively engaged with international researchers and the science on these matters. We have funded a number of research projects in recent years on the impact of seismic surveys, including their impact on zooplankton, marine invertebrates, rock lobsters and others. These have been funded by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, the industry and government. In 2016, Geoscience Australia, another fantastic independent government agency, published in its marine pollution bulletin a comprehensive review and evaluation of existing research on seismic impacts on fish and invertebrates. In 2017 the CSIRO, an extremely respected research institution in our country, completed an independent zooplankton modelling study. All of those are available publicly. As Senator Whish-Wilson outlined, funding has been provided to the Australian Institute of Marine Science to undertake further research into the impacts of sound from seismic air guns and vessels on benthic fish and pearl oysters.

This research, as I said, is publicly available. I regularly catch up with those doing this research and with NOPSEMA, as I mentioned, to make sure that they are properly assessing this. All of this science factors into their decision-making.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister for oil and gas!

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I am perturbed sometimes that the Australian Greens seem to often disparage the diligence and professionalism of the Australian Public Service. When they get a decision from the Australian Public Service that they don't like, they come out and cast all sorts of aspersions about motivations and say that it must be because of the oil and gas industry. I think it's an absolute disgrace. Our Australian public servants do a fantastic job and take their role extremely seriously. I don't believe they're influenced by such motivations as those often ascribed to them by the Greens.

We are also continuing extensive consultation with the industry over these issues. My understanding is that Minister Colbeck will be convening a meeting and a roundtable with the oil and gas sector and the seafood industry later this week on these matters. In fact, I have recently caught up with the oil and gas industry to stress how important these matters are. I know they are taking them very, very seriously. In November last year I announced a series of reports to improve the consultation practices and transparency of the offshore oil and gas sector. New measures will include the full publication of draft environmental plans and a mandatory public comment period on plans relating to exploration activities. The department has released draft amendments to the environment regulations to implement these measures, along with an explanatory document to provide further information on the proposed changes. All of that is available on the industry department's website, and we are consulting with the seafood industry as well to make sure those new consultation requirements will meet their needs.

I do note that even before we will formally require these greater consultation practices, Equinor, the Norwegian state oil company that has acreage or leases in the Great Australian Bight, has committed to publishing their environmental plans. They have already been conducting consultation, although they have not submitted an environmental plan for the Great Australian Bight. But the Great Australian Bight is an incredibly prospective oil and gas district. It is often characterised as perhaps the most prospective offshore oil and gas area in the world. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we can develop and open up a new oil and gas basin that can secure oil security and national security for this nation, and, of course, provide enormous economic wealth and prosperity to South Australia and other parts of the country?

I note that this certainly seems to be the view of locals on the ground in South Australia, with a number of mayors being elected over the weekend in regional South Australia who are supportive of development of the Great Australian Bight. The Greens and green activist groups have been running a scare campaign over these issues throughout these areas, and that has clearly fallen flat—fallen absolutely flat. Michael Pengilly has been elected as the mayor of Kangaroo Island. He was asked about the Great Australian Bight this week and said:

I don’t oppose it, my view is very strongly that the environmental lobby have successfully run a great fear campaign against it. Everybody is environmentally conscious these days but you need to have some clarity and common sense. Our economy revolves around the oil industry, we have to have energy.

I think Mr Pengilly, the new mayor of Kangaroo Island, is speaking common sense there—something that there's a distinct lack of from the Australian Greens. Common sense is something you generally do not hear much from the Australian Greens. I'd also mention the new Port Lincoln mayor, Brad Flaherty, who's also agreed that it's not an issue for local government. Mr Flaherty says that he's pro-employment and pro-business—

Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting

and he would make sure that these sorts of things are a priority for—

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Whish-Wilson, when you were speaking I quietened Senator Canavan down for interjecting. This is about the fourth time I've had to stop for you to cease your interjecting. There will not be a fifth. I will name you under standing order 203 if you interject again while I'm in the chair. I ask you to be quiet and let the minister have his say without interjections.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. As I was saying, I think the people of South Australia have spoken over the weekend. They support economic development. They support sensible and commonsense approaches to this issue. We must have environmental rigour and robust regulations around this, which we do have in this country. We must strive to continue to improve those regulations, as I did last year, requiring more information and transparency from the oil and gas sector. We do of course have a serious national security issue, where we have only 21 days of petrol available at the moment in Australia. We have only 19 days of diesel available at the moment. That is a serious concern that the government is taking action to rectify. One of the more important, or certainly more effective, ways we could better handle that issue and secure safety for the Australian people in our country is to increase our own domestic production of oil and gas if that proves possible to do.

