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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee - 25/08/2015 - Landholders’ Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2015

LAIRD, Mr Phil, National Coordinator, Lock the Gate Alliance

WOODS, Ms Georgina, Policy Coordinator, Lock the Gate Alliance

[09:47]

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

ACTING CHAIR: I now welcome, by teleconference, representatives from Lock the Gate New South Wales. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has your submission, and I now invite you to make a brief opening statement, and then the committee will ask questions.

Mr Laird : Thank you to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for this opportunity to speak. As you may know, Lock the Gate was formed in 2010 following two community group meetings in Queensland and New South Wales, when the country was in the midst of a mining investment boom. Since then, the alliance has grown dramatically in response to that boom and the land use conflict that came from that. At last count, we have 245 community group members and over 50,000 members and supporters across all states and territories. We are very active in the coal and gas space, representing a grassroots movement that speaks directly to the government and other institutions at a local, regional, state and federal level. We are an alliance of farmers, traditional owners, conservationists and city folk. Our mission is to protect Australia's natural, cultural and agricultural resources from inappropriate mining and to educate and empower all Australians to demand sustainable solutions to food and energy production.

We practise grassroots democracy. As an example, our supporters have surveyed landholders who cover more than three million hectares of farmland in north-west New South Wales near Tamworth. This is farmland that surrounds the Santos exploration leases in the Pilliga forest. On average, 96 per cent of landholders do not want gas activities on their land or road. This is a clear mandate—not 51 per cent or 54 per cent but 96 per cent, and very often the other four per cent do not know.

For this reason, Lock the Gate supports landholders having the power to veto coal and gas mining on their land. Currently, no states, including New South Wales, give landholders the legal power to stop mining companies from undertaking large-scale coal and unconventional gas mining on their land. We think it should be the responsibility of all governments to give landholders and communities a fair go, and we thank Senator Larissa Waters for bringing this bill to the table.

At present, the states rely on royalty income from mining and at the same time have the responsibility for protecting the environment and communities impacted by these proposals. There is an obvious conflict of interest. To this end, governments have effectively turned our planning system for major project approvals into an approval system. That is why we have been advocating for stronger federal laws to prevent the degradation of our land and water by mining interests.

However, the federal government is moving in the opposite direction, and the amendments to the EPBC Act proposed last week to remove the rights of most landholders and communities to challenge mining projects in the courts is a disaster for rural people. In the wake of the Shenhua decision, it is clear to our members that federal laws, including federal environment laws, need to be improved, not watered down, and the intention of the latest move to limit access to the courts for the enforcement of federal environmental approvals is a retrograde step.

We believe that the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill is a valuable step in gaining proper protection for landholders, the environment and communities against the impacts of inappropriate mining. The fracking ban contained in the bill is welcome, in that it eliminates an environmental, financial or health risk to the landholder that is being imposed by a petroleum or gas company through its operations. The difficulties for landholders in gathering evidence in relation to groundwater, surface water, air or livestock contamination means that the risk is effectively transferred from the petroleum or gas company to the landholder. If the companies refuse to supply evidence, it is unlikely that landholders have the financial or technical wherewithal to gather such evidence.

The risk is real and it can be realised, as shown in Tara, where groundwater contamination from methane and air pollution from volatile organic compounds are evident, and people are selling up and relocating. Currently, there is no way for landholders to mitigate these risks from fracking. There is no right of landholder veto of fracking, no insurance cover and no government compensation for a landholder whose agricultural assets, livelihood or health is damaged by fracking.

In response, Lock the Gate has just this week released its Grazier's glovebox guide to gasfield contamination. In brief, food producers are liable for contamination of food products produced by them. The guide outlines the need for risk assessment at farm and gas project level to ensure that the producer and the gas company are adhering to food safety guidelines contained in the Livestock Production Assurance Program. We are yet to hear of a producer who has been provided with a risk assessment of the gas field activities specific to their farm. It is our view that if such an assessment is not forthcoming, and given the producer's duty to manage his risk for his customers, his insurance company and his bank, then it is impossible for the producer to grant access without exposing himself to further liability. In short, he must lock the gate—if the risk is unspecified and it is unquantified, then doubly so.

