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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1846


Mr BURKE (WatsonMinister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (09:42): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The government has now introduced amendments that will create a new matter of national environmental significance under national environmental law. This amendment will enable the Commonwealth environment minister to take into account significant impacts of coal seam gas and large coalmining development on a water resource.

These amendments are the product of a long period of engagement with the community, as well as with members of this parliament—including yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker Oakeshott—who have been strong in their advocacy of this issue.

The challenge we have had up until now is that people quite reasonably expect the minister for the environment and water to take into account, by law, the impacts of coal seam gas and large coal mining on water resources. They want to know that I am considering: if there is an irreversible depletion and contamination of our surface and groundwater resources; the impacts on the way critical water systems operate; and the related effects on our ecosystems.

But, under our current national environment law, I cannot take these concerns into consideration directly, because the Commonwealth does not directly regulate projects that are likely to have an impact on a water resource—either surface water or groundwater. This is because water resources are not currently a matter of national environmental significance.

Under our current laws, the only way the I can take these issues into consideration is where there is a connection to an existing matter of national environmental significance.

For example, that connection may be to a threatened species which is legally listed but may be a hundred kilometres away downstream of the project. If there is an impact on that species downstream, only then can I take account the impact the project is having on that water source, to the extent that it affects the listed species.

The Australian government has already taken steps to provide more certainty for regional communities around coal seam gas and large coalmining developments, and the protection of water resources.

Last year we established the independent expert scientific committee under national environment law, to provide independent expert scientific advice to all governments on the water related impacts of coal seam gas and large coalmining.

The independence of the expert committee provides the community with the confidence they need that the scientific work being done has the integrity that people want.

However, when that advice comes back to me, I can only take that information into account if it is having that flow-on effect to an existing matter of national environmental significance.

Proposed amendments

The amendment does not seek to invoke the Commonwealth in all water decisions. The trigger will not capture small projects such as farm dams. The amendments will create a new matter of national environmental significance for coal seam gas and large coalmining developments which are likely to have a significant impact on a water resource. It will provide the strong legal basis for protection that the community wants.

This is not a broad trigger. The Australian government has already established independent expert scientific committee, which considers coal seam gas and large coalmine developments. This amendment provides the appropriate gateway for federal approval, and should continue to do so.

The amendments also deal with the transition to the new trigger.

There are a number of projects that have already been referred under national environment law which are already undergoing assessment. The government thinks it would be a perverse outcome if every project already in the system was finished without taking account the new matter of national environmental significance.

This is why the amendments provide that, for any project that is already undergoing assessment, provided the independent expert scientific committee has not yet given me its final advice, the new trigger will apply.

This does not mean that the assessment will need to begin again and completely restart for those projects that are captured.

We know that the sort of information that would be needed to make a decision for the new matter of national environmental significance already gets collected in different ways for state approvals, and for the work of the independent expert scientific committee.

The Commonwealth environment department is contacting proponents to advise them of any additional information requirements which may apply, the same way we frequently seek additional information, so that the full impacts of those projects on water resources can be assessed.

Conclusion

Up until now Australia's environment minister has not been able to take into account this information, which is already being collected. The information is provided and analysed but does not currently form part of the decision-making process. Under the new trigger, it will.

It means that when an approval is given or an approval decision is made, the community expectation that I have taken into account the impacts on water resources will match up with the legal obligations of environment minister.

At the same time, the Australian government is making sure that the administrative processes for the transition are done in a way that delivers better scrutiny and gives better-quality and more thorough decisions, without needlessly adding to time frames. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.