We support appropriate regulation of this industry. As I've said, it has a proud history: 190 seismic surveys have occurred in the Gippsland and Otway basins since the 1960s. We've robustly regulated those in the past; we will continue to do that in the future. We support continued efforts to increase that robustness and increase consultation but not stunts from the Australian Greens, which are simply about trying to shut down Australian jobs, Australian industry and Australian national security, not improve the environment. We are focused on the commonsense actions we can take to continue to do that. We will continue to defend proud Australian industries like the Australian seafood industry, the Australian fishing industry and the Australian oil and gas industry. All of those industries provide jobs and enormous wealth to our country. We are proud of them and we'll continue to work with them for the best results for the Australian people.

6:47 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment and Water (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Todayas we did on Monday when the Greens brought on an almost identical reference for debate, Labor will oppose this motion. That is not because of notice or any other reason other than that we don't support this motion for referral on its merits. We have our own proud record of protecting the environment and our precious oceans. We're very proud of our record in terms of the network of marine parks that we've put in place, and we're fighting very hard to restore these protections, which were stripped away by this government. We stopped the supertrawler and as a future government we will make this ban permanent.

What we have before us is the Greens being all at sea in managing the committee they propose to send this issue to. We in the Labor Party are very aware of the community and industry concerns in relation to NOPSEMA's processes and community concerns and consultation around seismic testing. Labor Party MPs and senators have had ongoing discussion with community and industry stakeholders in relation to their concerns about these impacts. But, as those in the Greens would know, NOPSEMA is at this very moment consulting on draft regulations. These regulations aim to improve consultation and the transparency of offshore oil and gas with respect to seismic testing. It would frankly be silly to duplicate this process here in the Senate, particularly in an environment where we won't see the experts work together directly.

We note the consultation page of NOPSEMA currently includes proposed changes which would require the publication of environmental plans by the titleholder on acceptance by NOPSEMA and also formalise a public comment period on environment plans for exploration activities, including seismic surveys. It's good to see this improved engagement from NOPSEMA with the seafood industry. They published an information paper in September this year for proponents of seismic testing for acoustic emissions to assist with the kinds of deficiencies that have been coming up in environmental plans when it comes to seismic testing. This information paper said:

A range of deficiencies have been commonly identified by NOPSEMA in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process for acoustic emissions from seismic surveys. These deficiencies have contributed to protracted assessment timeframes, reduced operational flexibility and challenges to industry’s social license to operate.

What we see now is NOPSEMA inviting stakeholders to provide feedback on these regulations to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science by no later than 16 November. Public consultations have already been held in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. We know there will be further consultation with the oil and gas industry and the seafood industry. What's really important is that these conversations are allowed to continue without the blatant politicisation that we see before us on these issues from the Greens.

We also note that, while these regulations are being looked at and the processes are being changed, there is indeed no seismic testing approved for this summer in the regions that the Greens have listed in their reference for this committee. We understand that NOPSEMA has been actively engaging with both the seafood industry and the oil and gas industry with respect to proposals for seismic testing this summer. Regions listed in the motion are: the Otway Basin; Newcastle, New South Wales; and Kangaroo Island. So why would we see a Senate inquiry from the parliament of Australia examine seismic testing in only one of NOPSEMA's regulatory regions and two very discrete subregions? I'm surprised to see that, despite Senator Whish-Wilson being a senator for Tasmania, he didn't include in his motion the Gippsland Basin off south-east Victoria and, indeed, north-east Tasmania. We know that there are issues of concern that have come from the local seafood industry in those places.

What I want to also highlight to the chamber today is that this proposal doesn't have merit in its duplication of processes and engagements that are already going on and that this reference seeks to be sent to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee among its many inquiries and, frankly, its many Greens chairs. By 'Greens' I mean plural Greens. They have not been able to delegate responsibility for the committee to a single senator.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Oh, here we go!

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Whish-Wilson!

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment and Water (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Four of their nine senators are acting chairs for the committee's seven inquiries. It's inquiring into seven matters, including the ABC governance reference that the Labor Party sought to send to the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I have a point of order on that standing order you quoted earlier, Mr Acting Deputy President. Does that get a reset for a different speaker or does it apply to the whole debate?

