Senate debates

Thursday, 29 November 2018


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Australian Bight) Bill 2018; Second Reading

12:26 pm

Photo of Tim StorerTim Storer (SA, Independent) 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. I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—


The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Australian Bight) Bill 2018 amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to enhance the assessment process for applications for petroleum or greenhouse gas activity in the Great Australian Bight.

The purpose of the Bill is to enhance and improve the rigour and quality of decision-making to appropriately match high-stakes activity such as drilling for oil which could have catastrophic ramifications in the case of a spill.

The Bill provides for a two-stage assessment process, which would retain the initial NOPSEMA review as it currently operates. If NOPSEMA approves an action in the Bight, then the EPBC Act review processes would kick-in, with the final decision being made by the Minister.

This does not give the Minister free rein to make a unilateral decision. Far from it. The requirements surrounding ministerial decision making are far more stringent than those for NOPSEMA alone.

Before the Minister makes that decision, the second stage assessment would necessarily involve environmental impact statement or, in suitably unusual cases, public inquiry, as outlined in the EPBC Act.

The Bill is a response to increasing consensus highlighted by the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee reviews that NOPSEMA takes insufficient criteria into account when deciding whether or not to approve petroleum or greenhouse gas related activity in the Bight.

Specific deficiencies in NOPSEMA assessment include insufficient weighting of social license; probable bankruptcy and scale of remediation of fishing and tourism industries; long-term and potentially irreversible ecological damage; lack of transparency and accountability; weak powers of review; and poor penalties for non-compliance.

That said, NOPSEMA does have helpful expertise in the examination of scientific and engineering evidence that is site-specific, especially in terms of health and safety, which is why the Bill retains that element of the current process.

In all of this, it is important for us to remember what is at stake. There are serious, possibly irreversible consequences of an oil spill for economic, environmental, health and social lives intertwined with the Bight. That high-stakes context should be properly and fairly taken into account when assessing applications for petroleum or greenhouse gas activity in the Bight.

That is not currently the case.

The Bight is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, which provides pressing reason to more carefully assess why we, as a Parliament, would accept any risks posed by drilling in the Bight.

As we know, the Great Australian Bight provides an essential breeding ground for vulnerable species such as the Southern Right Whale, and ideal habitat for the endangered Sea Lion, as I saw on my recent visit to Kangaroo Island. And recent scientific findings suggest that there are at least 1,200 species of plants and animals in the region, around 85% of which are probably endemic.

Those are all important points that suggest the Bight is worth fighting to protect, but economic reality alone makes petroleum activity in the Bight a clear loser for South Australia.

The economic reality is that fishing and tourism industries provide critical sustainable and long-term economic benefits to South Australia, through thousands of jobs and billions of dollars every year. It is obvious that protecting the sustainability of those industries is in the best interests of South Australians -- and indeed for all Australians.

Fishing in the Bight brings half a billion dollars every year to South Australia. Tuna, crab, prawns, sardines, lobster and abalone…the list goes on. The entire fishing and aquaculture industry could be wiped out in the event of an oil spill, perhaps irreversibly.

Tourism in the region also brings in around a billion dollars every year to South Australia, much of which would be irreversibly affected by an oil spill in the Bight. There are at least 10,000 tourism jobs based in the Bight region, all of which would be under threat from a spill.

As I said in September, we must not put that at risk from a future oil spill.

It is worth remembering as well that modelling of economic benefits of petroleum activity in the Bight is based on many uncertain assumptions, such as the actual volume of oil available for extraction, as well as reliance on the global oil market, predicted by many to have massive slowdown in the next couple of decades.

This is not mere fearmongering. My concerns actually run deeper. Current evaluation processes are not operating in the best interests of South Australians.

The 2014 decision to outsource authority to NOPSEMA demonstrates lack of foresight, disregard for the significance of the Great Australian Bight, and disrespect for what the Bight means to the people of Australia in general, and the people of South Australia in particular.

The stakes are clearly too high, and the simplistic argument of streamlining regulatory requirements that was made for outsourcing is obviously not persuasive in this case. Put simply, the Minister should have ultimate oversight and responsibility for decisions which could have such massive ramifications.

The Bill ensures that responsibility for decisions on petroleum or greenhouse gas activity in the Bight is returned to the Minister, who would be forced to take into account more rigorous assessment criteria under the EPBC Act.

That would greatly broaden and strengthen the current narrow assessment process.