For this reason, Lock the Gate support a ban on fracking. We look forward to the committee's findings. I have the glovebox guide available if you need it. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Laird. Ms Woods, would you care to make a short opening statement?

Ms Woods : No, that is fine. Phil's statement covered what we wanted to say.

ACTING CHAIR: Fantastic. We will go to questions. We have taken evidence regarding the Agreed Principles of Land Access agreement entered into by Santos, AGL, NSW Farmers Association, Cotton Australia and NSW Irrigators' Council. You are aware of that agreement, I suspect.

Ms Woods : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Part of that agreement says:

Gas companies confirm that they will … not enter onto a Landholder's property to conduct drilling operations where that Landholder has clearly expressed the view that operations on their property would be unwelcome …

I am just interested to hear what your views on that agreement are.

Mr Laird : We have a few concerns there in relation to that agreement. The agreement relates to the members of those particular organisations; it was not agreed with other people such as Indigenous people, environmentalists and what have you. Also, my understanding of that agreement is that they will not drill on people's properties but they still have not ruled out putting infrastructure on people's properties in the hope that those producers sell up, retire, move on in some way or have a change of heart. The infrastructure itself is a major impost. From the point of view of liability and risk, as I was talking about before, it exposes a person who does in fact lock the gate to a whole heap of risks that may encroach on them from next door if a company were to frack under their land and there were damage to their water table or potentially contamination of the air from nearby flares. Their health, their groundwater and their business could be under threat. Effectively what this has done is to move a risk from the company to the landholders—not just the ones that are hosting the activities on their land.

Ms Woods : The very fact that the companies and those organisations felt the need to come up with an agreement to give landholders the right to say no in certain circumstances, just for operations on their own property, really indicates that there is a gap in the law here. It is not comprehensive across New South Wales. It is only two companies that have signed the agreement and, as Phil indicated, it does not cover horizontal drilling coming underneath your property or infrastructure use of your property. So it is certainly not comprehensive, but it is in a sense an admission that there is a gap in the law that does not actually provide people with the certainty and the legal power that they need to ensure that they are in control of what is occurring on their land and able to fulfil their own obligations.

Mr Laird : Further to that, there has been no such agreement signed in Queensland, where there has been no pressure actually put on the companies or the government by the community. The other thing is that a project such as the Santos project at the moment is financially susceptible to being bought by another company, and the agreements that are made with Santos and AGL may not flow through if that project does change hands.

ACTING CHAIR: So it is locked in to the individual farmer who signs it.

Ms Woods : And it is specific to the two companies that have signed it, so it is not New South Wales law.

ACTING CHAIR: I see.

Ms Woods : It is not providing a clear and consistent basis for landholder rights; it is just one agreement between two companies and several agricultural industry groups. There are lots of holes in it; that is our point.

ACTING CHAIR: Sure. So how do the elements of this bill that is before us today, which would give landholders the right to say no, differ from the outcomes that could be achieved under the Agreed Principles of Land Access? What is the difference?

Mr Laird : Firstly, it applies to everybody; it does not just apply to the people who are parties to those agreements. As I was saying, you can have a larger farmer—which is what has happened up in Queensland—who hosts operations on their property and gets quite a large payment and then, using underground drilling, the companies branch out underneath other farms, and those farms will have to wear the consequences but they are not party to the agreement. So there are two components, really. There is the risk that they bear—and sometimes that risk is not actualised, but it is a risk—and there is also the return. Our view is that if you are shouldering risk for someone else that is not fair.

Ms Woods : There is a key difference in that the bill that is before the committee requires prior written authorisation, whereas the land access agreement is more rubbery about respecting wishes and clearly expressed views. There is not actually that legal hurdle where you have your written authorisation for the operation that must be obtained by the company. It is a little more rubbery and interpretive in what is meant by your ability to express your views and what is meant by their respect of your views and there is no clarity about the legal status of that.