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm trying to keep you in order because there have been a lot of interjections since I've been in the chair. You know my tolerance for interjections is very low, so there's no reset. Please do not interject.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment and Water (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

We have seven inquiries before the references committee, including the ABC governance reference. The Labor Party sought to send that reference to the finance and public administration committee. We can see that it has hearings scheduled for later this month. I have to say that this committee has little or no time this year for other hearings. If this were an urgent inquiry rather than a political stunt coming from the Greens, the Greens would have supported our reference of the ABC governance issue to go to a different committee. It is not appropriate use of the Senate's time, frankly, to create inquiries to attempt to score political points when the particular committee in question is bursting at the seams with inquiries already.

It is premature to initiate a Senate inquiry into community consultation on seismic testing, because there is significant consultation already underway, and it is through that process that people should have their voices heard. We in this place, on the Labor side, want to listen to all sides engaged in this issue: the industry doing the seismic testing, the fishing industry and broader community concerns. But we will not stand here to prejudge government- and industry-led consultation that seeks to resolve these serious issues that have both environmental and commercial significance.

We will stand up for our environment, and we have a proven track record of doing so—a proven track record of delivering reform and not stripping away protections or grandstanding to score political points while letting opportunities slip by. So today I would like to encourage the Greens to acknowledge that this motion has twice been unsuccessful in just three days. We need to let the oil and gas industry and the seafood industry, together with government regulations, get on with the job of resolving these issues first through their current rounds of consultation.

6:56 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Centre Alliance will be supporting this reference today. It will be doing so not just because it relates to an activity that takes place in a Commonwealth jurisdiction and not just because the terms of reference are quite reasonable. I might go out on a limb here and say that, of all the senators in this chamber, I probably understand more about seismic testing than anyone else, having taught acoustics for the better part of a decade and having built seismic sonars—parametric sonars. So I do know a little bit about the topic. I've taught people in the survey industry and people in Navy how to make sure, when they are operating very powerful sonars, that they minimise the risk to marine mammals and other life forms in the ocean.

What I can say also is that the science on this is not settled. I appreciate what Senator Canavan said about a number of studies that are underway, and indeed they could be used as input to this particular inquiry. I also might point out that the technology is not settled in relation to these sorts of activities. There are all sorts of different technologies that come into play. There are very simple seismic guns. There are sonars that use directivity to make sure the sound is directed at the sea floor and not necessarily more broadly across the ocean. There are parametric sonars that are designed to give better penetration of the sea floor without necessarily causing harm to marine life that is in the vicinity.

One of the things that often doesn't take place with government funded inquiries is the gathering of perspectives from all sorts of different stakeholders. I know better than others that there are circumstances where seismic testing or loud sonic noises underwater cause harm. I know that, if you're a diver and you are near a loud acoustic source, it can be painful and it will cause disorientation. The Navy use it as a technique to prevent enemy divers getting near a ship. So there's no question that there are circumstances where this sort of activity can cause harm, but there are also circumstances where it doesn't cause harm, and an inquiry like this would be useful in understanding the bounds, where the danger lies, where the harm lies and, indeed, what different technologies might change the parameters.

Senator Canavan has raised perhaps a somewhat extremist view on the other side of the question from where he accuses the Greens of doing so, perhaps on the left side of the spectrum. The reality is I'm not necessarily suggesting that you stop this activity and prevent oil and gas activities going ahead, although I don't support them in the Great Australian Bight for other reasons. The point is that there are things you can do with technology that may make it better, may make it safer. We should explore those things and use that knowledge to potentially adjust regulations. So this is not necessarily about stopping seismic testing altogether; it's about making sure that, when it occurs, the least harm is caused.

I want to correct Senator Canavan, who suggested that the Mayor of Kangaroo Island Council has made a statement and therefore the people of South Australia have spoken. I just checked. He had 1,480 votes. I don't think that is the people of South Australia talking on it. I want to put that on the record.

The bottom line is: if we don't support this inquiry then we simply won't get to understand how we could perhaps do this better.

7:01 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to this debate on what is an important motion to establish an inquiry into seismic testing. I'd firstly like to associate myself with the comments made by my colleague Senate Whish-Wilson, who has outlined all of the very, very good reasons why a Senate inquiry into seismic testing is needed and why even the suggestion that the Senate inquire into this issue has already helped push along some response from industry and from the government agency and departments involved.

Why am I particularly influenced by and passionate about this issue today? Because as a senator for South Australia I now know, as of last Friday, that the government agency NOPSEMA will, in the first half of next month—so in three weeks time—hand down a decision as to whether the Norwegian company PGS can undertake seismic testing in the Great Australian Bight in March next year. That's why this inquiry is urgent.

