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Thursday, 5 March 2015
Page: 1359


Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales) (16:33): How the years fly—quickly. I will take you back to November 2011, when the Nationals released a blueprint on coal seam gas that outlines five key principles covering the environmental, economic and social impact of coal seam gas developments:

1. no coal seam gas development can damage aquifers or water quality,

2. no developments should occur on prime agricultural land,

3. no developments should occur in close proximity to residential areas,

4. landowners deserve a return, not just compensation, from a resource on their land, and

5. real investment must be made back in the communities that generate our resource wealth.

I would like to expand on those principles, one by one. First, 'no coal seam gas development can damage aquifers or water quality': this is a vital issue. The underground water—and I refer to places like Liverpool Plains—is vital. That is some of the best country—I will not say in Australia—in the world. That land is only about three per cent of this planet Earth. It needs to be protected. It is a food bowl for the future generations to come. While I am about this place probably the thing I concentrate on most of all as a senator is the question, what do we do for future generations? I look back at the history. I look back at my family, my grandfather fighting in France during the First World War, putting his life on the line for the democracy we enjoy today, and likewise my late father, Reg. He was rear-gunner in a Lancaster bomber. They developed our land, and it is up to us to protect our land. That is why I was saying only recently that when my wife and I purchased our small farm near Inverell the first thing we did was take a bulldozer into that farm and improve the contour banks. The contour banks were getting flat, which means they faced serious soil erosion. We do not want our soil washed away; we want to protect it.

Point No. 2: 'no developments should occur on prime agricultural land'—and how true that is. I refer again to Liverpool Plains, that great country where I do not think there should be any sort of mining. It should be protected from coal seam gas and coal mining, and I will expand on that in a minute. And No. 3, 'no developments should occur in close proximity to residential areas': if people are there first, those people should be respected. If you build a house, for example, and all of a sudden the council comes along and puts a set of cattle yards alongside your saleyards, then you were there first and you should be compensated. If you happen to buy a house near cattle yards that have been there for many years, then be prepared for the noise and do not expect compensation. It is your decision. But people who were there first should be respected and have peace of life.

The fourth point is on royalties, because this gas used to be owned by the farmers, until the state governments took it off them—the Labor governments in South Australia and New South Wales especially. They should be compensated for their resource or any interruptions, and not just a tuppence or a box of beer but proper compensation, a proper royalty to them. And when those royalties flow into the states they should be putting some of that money back into the community, just like the Royalties for Regions in Western Australia. But what has happened is that this has become a political issue. There is far more politics involved than anything, now.

I want to say this: I went and saw for myself. About eight months ago I went to Santos's works at Narrabri. We went out to the wells they have drilled in the Pilliga Scrub, and Pilliga Scrub it is. I have been fortunate enough to spend all of my life in rural Australia, and I know I can look at land and tell you whether it is good land or it is really ordinary land—what we call 'backwards store wallaby country'. When we went to the well out there in the Pilliga Scrub, it was pretty ordinary country. I do not think you would feed a wether on 15 acres. You might even see the odd wallaroo, but I think they would be battling for a feed. It is very ordinary country.

I went to Santos for one reason: to find out for myself because we hear so much emotion, so many complaints, so many worries et cetera. The group—there was a busload of us—saw the geologists and the description of underground land. I said, 'Now, you prove to me how you will not disrupt or pollute the Artesian Basin catchment here. You prove to me how you will not interfere with underground aquifers.' They took us all through the whole works. We said, 'What about all the salt? What are you going to do with all the salt you pull out? What about the dirty water?' They took us to the water ponds they were building, with three layers of sealant so not a drop leaks through. We said, 'What are you going to do with the water?' 'When it is filtrated, it will be irrigating next door; we will probably grow a lucerne crop.' So they took us right through the whole issue.

The sad thing about it was that the gas they are producing now is flared—the methane gas is just burning away 24/7. You cannot use it for the gas-fired power station at Narrabri, because under the law if that gas has been extracted through exploration, before you are licensed, you are not allowed to use it for commercial use. Instead of just burning the gas 24/7 you could hook it up, in a matter of hours, to the local gas-fired power station and provide electricity for some 300 houses. But no—it just burns away. That, to me, is crazy.

