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Thursday, 5 March 2015
Page: 1366


Senator WATERS (Queensland) (17:04): I am really pleased to rise to speak about the health and environmental impacts of coal seam gas. I must sound like a bit of a broken record doing this. I welcome the fact that we have now got some company from other political parties who are also learning how dangerous this industry is. I am very disappointed that the old parties—we have heard so far from the Nationals and now from Labor—who are effectively apologists for the industry. I am sure we will hear similar sorts of gushings when the Liberals get up to speak, but that is their prerogative. I certainly will not be doing that tonight. I want to talk about the absolute danger of this industry to water, to land, to human health, to the climate, to the reef and to those very regional communities that we are meant to represent here in this place.

The first parliamentary activity that I undertook when I was elected to this place was to participate in an inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin. The inquiry had formed a subset to look into the impacts of coal seam gas in the Murray-Darling Basin. It was an incredibly formative experience. I was four days into the job and rostered on to go to Roma, to Dalby and then to Narrabri. It was a fascinating experience because—yes, like Senator Williams—we got the spin from the Santoses of the world and, yes, they took us on their tour of their site. Unlike Senator Williams, I kept an open mind and also listened to the community members and the scientists rather than just listening to the industry. But then, the Greens do not take $200,000 from Santos, as the Nationals have done in South Australia.

What we heard from the communities, even back then—3½ years ago—was that they were really concerned about the long-term impacts on their groundwater supply. They were concerned about not only the quality of the groundwater and the potential for contamination but also the potential for the groundwater table to drop quite significantly in some instances. They were worried about where they were going to get their water from, and this was in some of our best food-producing land in Queensland. Other Queensland senators know that we do not have a lot of great soil in Queensland. Where we do have good soil it should be kept for food production. So those community members and farmers were right to be concerned.

We then heard from experts, and they have continued to speak out as the years have rolled on, about how much we do not know about underground water and the interactions between coal seams and aquifers, and how much we do not know about the potential long-term effect that we are having on the Great Artesian Basin, for example, as well as on particular aquifers that underpin much of our land, particularly our food-producing land

In that instance I can cite the National Water Commission, the CSIRO, the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. All of these expert bodies keep reminding all of us here in this place that we cannot guarantee that there will not be long-term impacts on groundwater from this industry. The concern there is that, because water moves so slowly, those companies will have up and gone. They will have done their rehab—probably to a cruddy level, as usually happens—they will have got their deposit back and they will have gone. You will then find that the water impacts have been done and cannot be rectified. That is one of our concerns.

That is water impacts. In terms of land impacts we heard some fascinating evidence from farmers back then that in fact coal seam gas was interfering with the surface operation of their farming. Some of the land managers who have chosen to adopt more modern, more sustainable practices and had purchased quite expensive GPS guided equipment were telling us that the coal seam gas wells were interfering with their GPS equipment. They were not able to use these more modern precision agriculture techniques, because the coal seam gas well had buggered up the GPS. That was a real eye-opener. We then heard that, with the criss-crossing of the well pads, the roads, the pipes, the diesel generators, the trucks, the people coming onto your land at all hours of the day and night, this was in fact a massive invasion of what had formerly been good-quality, food-producing land. It was really troubling to hear already the social concern that those people were having.

That has only intensified in the 3½ years that we have continued to campaign against this dangerous industry. Just last week in Toowoomba we heard of terrible distress that communities are being put through in this country. It is a very unequal playing field. They do not have the bargaining power with these big companies, because the law does not give them the right to say no to gas on their land—or coal, for that matter. They are being bullied and harassed. They are concerned about the health impacts of coal seam gas, an area which really does warrant further scrutiny. We have heard an awful lot of anecdotal evidence about the health impacts, whether they be respiratory, people getting bloody noses or people getting headaches, whether that is caused by the vibrations or the ambient methane emissions. Somebody has to look into this; and, unfortunately, the state health departments are not doing that either at all or to a sufficient level to give anyone any confidence about this industry. The anecdotal evidence is really stacking up.

It was heartbreaking to hear those people give evidence in Toowoomba the week before last about how distressed and worried they were about their land and how worried they were that their kids would not be able to farm that land anymore, that they would have to move away and that their very health might dictate that they needed to move but did not have the money to do so. So I quibble in particular with Senator Ketter's inference that somehow this is some great economic boon for those communities—far from it. As we know, fly-in fly-out work across the whole resources sector creates a massive disparity between those who are employed in the mines or the gas industry and those who are not. We see cost of living go through the roof in those communities, particularly in the cost of housing. Many of the workers in those small businesses are attracted to work in the industry, and therefore the basic services that people are used to, whether a mechanic or a taxi driver, are no longer accessible. It changes the very fabric of a community, and with those fly-in fly-out workers we see that profit being taken out of those local communities. They are simply left with the social dislocation as well as with the environmental impacts.

