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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7219

Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (11:15): I rise to speak on the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment (Oil Transfers) Bill 2011. This bill will certainly assist in protecting one of our most important national and international natural resources: our ocean. I have heard it said that roughly 80 per cent of Australians live within 80 miles—to use the old measure—of the sea, and half of our houses are within 15 kilometres of the ocean. Such an ocean-looking nation we are, quite different from the images of the Red Centre that we so often see that typify Australia. We are also famous for our beaches and we want to keep it that way.

It is no wonder that the ocean is a treasured part of Australia's heritage. It has provided many generations with a living and the ability to raise a family, right back to the very first Australians. As a parliament, it is imperative that we are proactive in ensuring that such an important component of our livelihood and heritage is protected. This bill aims to do that.

This bill is concerned with the transfer of oil between oil tankers carrying crude oil for cargo purposes. These ship-to-ship transfers of oil occur when an oil tanker carrying crude oil is too large to dock in a port where an oil refinery is located. So ship-to-ship transfers are actually a necessary event. Those ship-to-ship transfers are currently very rare and, to the best of my knowledge, only one has occurred this year—in March. So they are rare circumstances. But one mistake is one too many. This legislation is needed because it is absolutely vital that ship-to-ship transfers, if they occur, are carried out in a responsible manner. Our ocean is just far too important to allow risk to be a part of the equation out there.

Additionally, with a growing international economy, there is a chance that ship-to-ship transfers of crude oil will become more necessary into the future. It is therefore imperative that this parliament respond, and appropriately regulate such transfers to ensure that they are carried out successfully. As I understand it, responsibility for the safe regulation of domestic New South Wales coastal trade is a responsibility shared between the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments. New South Wales is generally responsible for intrastate voyages. Trading vessels that operate on interstate voyages or are recarrying domestic cargo are part of an international voyage and are regulated by the Commonwealth.

All trading vessels operating in Australian waters are required to comply with the Commonwealth and state marine pollution legislation. Trading vessels arriving at and departing from overseas destinations have to comply with a number of Commonwealth laws. They have a requirement to exchange ballast water en route to prevent marine pest incursions, as happened quite infamously in the 1990s with the Japanese starfish which devastated the Tasmanian scallop fishery. So these regulations are very, very significant and highly practical in their impact.

These are important threats, but perhaps the threat we fear most as a coastal nation is the threat of serious pollution from ships. Maritime oil spills are one of the greatest possible threats to our marine ecosystem that we can imagine. In protecting marine ecosystems it is absolutely vital that we do all we can to prevent maritime oil spills, because the cost of a cure far outweighs any cost of prevention. The cost of any regulation and prevention measure really is naturally much less than the overall cost of cleaning up a maritime oil spill. The economic and social costs of such a catastrophic event are just too high even to contemplate. Indeed, communities in Alaska are still bearing the repercussions of the Exxon Valdez having run aground in Prince William Sound so many years ago. Many in this parliament represent these coastal electorates. We understand the immense importance of coastal environments. The electorate of Robertson contains many beautiful beaches and other coastal environments, many of which have become national landmarks. This was demonstrated with the great public interest generated by the scuttling of the former HMAS Adelaide in the seat of Robertson. Additionally, the beaches on the Central Coast have attracted holidaymakers for generations. Living in a coastal area, you understand the importance of beaches to our local communities. Indeed, it is part of our national character. It is for these reasons that it is important, in representing the people of Robertson, that I support this fundamental piece of legislation.

Every bill passed by this parliament is of national significance and this bill is certainly no exception. Indeed, any bill that aims to prevent an environmental catastrophe that would potentially have irreversible effects should be of national significance. Last Saturday, I was privileged to participate in the Five Lands Walk, an annual event aimed at increasing awareness of the spiritual importance of the natural environment. Having participated in the event for several years, I am heartened by the connection that the participants in the Five Lands Walk have with our local environment. This type of spiritual connection is indeed the type of connection that the very first Australians had for millennia. This is the environment that we need to protect and it is the role of this parliament to pass appropriate legislation to achieve these ends.

Saturday was the sixth annual walk and it has become a tradition that young, local Indigenous dancers call in the whales. This is the time of year that the whales are migrating up the eastern seaboard of New South Wales. On the weekend of the winter solstice, while others are making merry in the hinterland—I know there is a big festival up in the Blue Mountains—the whales are passing right by our coast. They passed Tudibaring Headland and Bulbaring Headland, to use the Indigenous names for those areas, on Saturday at exactly the time the girls did their dance. That is something that has happened every year. This intimate connection with our environment is something we should never underplay and this bill is a reflection of that deep understanding of our connection with our environment.