New South Wales imports 95 per cent of its gas. Where does it get the five per cent it has got? It is actually from the AGL site out at Camden, west of Sydney, where they have had a number of wells—I am not sure how many; I will have to go there and look for myself—that have been there for about 19 years providing that gas. It has not been a problem, thank goodness. It has not been a problem and I hope they are doing it right. If there has been a problem it is certainly something I have not heard about. Then several months ago I went up to the Santos operation in Roma, in Queensland. We actually spoke to the landowners. We saw what they were doing. We spoke to the businesses. We spoke to the mayor and the deputy mayor and the councillors. One happens to be in local government and owns land with coal seam gas on his property. We went right through once again: 'Prove to us you're not damaging the water.' That is, to me, such a huge issue.

I found what Senator Lazarus said about people with air quality control, bleeding noses et cetera. That is really concerning, so I am going to make my way to Chinchilla at some stage, too, I can assure you of that, to see for myself. I do have some doubts about that because with the coal seam gas at Roma and Narrabri we did not see any of that. It is the first time I have heard of that. What are the environmental and pollution agencies doing? What is the state government doing? What are we doing? I have not had that come to my office; I have not heard of that before. But if it is true then it is very concerning.

Santos and AGL have assured me in my office here—not far from the chamber; you know where it is—that they will never go onto a farm if the landowner does not want them. I have said to them on many occasions, 'Will you honour that word?' and they have said, 'We certainly will.' When I went to Narrabri, where they were working with the landowners, the landowners were happy—they were getting payments. They were getting a good source of income. I would imagine those in the Roma district would be the same. In fact, it is a source of income which would be very welcome given the drought they have experienced for several years there. We kept saying to them, 'Prove to us you're not damaging this. Prove to us you're not damaging that. Prove to us you're protecting the environment.' One of the reassuring things I did get from them was that they employ their own environmental experts who are, in their very words, far more severe to them than any of the government environmental experts. I said to them, 'If you make one mess of this you'll be wiped out; you'll be shut down.'

I do have faith in Santos as a professional company. I have not visited the other companies. I have heard bad things about other companies. I have faith in AGL as a professional company. One thing I think is most important is that this is not an industry for cowboys. This is an industry for professionals, with geologists, environmentalists—and people who do not drop their cameras! This is vital.

I come back to those issues around protecting things for the future. It has become a very big political issue. I will give you some examples. I want to go back to the Liverpool Plains—those magnificent black soil plains with huge amounts of water underneath them. I started this job in July 2008; in January 2009 we went up and met with the Caroona group. There was former Senator Barnaby Joyce, now agricultural minister; Senator Fiona Nash; Mark Coulton, member for Parkes; and me. We went and met with the people. We took a bit of bark off and shed a bit of skin off; that is part of politics and you take that. But then, we shook hands as adults should do and we agreed to work together.

Senator Rhiannon: You're on both sides of the road, Senator Williams, and you know that. You say one thing when you're out there and you don't—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Whish-Wilson ): Order! This is not a time for debate.

Senator WILLIAMS: Senator Rhiannon, I will get to you in a minute. We shook hands and agreed to work together.

But, I will tell you what, Senator Rhiannon: I will take your interjection. What happened then is that Mr Tim Duddy, representative of the Caroona Coal Action Group, was down here only months later with the former Greens leader Mr Bob Brown, putting a wedge in. Senator Rhiannon would be very familiar with Mr Duddy because he wrote letters to the papers prior to the election when you were elected. He was in here forming wedge motions. To me, it was not a 'shake hands and let's work together.' It was a political stunt which still goes on today. That is why I am not even worried about your political stunts—because when you look at the Liverpool Plains and the Shenhua coalmine, who has done the work? Why has it stopped today? It has stopped today because the member for New England—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Williams, I will remind you to direct your comments through the chair.

Senator WILLIAMS: Sure. And what about the interjections? Standing order 197—is that still current?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I have asked the senator to stop her interjections.

Senator WILLIAMS: Thank you very much. So the politics continues. But let's get to the Shenhua mine on the Liverpool Plains. Who has now brought it to a stop? The member for new England, Mr Barnaby Joyce, the Minister for Agriculture, took Mr Hunt up there. Thank goodness for the scientific money that is available—$150 million. I give credit to the former member for New England, Tony Windsor, for bringing that forward—supported by our side of politics, as well, of course.

The politics plays on. Here is a great example; I have to read this out. This is important to you, Mr Acting Deputy President Whish-Wilson. The coalition government in New South Wales, the Liberal-National government, which has been there almost four years, has not licenced any coal seam gas developments. They are all existing licences from the previous Labor government.