Senator WATERS: I want to ask a few questions about the statement that you made to start with. But I want to begin by asking whether you think this bill goes far enough.

Ms Woods : Do you want me to answer that, Phil?

Mr Laird : Yes.

Ms Woods : Thank you for the question, Senator Waters. I suppose it goes far enough in the two key elements that it is addressing: the right to refuse and the ban on hydraulic fracturing. There are much broader problems that we encounter when we talk to communities that are affected by unconventional gas mining and large-scale coalmining. We do think that the Commonwealth has a profound interest in protection of water resources in particular and all matters that are of national interest and public interest, and we do not consider that the current regulatory and legislative framework for mining across the country is consistent nor does it ensure that matters of national and public interest are safeguarded and prioritised when mining industry comes to town. So, yes, we think there is a broad reform agenda to be prosecuted in the Commonwealth arena. But for the right to say no and the ban on fracking this bill is pretty clearly achieving the aims that it is setting out to do.

Senator WATERS: There was some suggestion in some of these submissions which I found quite intriguing—and I am interested in your view—about whether the right to say no should be extended to communities rather than individuals. I am quite that attracted to that notion, although clearly that is not how the bill is drafted at the minute. What is your view on that? Do you think that would be an appropriate expansion?

Ms Woods : As Phil said in our opening address, we work a lot with communities at the broader level. So we work with individuals, but also in our network people band together—neighbour and neighbour, locality and locality, community and community—because they understand that this is not just about individual people and individual properties. There are consequences from unconventional gas mining and large-scale coalmining that go past the property boundary and there is value in people coming together and working on a consensus basis across the community about natural resource management. There would be lots of questions about how to address those impacts at the community level. How do you could define 'community'? What is the jurisdiction that you are talking about? It would not be an easy thing to legislate for at the Commonwealth level, but we certainly do agree that natural resource management should be a consensus based consideration at the community level and that there are relationships between landholders, their neighbourhood, their region, the state and native title claimants and holders that all need to be worked through together in a cooperative sense, and that is not currently what goes on in the mining industry.

Mr Laird : To take it to an agricultural example, in the farming world people spray crops for different bugs and for different weeds. One of the crops, cotton, is very susceptible to one particular spray and you can get spray drift. This does not relate to fracking, but the principle is the same, in my view. If you do something on your property and that chemical rises up in an inversion layer and comes across and kills my cotton crop, and I am out of pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars, then you need to be held accountable. People do not do that. They are educated. They understand that there will be serious consequences should they cause damage, but they also understand that there are serious consequences to their neighbours—to their financial viability—and to their community. We are all in it together. I think there is an element of carrot and stick in all of this, but you have to start from at least a common understanding that you have to respect everybody in the region.

Senator WATERS: Sometimes people have said to me: 'What about the right to say yes? What about all of these farmers', who they sometimes even claim are the silent majority, 'who are perfectly happy with enormous coal mines or coal seam gas wells on their land?' What is your response to such a statement? What has been your experience?

Ms Woods : We do not see much value in simplifying this stuff, to be honest. There are legal responsibilities that landholders and primary producers have when they are signing vendor declaration forms, to say that there is no contamination. They need confidence in the property-scale responsibility. But also, as I mentioned before, natural resources are a common good; they are shared by everybody. People share rivers, aquifers and the clean air that we breathe, so there are multi-scales of responsibility that need to cooperate with each other. One person saying yes, in a region full of people who do not want unconventional gas to compromise their water or their soil, is problematic. It is not solely the responsibility of the landholder. We believe in landholders' rights, but we also see landholders as part of communities. Those layers of responsibility and power need to be nested within each other. I suppose we are saying that it is more complex than many people try to make out. We are all for cooperation. Division is something that occurs where mining companies try to skew community attitudes or divide people from their neighbours with money, and that is problematic as well. One more important element of that is that if all of the regulatory and policy settings were in place to safeguard water and to prevent air pollution, which can be quite toxic from coal seam gas operations, and if all of those policy settings were consistent across the country and were in place now, we would be having a different conversation. One person saying 'yes' to a gas field, and thereby inflicting on their neighbours, as Phil indicated, volatile organic compound releases from flaring and all of the other risks associated with unconventional gas, is problematic. It is not a simple matter.

