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Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Page: 2828

Ms GRIERSON (Newcastle) (17:31): I rise to speak in support of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013. I am rather pleased to hear the member for Groom say that his advice is to stay out of the built-up areas, go out into the countryside and drill for gas there. Through my speech I want to talk about a built-up area, the built-up area of Newcastle.

These amendments respond to concerns I and many others have raised about having the right environmental protections around the coal seam gas industry in particular. Prior to these amendments the balance was not right, because the EPBC Act precluded the proper consideration of the impact on water of coal seam gas exploration and major coalmining operations. When you go through the act and go through the assessment forms, you will see there is no box you can tick for water. There are boxes for biodiversity, for species—you can tick a box for all sorts of things, but you cannot tick a box for water.

In this great brown land, water is the most precious of commodities. We cannot take chances. We cannot make on-balance decisions with our fingers crossed behind our backs. We have to get this right. Our communities have sent this message loud and clear. They believe that it is the responsibility of governments to act to protect and conserve our precious natural environments and our precious water. They are rightly worried.

The amendments within this bill will provide greater environmental protection for water resources that may be impacted by coal seam gas extraction and very large coalmining developments. They are necessary because there is no current protection for water resources at a national level, which links to some limitations in the Constitution: the federal government does not have the constitutional responsibility for water. Every environment has a water dimension, so not considering these together defies reality.

Water resources are a matter of national environmental significance, and with these changes coal seam gas and large coalmining developments will require federal assessment and approval if they are likely to have a significant impact on water resources.

Prior to these legislative changes, water has largely been a state based issue. With the introduction of the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which this bill amends, the federal government was given the authority to intervene only in instances where threatened species of animals and plants may be adversely impacted. The amendments before the House strengthen that act and grant the Commonwealth the authority to intervene when large-scale mining developments and coal seam gas projects may impact upon the long-term health and viability of Australia’s water resources. The amendments will also create a civil penalty and offence provisions for companies whose actions involving coal seam gas or large mining developments have a significant impact upon water resources without prior approval being granted.

These changes only apply to those projects that have not yet commenced environmental assessment and to those that are undergoing assessment but where advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development has not yet been provided to the minister. It will not affect those projects with existing licence approval. What is does mean, however, is that should a current project operating under an exploration licence seek a full operation licence it must go through this new rigorous federal assessment process that has water as a central consideration. It also means that any project that is re-referred to the minister because of any breaches of conditions of approval will also be reconsidered under this amended legislation.

And that is very good news for my electorate. Newcastle is home to the Hunter Estuary Wetlands, an internationally recognised Ramsar wetland, which cover almost 3,000 hectares. There are 65 Ramsar sites in the country. This is a very precious and fragile ecosystem at the mouth of the Hunter River, first listed under the Ramsar Convention in 1984. Within this ecosystem are a range of fragile habitats, including mangrove forests with grey mangrove, samphire saltmarsh, paper-bark and swamp she-oak forests, mudflats and sandy beaches. It is a site that supports a vast number of nationally and internationally listed threatened species, such as the green and golden bell frog, the Australasian bittern and the estuary stingray, as well as 112 species of waterbirds and 45 species of migratory birds, including the great egret and the white-breasted sea-eagle. The Hunter Estuary Wetlands also provides refuge during periods of drought for inland birds such as ducks and herons.

Beneath this site are the Tomago sand beds, an extensive underground water aquifer network which provides 20 per cent of the Lower Hunter’s drinking water supply. Hunter Water Corporation is currently able to access around 60,000 megalitres of water from our aquifer. This water resource plays a significant role for both ongoing and backup water supply for the region and it helped out the Central Coast when its water supply was down to 10 per cent. It has played a remarkable role in our water security and remains a vital water asset to my city and region.

Within this aquifer, and within 500 metres of the Ramsar wetland, two pilot exploration coal seam gas wells have been approved, and one of those has been drilled next to Fullerton Cove by Dart Energy. Whilst not utilising hydraulic fracturing processes, or fracking, this project has caused immense anguish within the Newcastle community. I am on the record as sharing the community’s concern. I have frequently met with and made representations to Minister Burke regarding the approval and monitoring of this project. I have informed him of the community’s distrust around coal seam gas, a distrust that comes from a lack of comprehensive scientific knowledge about CSG extraction and its environmental impact in Australia, as well as its genuine concern about the protection of our unique local environment. I have also met with the CEO of Dart Energy to inform him of those concerns and to discuss with him the rigour I would anticipate they would apply to their project. When we are dealing with a relatively new industry in Australia in such a pristine, fragile ecosystem as Fullerton Cove, we must ensure that the approval process is rigorous and that the conditions and environmental standards are set high.

In April 2012, a subsidiary of Dart Energy was reported to have breached its coal seam gas exploration licence conditions by not properly rehabilitating a drill site at Fullerton Cove. Another licence breach found that a lack of monitoring of surface water and groundwater had taken place. Because of incidents such as these, as well as those that have occurred in places around the world, the community is rightly concerned. Coal seam gas does have a role to play in our nation’s energy needs as we gradually shift our reliance on coal fired power to cleaner and renewable sources, but this can never be done at the expense of our natural environment. The community has called for the protection of water, and this government is acting on that concern.