Now the politics goes on, as Mr Draper, who was a former Independent member for Tamworth and a member when all of these exploration licences were approved, now comes back and says, 'We're going to fix this issue.' It was the Australian Labor Party in government in New South Wales—and I am sure those opposite will be listening—that approved all of these. It was the Australian Labor Party in New South Wales that took the $300 million from the Chinese company Shenhua and put it in its coffers in agreeing to the exploration of the Shenhua mine. Of course, it was a government very much backed by who? The Greens! Senator Rhiannon, as a member of the legislative council back in those days, was probably in the parliament and working closely alongside Carr, Iemma—I cannot remember all of the premiers they had at that stage—when all of these approvals actually went forward.

Now, we have someone like Mr Draper, who was the member for Tamworth while all these approvals went forward, running for the seat of Tamworth and screaming out that this is a big issue. He is saying that he is going to solve the problem. Give us a break! This is a case of crocodile tears at best when the very person who was the member was sitting there with his colleagues in the Labor Party and the Greens and approved all these very issues.

I will go to what we can do at a federal level. Under the Constitution, we cannot control the land. But we have the Water Act, the EPBC Act—it was brought in by this side of parliament many years ago by Senator Robert Hill. That is why environment minister Greg Hunt has been to the Liverpool Plains very recently. And he was well received, I believe. What has happened now? It has been put on ice so that the scientists can go in and get the facts about what is going on.

I want to add one issue when talking about all this mining on prime agricultural land: something that I was informed about by Senator Heffernan was coal dust. When coalmines were developed in the Hunter Valley, I remember being told by my colleague Senator Heffernan how the coalmining industry bought the neighbouring farms. There was a dairy farm next door. The coalmining company said, 'You can stay on your farm. We've bought it, but you can stay there and continue your business.' It was only a matter of time before the milk from those dairy cows was contaminated, because of the coal dust. That is another reason why I do not agree with the coalmine on the Liverpool Plains or coal seam gas being there, because the next thing will be the dust. As I said in The Northern Daily Leader yesterday, this is a real issue that we do not hear much about: the coal dust from the open mine settling on the food—whatever crop: sorghum, corn, wheat, barley or peas—that needs to be produced in the safe, hygienic and clean manner that we are so proud of in this country. So there is a problem in itself. No country should be totally left alone.

As I said, the politics comes into this all the time. A lady came up to me at AgQuip and said, 'You can't have any of this coal seam gas. It's terrible.' I said: 'Have you got a barbecue?' She said: 'Yes'. I said: 'Where does the gas come from? That is CH4—the methane that powers your barbecue.' If you are going to have coal seam gas, it must be done correctly; it cannot be raced into. You cannot have cowboy companies doing it. It must be done professionally. As I said, five per cent of New South Wales' gas supply has been there for many years now. It seems to be working well. I have not visited the area but I have visited Santos at Narrabri and Roma. It is good to talk to landowners. In stark contradiction of what Senator Lazarus was saying, the landowners seem to just say, 'No problems; good company; work well; up-front; explained everything. Yes, we're getting some good royalties, and it's not interfering with our farming.' This is what the farmers are telling me when I speak to them face to face. It is not what I am reading in the papers in some biased report put together by whoever.

We need energy. We know that. We know we have a lot of coal. We know that we can use that gas, if it is done properly. But if we do not do it properly, we are going to make a mess of our environment for future generations. That is the key issue. I have said all along: tread slowly, tread cautiously. Yes, we have good supplies of energy. It is great to have it in Australia instead of importing. Ninety-one per cent of the fuel we import is from overseas—petrol, aeroplane fuel and diesel. We need to rely on our own clean energy, but not at the risk of destroying the environment for future generations.

Our predecessors have done their bit to grow our country and look after our country. Sure, we made some errors on the farm. Sure, we cleared too many trees in the Mallee country. Sure, there is too much wind erosion. Now, with better practices of farming, like direct drilling et cetera, and leaving the stubbles on the soil, we are doing it much better. That is the basis of this whole argument: you need to do it properly, not rush into it, see that the state governments do their job and that the federal government, through the limited powers we have in this place when it comes to mining, do our job properly. I have confidence that the environment minister, Minister Hunt, will do exactly that in relation to many of these issues.

We need to protect the environment for the future, or there will be a very blunt, very dark and very damaged future for those in this country, especially our farmers, who have to grow so much food in the years to come to feed the growing world population. Our reputation for food in this country is second to none. We have great farmers who do a great job of producing great food. We need to keep that and preserve it for future generations.