Senator WATERS: The other thing that is often put to me is that this is the province of the states and that the Commonwealth should not have anything to do with this. What has been your experience and what is your assessment of the adequacy of state laws? Do you think Commonwealth intervention is necessary?

Mr Laird : You can see that state laws are very inconsistent. In New South Wales at the moment we have just had a chief scientist report come down with a range of recommendations that are, in our view, not being implemented completely. We think that the recommendations were quite good. They were a good start; they started to bring science into the equation. One of the main things in that report was that it said, 'Coal seam gas activities can be managed'—there was a line there that said that—but then it said, 'in areas where the geology and the existing land use is in sympathy with that'. Basically, the chief scientist was talking about was no-go zones and ring-fences—to put lines on maps. That has been completely lost by the state government. They have addressed it in terms of buying licenses back, but there is no guarantee that they will not reissue those licences to, potentially, a more competent company. Then you go up to Queensland and see that they are just doing land release after land release. There is a real disparity between what is going on. In Victoria there is a moratorium. There are inquiries in some of the other states. In Tasmania there is a moratorium. The Northern Territory just seems to be open slather—they will take anybody. In our view, there is a real role for a baseline of regulation with some strong protections for communities and environments.

Senator WATERS: You mentioned in your opening statement that you supported the fracking ban, and I thank you for that support. You made an interesting statement, which I am keen to flesh out—that there was no insurance cover for damage by fracking. I do not know much about that area and I would love to know a bit more. Can you expand on that, please?

Mr Laird : That was another recommendation in the New South Wales chief scientist report: that there needs to be comprehensive insurance against contamination and against damage to assets, a wide-ranging sort of insurance regime. People in our network have asked their insurance brokers for insurance and they have been told that there is no insurance product for that. It means that it is just not possible to mitigate a risk that is being imposed upon you by someone else. For a farmer or a businessperson—and most farms now are significant businesses in their own right—not to be able to mitigate a risk is something that is important from the point of view of banks, OH&S plans, farm management plans and succession plans. There are a whole heap of things that are dependent upon having a fairly predictable business. Barring the weather and commodity prices, people are trying to minimise their risk, and this is an unquantified and unstated risk in most situations.

Senator WATERS: Who bears that risk then? Does the landholder have to mop up the damage, or does the company have any role to play?

Mr Laird : One person in our network, up at Chinchilla, had a dam of produced water explode over his property, probably about six weeks ago. That produced water just ran across his property, into a drain, across the road and then went on its way downhill. There was nowhere for him to go with that. There was no way he could take the state government to court. There was no way he could take the company to court. There was no insurance cover for him and he was not in a position to sue his next-door neighbour. He really did not have a way of managing that risk. The risk itself is kind of unquantified, in that he did not do any testing of that water and he did not have the wherewithal to understand what it was that came across his property. He does know that it was originally licensed as a co-produced product, but, from the farmer's point of view, if that happens, say, four or five times, you get a cumulative increase in the load, and he would not know which one it was that was the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of a contamination. It could be in one part of the property. It is just problematic. The whole thing is problematic.

Senator WATERS: You talked about the different approaches of the states and you mentioned that Victoria and Tasmania both have a moratorium on fracking, which would to me indicate that those state governments at least see that there is a problem that needs further investigation. Why do you think there is such a disparity of approach, where in Queensland it is all systems go—nothing is off limits; nothing is safe—whereas in some of those other states they have, correctly in my view, put a pause on things like fracking? What do you think explains the difference? Is it different technologies that they are using?