Assessment under the EPBC Act would:

1. Provide fairer balance of environmental, social, economic and safety considerations by ensuring adequate public consultation and social license;

2. Increase transparency and accountability in the decision-making process. The Minister must act consistently with additional considerations, such as the precautionary principle, treaties and conventions, leading to improved public trust;

3. Strengthen powers of review by extending the definition of persons aggrieved who could challenge an approval;

4. Ensure that penalties for non-compliance are appropriately broad and strict.

In other words, the Bill would give the Bight the respect it deserves.

It is also worth noting that, although there are some differences in the content submitted to NOPSEMA compared to content submitted under the EPBC Act, the primary difference is in the assessment of that content.

That is a significant point, and one which highlights the critical flaw in the policy idea that broadening the information submitted to NOPSEMA will result in fairer decision-making. In other words, even if more information is submitted to NOPSEMA, the same assessment criteria will apply.

That seems a positive step in the right direction, but is ultimately insufficient if the aim is to ensure that those applications are reviewed at the highest possible standards.

More precisely, the NOPSEMA criteria, which on cases of approval are that the risks have been reduced to As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP) and Acceptable, is insufficient.

That criteria are obviously at odds with the fact that even a small oil leak could be disastrous for the region. Other consequences, such as longer-term rehabilitation and remediation, are not fairly taken into account under NOPSEMA criteria.

That is evident in the Montara case, which is a well that blew-out in Australian waters near East Timor in 2009. The well was leaking for about 3 months, the equivalent period of time as the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are still 15,000 fishing and aquaculture operators in Timor who are -- even today -- pursuing class action for compensation for that event, supported by the Indonesian Government.

I am sceptical that any oil company would have the capacity to fairly compensate the entire fishing and tourism industry in the case of an oil spill in the Bight, which would be likely to lead to losses to the tune of billions of dollars every year for South Australia.

The Montara case reminds us that current criteria have clear problems of compliance and enforcement, but also that the risks of drilling for oil in the Bight to the livelihoods of South Australians are real.

Despite those significant worries, NOPSEMA does have considerable expertise in evaluating technical engineering and scientific risks at specific sites, which are important to include in decision-making.

For example, health and safety assessment, especially in remote, isolated areas of the Bight where waves can reach 23m and the water can be up to 3km deep, seems to be a combination which makes petroleum activity even more unsuitable.

Even the so-called 'safeguard' of a Capping Stack stationed on-site just in case of a spill seems basically worthless in such treacherous weather conditions, and NOPSEMA are best-placed to assess such matters.

Another policy response to the threat of an oil spill would be to list the Bight on the World Heritage List. That proposal seems to have merit, both in order to protect the Bight from risks of mining exploration and drilling, but also to lock-in the status of the Bight as a major tourist destination.

However, there is further work to be done to ensure that there would be no negative impacts from that listing on the South Australian fishing industry, which as we know provides critical jobs and economic growth for South Australia.

I'm also wary that the World Heritage listing process would be lengthy, perhaps taking three or four years, which seems too long to wait given the imminent threats to the Bight by interested companies. A positive result is also by no means guaranteed and relying on the World Heritage List approach in isolation risks an oil leak in the meantime.

That is why I believe it prudent to move ahead with enhanced assessment processes as outlined in the Bill rather than simply wait for World Heritage listing.

I would like to end with a plea to the Government and to the next Government.

The Bill is really the least that we should do.

The Parliament should not be in denial over the risks of drilling in the Bight, and Boiling Frog Syndrome is a real risk.

Six of Australia's most significant Marine Parks are located in the Bight, the Twilight; Murat; Western Eyre; Western and Southern Kangaroo Island; and Great Australian Bight.

While those parks provide important conservation measures, I was surprised to learn that large areas of all of those Parks actually allow drilling for oil.

It makes no sense to allow mining activity in our National Parks, and it certainly makes no sense to allow it in our Marine Parks.

The Commonwealth Marine Park Reserves zones in the Great Australian Bight should be amended so that no petroleum or greenhouse gas activity is allowed within those zones.

That is a relatively simple and obvious step that should be taken as a matter of urgency. It would provide security and stability not just to the people who live in the region, but also to those oil companies who are hamstrung by legislative uncertainty.

To conclude, decisions about petroleum and greenhouse gas activity in the Bight should be given the respect they deserve.

The Bill achieves that aim by strengthening integrity and fairness aspects of the current assessment process.

For those reasons, I hope that the Bill is warmly welcomed by our Parliament.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.