This legislation is constructed to ensure a very practical end—that the transfer of crude oil between ships in Australian waters reflects international best practice. As stated in the minister's second reading speech, these standards are contained in the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. The Marine Environment Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organisation, recognising risks associated with ship-to-ship transfer, adopted this international convention. It is important that as a nation we take our responsibility and adopt those same standards.

An example of a new provision contained in this bill is that proposed in section 11B. The proposed section requires that, if a ship-to-ship transfer occurs, it must be carried out in accordance with the ship-to-ship operations plan. The plan is the critical element. This means that a ship-to-ship transfer of crude oil must commence with a planning phase and both ships have to comply with that plan. If they fail to do so, they will be subject to criminal sanction. Additionally, under the proposed section 11E, a master of an Australian oil tanker—and I was quite surprised to hear about the level of expertise here in the House, as mentioned by the previous speaker—involved in a ship-to-ship oil transfer will be subject to criminal sanction if the master fails to make a record of the transfer as soon as practicable. So there is planning and reporting. Subsection 11F(1) also provides that the master of a tanker which has been involved in a ship-to-ship oil transfer operation in Australian waters will have committed a criminal offence if the master has failed to notify a prescribed officer of the transfer at least 48 hours before the transfer began. The regulations of this bill therefore ensure that such transfers of oil are carried out with appropriate notice and in accordance with a plan and that they are recorded once completed successfully. This is vital considering the amount of oil that ship-to-ship transfers involve. These transfers typically do occur in accordance with very strict guidelines and practices which cargo ships abide by. Despite this it is vital that we legislate to ensure standards are high and complied with when these transfers occur in Australian waters or when involving Australian ships. This government has ensured that the standards set down in this bill do reflect best international practice. It is worth noting that the standards embedded in the key elements included in this bill were developed initially by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd. This is an international not-for-profit service organisation that, throughout its history, has been predominantly concerned with the administration of compensation schemes. Not surprisingly the ITOPF has quite naturally developed an important role in providing advice in regard to the response to oil spill incidents. In addition it has a keen interest in preventing such spills.

We need only cast our minds back to the devastating oil spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico last year to observe the absolute devastation of an entire marine environment. In addition there was the terrible economic impact that flowed on from that environmental devastation. We have seen what oil can do when it is not carefully managed and when preventative action is not properly managed. I hope that throughout my lifetime this nation never has to deal with a major oil spill of such magnitude.

This government since being elected has been committed to ensuring that safety at sea and the safety of our environment is ensured. I am proud to support a government that has significantly improved the protection and sustainability of Australia's marine environment. This is demonstrated by our legislative record with the passing of legislation regarding civil liability for bunker oil pollution damage. Also this government has been proactive in enacting regulations including the Protection of the Sea (Shipping Levy) Amendment Regulations and Protection of the Sea (Oil Pollution Compensation Fund) Regulations.

Such legislative activity is rarely commented upon by our news media. I am sure that if some oil spilled we would all hear about it, and there would be so much blame apportioned and so much regret. Prevention is less engaging for the media, but is a vital part of good governance and that is what is happening here today. Often preventative legislation is regarded as unexciting in comparison to other matters being debated in the parliament or sometimes unexciting simply to debate or for the entertainment that it provides. But we in this place are in the business of governing, not in the business of entertaining. This legislation is a fair reflection of that.

I assert most forcefully that the prevention of major oil spills is vitally important in securing our environmental and economic future as a coastal nation. Whilst ship-to-ship transfers of crude oil rarely occur in Australian waters, when they do happen they must occur under appropriate regulation that meets the world standard. Anything less would incur far too great a risk of environmental tragedy. The ocean is one of our most treasured and important environmental assets.

In representing my electorate of Robertson I will always think of our sparkling eastern seaboard. I think of the people who enjoy it for fishing, for swimming, for surfing, for boogie boarding, for sailing and even for those new things where you stand up and paddle; I see them all the time at Avoca. We have wonderfully innovative ways of enjoying the ocean. We need to have legislation that is preventative and innovates and moves us to a safer place. I commend the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment (Oil Transfers) Bill 2011 to the House.