Mr Laird : I think it is a political thing. In New South Wales you will see that the upper house has been very cautious. A number of committees have investigated this. One of the recommendations from the last Senate committee, which was bipartisan, said that there should be a moratorium until the Chief Scientist's recommendations are completely implemented. There is no such thing in Queensland. Once the government of the day made that decision, it was taken and the industry has to roll out quite quickly, otherwise it does not get its return on capital. In my view, there is the political angle to that in Queensland, and they do not have the same protection as everyone else.

Ms Woods : The Concerned Health Professionals of New York have recently updated their compendium about fracking impacts, and they found that the inherent engineering problems with fracking worsen with time, so the longer it goes on, the more wells are drilled, the worse the problems get—the leakage continues; the leakage gets worse; the wells fail. So it is an industry where problems emerge later on that were not there at the beginning, and the states that do not currently have unconventional gas operations see the aftermath of what has occurred in the United States or in Queensland and then realise that their own regulatory regimes are not currently capable of grappling with it. That was the finding of the Victorian Auditor-General's report last week—that the moratorium is very useful for Victoria because there are gaps in their regulatory regime and there are gaps in knowledge, and the moratorium has given them the opportunity to fill those gaps and gather that knowledge before they make the mistake of rolling out a risky industry ahead of knowledge and regulations.

Senator McGRATH: Thank you for appearing before us today. I want to touch on upon property rights and then go into community support. Ms Woods, you probably touched upon where I am coming from in terms of a possible unintended consequence of this bill. Before we get there, what is the effect of this bill in terms of the relationship between landholders and resource companies? Do you think it would lead to a better relationship or one that may become more adversarial?

Mr Laird : I think you would get a better outcome, because, where we are at the moment, we have got a major imbalance. We have got a situation where one group has a lot more power than the other, and, from a community perspective, that is always seen with suspicion. The whole idea of transparency is incredibly important. People need to be able to talk to their neighbours and talk about what happened with them when they were approached by companies. From the point of view of the company and the landholder, once the company's expectations are reset—because I think companies do think at the moment that they have carte blanche and can go pretty much anywhere—and there is genuine respect, I think you are going to get places where the environmental impacts are not as pronounced, and I think you are going to get better outcomes for all concerned. But at the moment I do not think this is even in prospect for a lot of companies. They do not take it that seriously.

I probably should be distinguishing between New South Wales and Queensland. I think in New South Wales the companies have said that they will not go, and that is very important. They have voluntarily done that due to community pressure.

Senator McGRATH: What are your views on the idea that the mineral resources are owned by the state for the common good? Do you think it is appropriate or right that an individual property owner can effectively, I suppose, veto the access to those resources for the common good? Doesn't that almost de facto transfer ownership of those resources from the common good to an individual person or property?

Ms Woods : Not at all. It just recognises that the extraction of those resources requires damage, impact and impost on someone else's right. It is simply a recognition that the existing right and use of that property by the landholder is going to be impacted upon and is going to be affected by the extraction of the state's resources. Therefore, that person's written authorisation is required. It is not about the ownership of the minerals themselves; it is about the extraction of the minerals and the mining technique itself and its impact.

Mr Laird : I would also say that those minerals and that gas are not going anywhere. Sooner or later a deal or a negotiated settlement—however it is structured or whatever the outcome—can come about. It is important to understand that those minerals and those reserves are there not just for the people who live today but for our children and our children's children. We need to manage the resources for all.

Ms Woods : I think the way the system is currently operating means that, in fact, the idea that those resources belong to the state and are held for the common good of all is actually lost in most instances. There is so much power vested in the industry—an assumption that the industry should be able to extract and dig up those resources for a profit. The settings are not actually recognising that the whole community has an interest in that coal seam gas and in the water that is extracted in order to produce the coal seam gas. This is about recalibrating that and saying, 'Yes, the mining industry and the mining companies have responsibilities and rights and they have freedoms, but at the same time so do landholders, so do communities and so does the broader public in ensuring that that extraction is not done in such a way as to damage the common good.'

