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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2942

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (BatmanMinister for Resources and Energy and Minister for Tourism) (12:24): I rise to support the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013. As someone who recognises the importance of the coal seam gas industry to Australia, I say that we need to continue to demonstrate that Australia employs world's best practice regulatory standards. The proposed amendment to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 will ensure that the impact of new coal seam gas projects and new large coalmines on water resources is assessed under the EPBC Act. The key to this is independent scientific advice underpinning any environmental assessment. The amendment requiring Commonwealth assessment of new coal seam gas projects and new coalmines ensures the advice of the scientific committee must be considered in environmental approvals, even when there is no such statutory requirement under state law.

In essence, the amendments are all part of the government's commitment to best practice regulation when it comes to our energy resources. This includes the action of the Australian government, working through the Standing Council on Energy and Resources, in developing a national harmonised framework to regulate core areas of coal seam gas operations and a multiple land-use framework. Industry is committed to best practice, despite the view of some in this House. These frameworks recognise that operations must coexist with other activities, like farming, and will provide communities and industry with the tools to achieve such coexistence.

Preliminary advice from SCER has indicated that Australia's regulatory regimes already accommodate best practice standards, but this is a process of continuous improvement, as is the nature of environmental and Indigenous regulation in Australia. I saw this firsthand a couple of weeks ago when I visited the coal seam gas corridor in Queensland. I spoke to the workers involved in the industry, such as those on a drilling rig with experienced workers from overseas as part of the team. When you think about the industry at the moment and the loss of 9,000 coal industry jobs over the last 12 months, Queensland is exceptionally important. As a result of a $55 million investment in the coal seam methane industry in Queensland, we now have 25,000 jobs cushioning the loss of 7,000 jobs in the coalmining industry over the last 12 to 15 months. With coal prices as they are at the moment, I do not rule out further mothballing and closure of coalmines in Australia, with further job losses.

Unlike Queensland, New South Wales does not have that cushion. New South Wales has lost 3,000 jobs in the same period—2,000 jobs in the last four months—because of the collapse of metallurgical and thermal coal prices. Our objective is to make sure that we have best practice and ensure that it is based on scientific considerations. We need to end the senseless debate aimed at demonising industries that create wealth, opportunity and jobs for Australia and, in doing so, create a huge potential stream of export earnings for Australia. The state of Queensland today is a prime example of the importance of this industry. Without the industry in Queensland at the moment, the Queensland government would be most challenged in employment, especially in regional communities. People who have concerns with this industry need to spend a little bit of time in those regional communities and actually discuss the benefits of the industry with local communities. The workers themselves accept that best practice should apply.

When I spoke to the workers in Central Queensland a fortnight ago and to the workers on the drilling rig, who are international workers training Australians, giving them expertise for the future, they clearly indicated that in terms of world's best practice our training and qualifications are the best, and in terms of environmental considerations our standards are best practice in the world. Regarding suggestions that these workers are not receiving decent earnings in Australia, highly experienced workers from Canada clearly indicated that the wages they are earning in Australia are twice the wages they could earn in North America at the moment.

I seek to bring these benefits to the attention of the House because, clearly, we must get environmental considerations right in the same way as we must get Indigenous considerations right. Projects that do not meet those standards will be knocked back. Projects that do meet those standards must be allowed to go ahead without being demonised. There is a very important reason why we need to turn our attention to this issue: because of a fight to bring gas projects into operation in New South Wales and Queensland in recent times, we are staring at a potential shortage of gas in Australia, which is going to have a huge impact on potential prices for ordinary consumers, let alone the industry. I raise these issues to remind the House that we have to front up to our responsibilities environmentally and from an Indigenous perspective but also from an economic perspective, at national, state and local levels. The time has come for all of us to get on with having an established framework, back off from the senseless campaigns without foundation, and concentrate on scientific outcomes, investment and jobs for all Australians. I commend the bill to the House.