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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2920

Ms HALL (Shortland) (10:46): I rise to support the legislation that we have before us today in the House. This legislation amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to include, as a new matter of national environmental significance, coal seam gas and large coalmine developments which have, or are likely to have, a significant impact on water resources. Where projects trigger the new matter of national environmental significance they would require assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. The new trigger would apply to relevant projects that are currently under assessment, and transitional powers have been designed to minimise the disruption to the assessment of existing projects as far as possible, while also meeting the objectives of the amendments to provide robust assessment of coal seam gas and large coal mining where there will, or where there is a likelihood that there will, be a significant impact on water resources.

This is an issue that is very close to the hearts of a number of constituents that I represent in this place. This is an issue that has caused angst throughout our communities, and it is one that I have a lot of sympathy with. The fact that coal seam gas extraction, or fracking as it is known, can cause environmental damage and can cause water pollution—and water is of vital importance to us not only as a nation but, I think, worldwide—means that there needs to be a robust environmental impact assessment process before coal seam gas, or fracking, is allowed to take place.

This is an issue where there is a lot of uncertainty in the science. I have done considerable reading on this matter and the reading has influenced my approach to coal seam gas extraction. It has shown me that there have been examples of where water has been polluted. It has shown me that we need to adopt a very cautionary approach to this issue. Concerns have been raised not only with me about the impact of coal seam gas and large coal mine developments. I think this issue has also been raised with a number of members across a wide variety of electorates within this parliament. We have an obligation to provide greater environmental protection for water resources and to ensure that water resources are not impacted on by these activities. Water resources are definitely a matter of national significance in relation to coal seam gas extraction and large mining. Coal seam gas and large mining development proposals, under this legislation, will require federal assessment and approval to ensure that there is no significant impact on those water resources. This will allow the impact of coal seam gas extraction and large coal mine developments to be comprehensively assessed at a national level so that we can see the impact that these activities will have on our water supply, because water and a safe, secure water supply are vital to ensure that we have healthy communities. Something that is important to each and every member of this parliament is not only to ensure healthy communities but also to ensure that our agriculture flourishes and that we as people do have access to adequate water supplies.

The government is obviously responding to ensure the long-term health and the viability of water resources and sustainable developments of the coal seam gas industry. It is adopting an approach that, on one hand, is looking after the health and water supply and, on the other hand, is making sure that new applications are assessed in a way where the process of the development and extraction, and the jobs that are created in that industry, are looked at, while ensuring that those jobs and the developments will not be at the expense of our environment. That is something that every Australian would look to ensure. They would want to make sure that any activities that take place in mining or coal seam gas extraction—fracking—do not have a negative impact on our environment, because quite often it is only years down the track that we actually learn of some of the implications of the activities. This is a very proactive approach to examining coal seam gas and large coalmine development.

The government has created the new independent expert scientific committee, which should give members a lot of confidence. That was created last year to provide advice on water related impacts of coal seam gas extraction and large coalmines. The committee will continue to provide advice for coal seam gas and large coalmine projects which will require Commonwealth assessment, including assessment of the impact on water resources. This expert panel is drawn from a number of areas. Those who are on that expert panel have detailed knowledge of the impacts. In a very holistic way, the panel will look at mining and the extraction of coal seam gas.

The consultation in relation to this is very different to the approach taken by the New South Wales government, which has an on-again and off-again moratorium. It tends to just blow with the wind and adopts the approach that it feels will be most beneficial for it. Good government is about looking at an issue and putting in place a process that is going to deliver the best outcome for communities. What we have in this legislation will deliver the best outcome for our communities.

My local community has raised issues about the impact of coal seam gas plants on surrounding aquifers. The extraction of methane from coal seam gas requires the extraction of a large quantity of water. Across the country it may total between 30 and 90 gigalitres of groundwater per year. This has been expressed as a concern. It is broadly well understood that there are likely drawdowns of aquifers and depression of aquifers, and that risks groundwater contamination. There is the risk of subsidence of the ground, and the salt in the water of the coal seam will be brought to the surface—about 1.8 tonnes per year.

The issue of subsidence is very relevant to communities within my electorate. Some of the areas around Chain Valley Bay in particular have suffered mine subsidence in the past. I know from working with residents over a number of years that, once subsidence occurs, it is really difficult to get a resolution to the problem. Those residents have fought very hard against the New South Wales government for a long time to get a final resolution to the problem that they have with subsidence, and I am talking about 20 years. That demonstrates how important it is that we resolve this issue before there is a problem. The expert scientific panel can look at whether there will be water contamination and they can evaluate the proposal before them. They would look at the porousness of the rock, the impact that the injection of chemicals would have through the fracking process and how that will impinge on the natural coal seam.

This is an issue that concerns all Australians. It is about having knowledge and making decisions based on knowledge. It is an issue that revolves around our long-term water security. That is something we are all very keen to ensure. It is also an issue that revolves around environmental protection. Add to that the other side of the equation: jobs, economic activity and ensuring that we do not stop development in that area. It is a balancing act. Whenever you have conflicting issues, you have to come down on the side of the environment. If we do not have a sound and healthy environment, we do not really have anything. We have to have a secure water supply. We have to know that our water supply is not contaminated. That is what I see this legislation doing. Our nation's water resources are amongst our most vital natural resources. It is important that we take reasonable steps to ensure that those resources are protected. The proposed amendment will ensure that projects involving coal seam gas and mines will be assessed and approved under national environmental laws. The federal government do not have a lot of wriggle room in this area, but this amendment gives us the ability to have a say in this particular space.

Currently there is no direct protection of water resources under our national environmental laws, and this legislation will give us that little step towards having a role in ensuring the protection of our water into the future. I have listened to people on both sides of the debate and no matter what I hear I have to always come down on the side of the environment. It is imperative that we as a government support this legislation and make sure that these amendments are put in place. It will give the federal government full regulatory oversight where projects are likely to impact on water resources, ensuring that we continue to have the highest standard of environmental protection. That is what it is all about—having the highest standard of environmental protection.

I implore all members of this House to get together and support this legislation. This is legislation about our future; it is legislation that I know has support within the communities that I represent in this parliament.