Senator McGRATH: Couldn't there be an unintended consequence of this where the resource companies would effectively change their business model? We have seen some instances where they have bought up properties and they just buy up more properties. My understanding is that the companies have tried and have gone out of their way to build up relationships with the local community and the local townships and so forth, but under this model they could just buy properties and then not really care about community concern because they are bypassing landholders by buying out the landholders. Would that be a concern of yours?

Ms Woods : It is a concern for us where a mining industry has large landholdings, particularly in agriculturally productive areas like the Hunter Valley and the Liverpool Plains—which has happened in the coal industry particularly, because it has such an intensive surface impact. But I guess you are assuming that the mining industry would not respond to this by accepting the fact that landholders have rights and simply negotiating access and getting that written authorisation. If the coal seam gas industry is manageable, as companies maintain—if the impacts can be mitigated, if rehabilitation can occur and if people can enjoy coexistence with the industry, as the industry maintains is possible—then there should be no reason why this written authorisation from landholders should not be able to be obtained. The only reason why companies would then go around this and spend millions of dollars buying extensive areas—because coal seam gas is a very spatially extensive industry—is if they felt for some reason that a large number of landholders would not want them. And why would they not want them? It is an incongruous argument to say, 'Well, we couldn't possibly get the authorisation of the landholders.' If they can coexist then they can get that authorisation. This is simply resetting the power balance and ensuring that people have adequate legislative backing to say, 'I have rights in this situation.'

Mr Laird : There were also a wide sweep of recommendations in that Chief Scientist's report in New South Wales, from the establishment of an expert scientific body or panel right through to insurance, environmental bonds, training for drillers and all those sorts of things. I think that was a good attempt to set some sort of basis. But the right to say no does bring back the power balance. I think there is quite a marked lift in regulation and society's acceptance of the industry, as well as resetting the power balance of landholders. I think that is not negotiable, really.

Senator McGRATH: Just on that report by the Chief Scientist, do you accept the report or do you reject the report by the Chief Scientist?

Mr Laird : When the report came out we applauded the report, and we still do. We think that there are some gaps. We do not believe that there was a strong enough emphasis on health impacts. They were mentioned, but we think that health impacts are a serious and significant thing to be considered. But generally, if it is read in its entirety—and, as I say, it does have the idea of no-go zones and ring fences around certain projects—then I think it is a good report.

Senator McGRATH: I would just like a little bit more information—I think this was in your opening statement, Mr Laird—about the survey of landholders. I would just like to ask about that. I think you said—or someone said—that 96 per cent of landholders were opposed. Can you just give me a bit more information on that, please—take me a bit more through that survey.

Mr Laird : Sure. What we did—when I say 'we' I mean the community—was to have a meeting, a working bee type thing, where they asked people on different roads in that locality. Typically, a locality that has a community hall will have five or six major roads that peel away from there—gravel roads, tarred roads and whatnot. They have a type of working bee where people get together. They apportion out different roads for a small crew of a couple to go out and survey that road and ask people pretty much one simple question. What was that question, George?

Ms Woods : 'Do you want to be gas field free? Do you want our road to be gas field free?'

Mr Laird : That is it. So it is a yes/no/don't know answer. Some people who do not know ask for more information and then, generally after about four or five weeks, we collate the information and then put that into an overall figure and we invite all the people from the district to come back to that hall and have a barbecue and a bit of a party and discuss the issue from their perspective. It is pretty much a community project. Generally what happens is that someone from the community next door, with a community hall next door, sees what happens over the fence, figuratively, and then they will start the project up themselves. So, over a fairly short period, you get dozens of these halls. I think in the north-west there are about 85 different communities who have participated in the process and the survey.

Senator McGRATH: How many people in total would have participated?

Mr Laird : Sorry; I cannot give you the answer to that question.

Ms Woods : Tens of thousands, certainly.

Senator McGRATH: I just want to understand where we got the 96 per cent from. I presume there must be a total figure in order to get that percentage. That is all.