We heard from Senator Pratt, representing the Labor opposition, a lot of weasel words as to why Labor were not prepared to support this inquiry. They said it was because none of it was urgent; it could be done next year; none of this was important. I can tell you that it may not seem urgent to a senator from Western Australia but it is important to those of us in South Australia who are absolutely horrified that the Norwegian company PGS want to, during March, send blasts through the waters not far from Kangaroo Island, not far from Port Lincoln. We know that the last time this occurred in the Great Australian Bight dead whales washed up on the coast at Ardrossan, right onto the beach. There were seven sperm whales found dead on the beach in South Australia last time seismic testing occurred.

We know, of course, that the fishing industry in South Australia is also very concerned about this testing happening. They're concerned firstly because of the impacts it had last time—dead whales, a decline in scallops, a decline in rock lobster and a decline in types of plankton—but they're also very, very concerned, as is the majority of the South Australian voting public, that seismic testing will be the first step towards drilling in the Great Australian Bight. The application currently before the government agency for approval is to do this type of loud, dangerous testing and blasting in the water, affecting the dolphins, whales and other marine life, is only 90 kilometres from Kangaroo Island and 80 kilometres from Port Lincoln, right in the heart of South Australia's tourism jewel. We're worried. We're absolutely worried that if this testing is to go ahead, it is the first step to drilling these areas as well. We've already got an application for drilling in the Great Australian Bight from the Norwegian company Equinor, and these tests are to set the path for new applications for drilling as well. We don't want it in the Great Australian Bight and we don't want it just off the coast of Kangaroo Island.

Some people might suggest, as we heard the minister do in this place, that the Greens are just scaremongering. I tell you what: most South Australians are scared and terrified of what will happen if we allow drilling in our precious bight. We've got every right to be scared; we've got every right to be terrified, because there was a report from the company, Equinor, with their own modelling, leaked today into the public. Of course, they never wanted it to be seen by the voters in South Australia or by the communities. This report shows that if there were a spill in the Great Australian Bight our entire coastline would be devastated, and not just in South Australia. This report from Equinor themselves shows that oil would drift beyond the South Australian coastline all the way up to Bondi Beach in Sydney and all the way up to Port Macquarie. Every Australian who loves our coastline, who believes in our beautiful beaches, who spends time fishing and swimming, whose industries, jobs and businesses rely on a healthy coast should be terrified that this government, backed up by the opposition, is willing to tick off on an operation that is going to put this at risk.

This isn't just some kind of Greens scaremongering. This is the company's own internal document that has been leaked. Of course they didn't want it getting out to the public. They don't want people to know how dangerous drilling for oil would be in the Great Australian Bight if there were a spill. They say: 'We don't want there to be a spill. It's just that, if there were one, this is what would happen.' It's not a risk worth taking. What this document shows is that, even in the oil company's own full-scale oil spill maps, there is no way they would be able to contain the oil and the sludge and the muck and prevent it ruining our coastline, ruining our beaches and devastating our fishing and tourism industries.

I love South Australia's beautiful beaches, but I also grew up on the coast in Victoria. When I was a kid, I used to go swimming down at Cape Conran. That whole area will be devastated. Further up the coast—the South Coast of New South Wales, Bondi Beach in Sydney, Port Macquarie, South West Rocks—will be devastated, covered in oil and sludge and muck. It wouldn't just cost billions and billions of dollars and thousands of hours of people power to clean up. Some places would never recover. In South Australia, where our coastline is so pristine, there is no way it would ever recover. There is a reason these big multinational foreign companies don't want to have to pay for the insurance of our tourism and fishing industries if they undertake this drilling: they know that the payouts would be so huge that it just makes the whole project unviable. South Australians are absolutely terrified that our coastline, our tourism industry and our precious Kangaroo Island are, right now, being hung out to dry.

This inquiry is the first step in trying to put a spotlight on what is going on. If the seismic testing happens, there will be even more companies drilling for oil and gas, not just Equinor. We already know how devastating one oil spill would be. Imagine if there were more wells popped around the Great Australian Bight, where there are very, very deep seabeds and incredibly deep and rough seas. All of the experts say how difficult it would be to ensure that this could be done safely and without accident. All we need to do is look at what happened in the Gulf of Mexico, where it was much shallower and there were much calmer waters and much more experience; yet BP's oil spill still hasn't been cleaned up from over a decade ago. The fishing and tourism industries in that area have been absolutely decimated. That is what will happen in South Australia if we do not put a stop to this once and for all.