We have now started to look at the issue of climate impacts. The CSIRO have finally released stage 1 of a report into fugitive emissions. We know that these wells and pipes leak like a sieve, and this is methane, which is at least 23 times more potent a greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide, so this is dangerous stuff we are playing with. I note that Senator Williams mentioned that often this gas is just flared. That carbon is just going straight into the atmosphere, so I could not agree more with him on that one small point of his contribution.

With the climate impacts here the CSIRO looked at a number of wells and found that some were hyperemitting. Some were emitting a vast amount of methane. They acknowledge in their own studies that they looked at only a very small sample size and that more work needed to be done. They also acknowledged they had not looked at shale gas and tight gas; they had only considered coal seam gas. Clearly, given that shale and tight gas are the new gas frontiers that are trying to roll out over South Australia, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and even Victoria, those studies need to be done now.

I guess that is our key point here. This industry has got everything it has wanted. The approvals have been handed out hand over fist without the science having been done. We have now seen the establishment of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development, and the Greens welcome that. Unfortunately, they are merely an advisory body and their excellently strong advice—and they are very worth reading because they often point out the massive flaws in the information provided to regulators by proponents—is frequently ignored. They almost always say: 'We don't have enough information. We don't know what the impacts are going to be. On the proponent's own information we're already predicting metres and metres of a groundwater table drop. You need to ask these people for more information.' And the regulators just say: 'Oh, whatever. We'll just hand out the approval. They can do those studies later. Let's give them conditional approval'—which, of course, is just a tick to start that destruction.

What has been particularly heartening over the years, though, has been the community resistance that has started against the absolute pillaging that this industry represents. I want to pay tribute tonight to the people from Lock the Gate, particularly Drew Hutton—full disclosure: a life member of the Greens—who went on to establish Lock the Gate, a movement which has just ignited across the country and which is giving community members hope that they can stand and protect their land, their water and their futures from this rapacious industry and that they will not be bullied into letting their land be ruined, even though the law is not on their side. So I want to thank Lock the Gate for the work that they have done, the attention they have brought to this issue and the hope that they are giving people.

I had the huge pleasure of attending the Bentley blockade last year. That was a shale gas well that was proposed to be sunk in that northern rivers region. The power of that community protest—as well as a few technicalities and quite a lot of political pressure—stopped that from going ahead. It was the most wonderful celebration to be part of, because those people finally felt powerful again. After years of feeling like their concerns had been ignored—mostly in Nationals territory but certainly by both of the big parties as well—they finally felt some hope and some power again. That is what we want to bring back to this place. That is what we want to empower landholders to do again. It is to protect their land and their water. They are producing food for all of us. We are a net food exporter and the Greens want that to continue. It is going to be more important as food security becomes even more of a problem, with climate change intensifying as the years roll out. We need to be protecting our good-quality food-producing land. That is why, once again, this week I have reintroduced into this place a bill to give landholders the right to say no to coal, to coal-seam gas, to shale gas and to tight gas on their land—a right which they do not have. There is one tiny tenure in Western Australia where the owners have that right; under no state law in the rest of the country does anybody have the right to say no to resource activities pillaging their land. We think that is wrong. When the science is saying you could do some serious damage to your land and your water for all time, why should landholders have to bear that risk and why should governments be approving that? Somebody has to take a stand and protect that land. We would like to give landholders that right.

The first version of my bill was of course voted down in this place about a year ago when the Nationals, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party all voted against it—only the Greens and a few of the crossbenchers at the time supported it. I have now reintroduced that bill, and I have added a ban on fracking. It is important to mention this, because hydraulic fracking is an incredibly dangerous process whereby billions of litres of water and sand and chemicals are blasted into coal seams to break them open so that the gas can flow. Fracking has been shown overseas to potentially contribute to earthquakes and potentially it can contribute to connections being made between the aquifers and the coal seams. Of course those coal seams have all sorts of things in them—they are hypersaline, as well as having naturally occurring carcinogenic chemicals—benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene. In New York state and Vermont, in the USA, fracking is banned—it is banned because it is dangerous. Counties and cities in California, Colorado, Texas, Hawaii, Delaware and Washington DC have also imposed either bans or moratoriums on fracking. I notice this week that, thank goodness, Tasmania has issued a five-year moratorium on fracking and Victoria, likewise, has extended its moratorium on fracking. This is not a safe process and we do not understand enough about it to allow it to continue, so my bill includes a ban on hydraulic fracturing for gas extraction.