Ms Woods : Yes, there would be. We just did not come prepared with all of that today, unfortunately. But it would be in the tens of thousands.

Senator McGRATH: There are other groups out there who disagree with that figure. I think you probably touched upon it in your opening statements—that there are other surveys out there that may have been done more scientifically which show a different result. It has been put to me that, in Narrabri, the council, the local Aboriginal land council, the chamber of commerce and a community group called Yes 2 Gas support the gas industry in that district. What is your view in relation to those groups and their support for the gas industry?

Mr Laird : My view of that is that the people in the chamber of commerce and the council and that are never, ever going to have to sign an access agreement with the gas company. Their position is completely different to the landholder who is going to have strange people driving around in white utes on their property 24/7 sort of thing. In the end, the people who are going to have to sign the gas company's access agreement are the people who participated in our survey. They are the people that are going to actually have to sign an access agreement. From a company perspective, they have got a pretty good idea now of the task that is in front of them if they want to roll an industry out. Yes, there are more scientifically done surveys, but, in terms of a survey that shows what people think who actually are involved in the rollout of the industry, I think it is pretty clear.

Ms Woods : The gas-field-free process is not market research to test community feelings. It is actually a process of direct community democracy, of people taking it upon themselves to go and speak to their neighbours, to go and speak to everybody in their locality and talk about the prospect of gas coming to their neighbourhood and how they feel about it. It is entirely different from ringing someone up with a poll. It is much more about democracy and resetting the balance so that communities have some say and have some power in a situation where generally they do not.

Senator McGRATH: I understand that the Narrabri gas project was in an area that was set aside for industries like resource development and forestry, and this was done after a comprehensive review. There was something called the Brigalow-Nandewar agreement. What are your views on this agreement?

Mr Laird : Just before we answer that one, the concern for people is that the industry is contained in that area but its model is to expand. The idea is to kind of get a foothold, get the infrastructure in place and then roll out, try to get a bit of momentum and keep drilling, because the gas supply tapers quite quickly. Once you drill the hole and de-water it, you need to frack it, and then it tapers again. So drilling as an expansion of the gas field is quite an important aspect.

As far as the Brigalow agreement goes, I am from Maules Creek, and a part of that involved the Maules Creek coalmine. Speaking as a local person, I am pretty disappointed that the forest that was there could be torn up for a coalmine when there are plenty of other opportunities for coal. But that deal was done quite a long time ago, after the actual leases were in place.

Ms Woods : Yes. Just to add to that, Senator McGrath, you are characterising the outcome of the western regional assessment for Brigalow Belt South and Nandewar as if there were some kind of agreement made between a number of different parties. That was a government process. It was a forestry industry restructuring process, essentially—that is my understanding. In the past, this is what has occurred, and the minerals industry has succeeded in ensuring that the conservation status granted to public forests, where there is a coal or gas resource underneath that forest, tends not to extinguish the ability to come back later and exploit that resource. Such is the power of the coal and gas industry in New South Wales that that has tended to be the way those forestry outcomes have resulted. The same thing happened on the Central Coast underneath the Jilliby State Conservation Area, where there is now a coalmine proposed to undermine it. It is not an agreement that was made between the community, the timber industry and the mining industry; it was the outcome of a government process influenced by the extraordinary power of the mining industry to draw lines on maps and say, 'Don't make that a national park,' or, 'Don't make that off limits to mining, because we want to be able to come back there and get the gas one day.'

Mr Laird : Yes. There was a report done in the eighties specifically about this, and what it said was that the biggest threat to coalmining in New South Wales is prime agricultural land and national parks. After that report was done, one of the things that they did was start to make these kinds of decisions around where coalmining could go. It was really on the back of government bureaucrat type stuff; it was not really an agreement.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Laird and Ms Woods. Unfortunately, we are out of and over time, so we will have to call a stop there. Thank you both for your submission and also your appearance here today.

Ms Woods : Thanks very much for having us.

Mr Laird : Thank you very much.