It is extremely disappointing to see the Labor Party and the Liberal Party today voting down a mere inquiry into seismic testing. What are you afraid of? What are you afraid this inquiry might uncover? What are you afraid the Australian people will find out? I heard Senator Canavan, the minister, talking about this issue and saying that people in South Australia don't care about this. Well, he is dead wrong. Labor and Liberal senators in this place from South Australia know that he's dead wrong. There is a reason they are not in here today defending the gutless positions of their parties. Not one representative from the South Australian Liberal Party or the South Australian Labor Party have come in here today to defend this gutless position of their parties. That is because they know that they will be turfed out if the South Australian community gets wind of just how dismissive their parties are being to this issue in South Australia and to our coastline, our beaches and our industries. But it is not just their parties being gutless on this issue; they should be in here standing up for their state—and they are not. They are not standing up for their beautiful beaches. They are not in here defending our environment, and they are not in here defending our tourism and our fishing industries. Instead, we have members of their party accusing those of us who are trying to stop this horrendous activity from happening of being scaremongers.

The company's own private internal documents show that it would be a wipe-out if there was an accident, even if we just allowed that seismic testing to occur, as the first step to more oil or gas wells being drilled closer to Kangaroo Island and closer to Port Lincoln. The last time that happened, dead whales washed up on the beaches in South Australia. That is what happened in December 2014. I don't want to see that happen this summer. I don't want to see anymore dead whales washed up on South Australian beaches this summer because this government and the Labor Party are too gutless to stand up to big oil and big gas in this country. Stop the weasel words, get out of the pockets of the oil and gas industry, and do something for the voters and the community in South Australia. That's what I am here doing. That's what the Greens are doing. We will stare down the interests of these big oil and gas companies, and we will stand up for our marine life and our environment.

7:15 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll wrap up debate now, in the remaining minutes. I would just like to say we have a really good example tonight of why you need the Greens in this parliament, in the Senate, to hold both Labor and Liberal, the duopoly of Australian politics, to account.

It has been outlined by Senator Pratt and Senator Canavan that there are things going on in the seismic space in this country. There are roundtable meetings going on between the fishing industry and the oil and gas companies. NOPSEMA went through a whole new process in September. They've reopened consultation on seismic applications and the concerns of stakeholders. Guess what: I went to the media in July this year and said, 'I am going to move for a Senate inquiry into seismic testing in this country.' The Greens said they were going to move for a Senate inquiry and, lo and behold, we had a little bit of sunlight and a little bit of scrutiny and things started happening.

So, while we may lose this debate today—and, sadly, that looks like it's going to be the case—I and my colleagues here can say today that this is why you need the Greens in the Senate. This is why NOPSEMA has gone through a new process that they announced in September, because we stood up for stakeholders. We stood up for the rock lobster industry. We stood up for the tuna industry in South Australia. We stood up for regional communities, and things started happening. We have seen there's going to be a whole new round of consultations and roundtable meetings now between industry and other stakeholders. Senator Colbeck is going to get the oil and gas industries together with the fishing industry.

I would have liked to do this in the public eye through a Senate references inquiry. I said I and the Greens were going to do this in July. We have given plenty of time for Labor to come on board. Unfortunately, they have proven tonight what I, sadly, in my heart, probably knew anyway: that they're in bed with the oil and gas industry. Let me tell you what: this augurs very poorly for when they most likely get into government at the next election, when they have said they are going to bring in a new marine protected areas campaign and strategy. We know that oil and gas got to them last time, and they watered down their marine protected areas program in this country.

This is just more evidence that their donors and the lobbyists who have come from the Labor Party have got to them—the fact they won't even support a public inquiry into seismic testing, even with the fishing industry calling their offices and meeting with them. I know the fishing industry have been to Canberra and have gone to the offices of senators and ministers and asked for this inquiry, but they won't support it. Why did I get denied leave yesterday even to make a statement about this in the Senate when this inquiry went down? I'll leave that to the Australian people and those stakeholders who are listening to this debate to work out for themselves, but that's how it often works in here: those people who call the shots are actually the vested interests. There is nothing wrong with scrutiny of this industry.

Let me finish by saying that seismic testing poses an unacceptable risk to the health of our oceans. There has been almost no research done on this. Senator Patrick, who understands seismic testing, is prepared to admit that. Marine wildlife, including migrating whales, and productive fisheries resources are all at risk, and we had a chance today to actually scrutinise the effect of this massive trillion-dollar industry and the potential impacts seismic testing is having on our oceans at a time in history when our oceans desperately need us to look after them.

I urge senators, in the last few seconds of this debate, to reconsider and to vote for this inquiry. The Greens have done a very good job chairing the Environment and Communications References Committee. There is scope for this inquiry. The claim by Labor that there is no time and no resources for that committee to look at this is a load of rubbish.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that business of the Senate notice of motion No. 3 be agreed to.