This week, and most disappointingly in the context of the New South Wales state election, we saw Mr Barnaby Joyce, from the other place, out in the community repeatedly championing the fact that he did not want the Liverpool Plains to be ripped up by the Shenhua coalmine and he did not want the mine to go ahead without further assessment. He wanted the federal water trigger—which he had voted against—to be used to get more information. I put a motion to this place which said that the Liverpool Plains—that beautiful black soil which is 40 per cent more productive than any other agricultural land in the country—should be off limits to coal mining and coal-seam gas extraction. What do you think happened? The Nationals ran out of the chamber—they fled. It was a one-minute division and I watched them flee out of the chamber. Rather than go on record and either stand up to their coalition partners or buckle, they chose not to go on record at all.

I thought I would try again, because the Victorian Nationals—there is a by-election happening in South Gippsland at the moment—have come out with a good policy at their state level, and they have said that landholders should have the right to say no. We agree. That is the very legislation we have had in this place for years now. I put that motion today acknowledging that policy and calling on this place to agree with that very basic proposition. Likewise, we saw the Nationals leave the chamber for the vote. Senator Barry O'Sullivan hovered around the back here, presumably to make sure nobody else came in, and then he left with two seconds on the clock. It was a very disturbing sight to witness and I think that people in the areas of both Tamworth and South Gippsland would be really disappointed that the Nationals say one thing when they are at home in those areas and then, when they have the chance to support that view in the parliament, they do not take that opportunity. That is really disappointing.

We have these fabulous powers to look at the water impacts of coal mining and coal-seam gas extraction, which Mr Hunt has used to seek more information about the Shenhua coalmine in the Liverpool Plains. The huge irony is that those are the very powers that his government and he himself want to palm off to state governments, with their grand plan to completely gut our federal environmental laws and leave state governments to make all of those decisions about internationally significant environmental icons. The irony has been somewhat lost on Minister Hunt and the Abbott government that those powers which they are now using to positive effect to arm themselves with better information so that they can hopefully make the right call—history certainly would not indicate they will—are the very powers that they are intending to palm off to any old state government because they just cannot be bothered looking after matters of national environmental significance anymore. It is not their bag.

I asked in estimates about how much we know about coal-seam gas extraction and the studies that are being done. It was quite farcical because there were so many issues that were out of scope of the studies being done. The fugitive emissions had a very narrow focal point, and the impacts of contamination on deep aquifers were only in the modelling stage and were out of scope for particular studies. It rammed home to me how selective and poor our scientific knowledge is about these industries. Yet, all the indications we have so far are that there are incredible risks. We have the precautionary principle on our law books and that is meant to guide our decision makers, and particularly our environmental decision makers. We do not know whether we might cause lasting damage to something as precious as water, in the driest inhabited continent on the whole planet, so why are they rolling out these approvals willy-nilly, like confetti, when the science is saying hang on, we really do not know what lasting damage we might be doing? We know enough to know there are some serious misgivings about this industry. It has been disappointing to watch the continued fawning of all of the parties in this place over the industry.

I want to draw attention to something that Senator Williams raised in his speech. He said he had gone on a site visit, chaperoned by Santos, and he had asked them some really tough questions and had been reassured by their answers. I went on a similar site visit with them and asked them similar tough questions, and I was not satisfied with their answers. I was not satisfied with just relying on and trusting them

That is why we have independent scientific bodies and why communities are so concerned, because these guys are absolute spin merchants. They are paid very well, they are very slick, they try to reassure you that everything is find and then, when you consult with the genuinely independent scientists, you hear a completely different story. I would urge Senator Williams not to just accept Santos's word for it, because they have a bit of a financial interest in saying to him that everything will be fine. I mentioned earlier that I was very disappointed when the South Australian Nationals accepted $200,000 from Santos. It would be great, if they could give that money back.

I will wrap up by saying that I am really pleased to be able to have the ability to discuss this issue once again in the Senate. The motion focuses on the human health and the water impacts of coal seam gas. If it were up to the Greens, we would be including shale and tight gas in the scope of this, and we would also include coalmining. And we would not just look at the health impacts of course: the environmental impacts are crucial when all of the science is telling us that we are putting at risk such precious resources, like our very land, our very water and our climate, not to mention our reef through which much of this gas is exported. For heaven's sake, why are we favouring the private profits of these big gas companies that send that money offshore and leave us with the environmental damage and communities that have been absolutely ripped up?

I am really proud that the Greens are standing with those community members, giving them hope, and I am thrilled that we now have some company in this place with others who are likewise concerned about this industry. I would beg each of the other senators in this place: please take the time—I know we are all busy people but this is really important stuff and the stakes are high—to get some independent advice and inform yourselves about how much we do not know about this industry and the real dangers that it poses, instead of just taking the money and handing out approvals like confetti.