In 2012 I conveyed to the Fullerton Cove residents that they had my full support in opposing the coal seam gas extraction under the conditions that applied then. I am of the view that the pilot program should not proceed to full operational stage and that any breach in the current approval conditions should be cause to re-refer the proposal for consideration as a controlled action under the EPBC Act, as amended by this legislation. I have also met with the assistant secretary of the Environment Assessment Branch regarding the pilot approval decision made by her under delegated authority. I thank her for that meeting. In that meeting I expressed my opinion that if this project, located as it is in such a sensitive ecosystem—an international Ramsar wetland and an aquifer that is used by the people of Newcastle—gets through, then every project in Australia would get through. Not now, thank goodness, if this legislation is passed.

I also met with the audit and compliance section of the environment assessment branch about the assessment they would use of the hydrology monitoring that is to take place behind the preparation of the hydrology report by Dart Energy. I suppose my message to the department was, 'Get with the program. You cannot shelter in Canberra behind legislation and bureaucratic processes, and not be conscious of public demand for some satisfaction around this area. There has to be some trust and some credibility.' I think they have to show those concerns. Yes, they are public servants, but they serve the public as well. They have to know what the concerns affecting the portfolio are. They have a responsibility to be across all those issues in order to give their minister the best advice, advice based not just on legislation and reports prepared by others but also on actual observation and involvement.

At the time of the approval of the Fullerton Cove coal seam gas project I stated my view that the New South Wales government should commission an independent study into the cumulative effect and impacts of industry on Kooragang Island and adjacent areas. Such a study is vital to inform planning decisions and mining approvals that impact on the quality of life of the people of Newcastle and the natural environment of the lower Hunter. It is our community that lives every day with the impacts of the largest volume of coal on the planet moving through our valley and our city to our port. Currently there is over 120 million tonnes a year moving to the port. That is planned to increase to 200 million tonnes a year within the next 12 months to two years—it is staggering.

It is our city that has also lived too many days with ongoing chemical spills from the Orica ammonium nitrate plant—some as recent as last week. So when our city is also expected to live with coal seam gas exploration 500 metres from our wetlands, within our Tomago aquifer, one kilometre from the Pacific Ocean and five kilometres from Newcastle Harbour, we rightly say: 'Enough is enough.' It is about time the cumulative impact of this industrial activity is properly assessed by the state government. Certainly, each individual development might stack up alone, but let us deal properly with the cumulative impact of one project on top of another project on top of another, on top of the existing industry that we live with right in the heart of our city. I think the exploration is about 10 kilometres from my home; and, of course, there is a big population in Newcastle.

Last Saturday, 1,500 protesters gathered in Newcastle to voice their opposition to an expansion of coal-loading infrastructure in Newcastle. That is a fairly large protest by anyone's criteria. The people in Newcastle have stoically endured the negative repercussions of industry for many years for the common good: for the good of the city, the good of the state and the good of the nation. They have been leaders in industrial activity, they have supported industry and they have supported—through their unions and their workplaces—effective industry in our city. But now they are rightly sceptical of self-regulation. They are looking for greater assurance from governments that the balance will be right between the environment, the amenity of their life and, certainly, the economic needs of the region. Many in my city think we have reached a tipping point. I invite everyone to come and see the extent of these resource based industries and heavy industries in Newcastle.

In Fullerton Cove there is concern about the danger posed by water extracted from the coal seams should it contaminate groundwater aquifers. Whilst local resources industries bring jobs and great benefits to our local economy, the Newcastle community has been let down too many times in the past by the impact of industry on health and the environment. That is why there is such credible and heartfelt opposition to and concern about coal seam gas extraction right in the city and demand for rigorous assessment of major mining projects. The reforms in these amendments have also been welcomed by other groups in my wider region, such as the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association. There is a real issue in this country of competing land uses and how we prioritise different industry undertakings. Currently, no planning laws in this country reflect any considered strategy around this issue. What industries do we wish to sustain when all cannot coexist satisfactorily? How are we prioritising food security for the world? How are we responding to our capacity to underpin that global need for food, as one of the few nations in the world that produces more food than we actually need? How much value do we place on sustaining a wine industry—a historic industry that dates back to our earliest white settlement? How do we nurture the equine industry that now rivals the once extensive Irish equine industry? These are all in the Hunter Valley. Although these amendments do not take on these questions, the issues around competing interests will not go away. So, once more, I call on Barry O’Farrell, the Premier of New South Wales, and his hapless environment minister, Robyn Parker, to introduce environmental assessment and approval processes that take into account the cumulative impact of industrial developments on Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

At the federal level, these amendments come after our federal Labor government established the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development in 2012 to provide scientific advice on impacts that may arise due to coal seam gas extraction and large coalmining developments. This went with our government’s $200 million commitment to relevant research and assessment work. There is no excuse for the scientists not to do a really thorough job and, under this new protection, I will certainly be looking for that. It is not good enough to say, as they did in the Fullerton Cove case, that they have insufficient data. So it will be interesting for them to develop some data.

I commend the bill to the House. I thank my local community for voicing their concerns regarding coal seam gas extraction. I also thank Minister Burke and his department for listening to my concerns and the concerns of his caucus colleagues and taking seriously the concerns and reservations of our communities. The more complete federal regulatory oversight demanded in these amendments is most welcome because our precious water resources deserve the highest standard of environmental protection. I commend the bill to the House.