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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 6066

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (12:37): I am not sure if I have yet had the pleasure, Mr Acting Deputy President Sinodinos, of noticing you in the chair. Congratulations on your elevation to such lofty heights.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sinodinos ): Thank you.

Government senators interjecting

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I trust that is due respect being shown to the chair from the other side of the chamber. It is a pleasure to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012. I assure the chamber that that will be the last time I read the full title of the bill. This bill establishes the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. Hereafter I will refer to it as 'the committee', given that I do not think the acronym IESCCSGLCMD is terribly likely to catch on. I do note, though, that the Senate committee in its inquiry elected to go with the slightly less cumbersome 'IESC' but 'the committee' will suffice here.

The committee will have a number of functions relating to the consideration and better understanding of the impact on our water resources of both coal seam gas developments and large coalmining developments. All of us in this place are aware that there is a very significant level of community concern, which has seen us arrive at the point of the establishment of this committee. I acknowledge that the processes involved in the committee's establishment have been undertaken in a relatively cooperative way across different parts of the political divide. The committee will provide scientific advice to government ministers—whether Commonwealth, state or territory—at their request in relation to proposed coal seam gas developments or large coalmining developments that are likely to have a significant impact on water resources.

The committee will also provide advice to government ministers at their request about how bioregional assessments should be conducted in areas where such developments are either proposed or being carried out. It will provide advice about priorities for research projects to improve scientific understanding of the impacts of such developments on water resources; it will publish information about improving the consistency and comparability of such research and about the standards for protecting water resources from the impacts of such developments; and it will collect, analyse, interpret and disseminate scientific information in relation to the impacts of these developments on our water resources.

The bill requires the Commonwealth environment minister to obtain advice from the committee in relation to coal seam gas development or large coalmining development in certain circumstances where the minister believes that the development is likely to have a significant impact on water resources and where the development may have an adverse impact on a matter protected by a provision of part 3 of the EPBC Act—essentially any matter of national environmental significance.

Finally, the committee is part of a framework which also involves, through COAG, the establishment of the National Partnership Agreement on Coal Seam Gas and Large Scale Coal Mining Development. This agreement came into effect on 14 February 2012 and was signed by the Commonwealth government as well as the governments of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The technology to extract coal seam gas, or gas from coal seams, has been in existence for some period of time—decades, even—but it is only in relatively recent years that coal seam gas development has occurred in Australia. The coal seam gas industry is in the process of growing substantially and has seen very rapid growth, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales. Already around 90 per cent of Queensland's gas is supplied from coal seam gas operations, and there is an expectation that in Queensland alone the industry will deliver around 18,000 jobs and around $850 million annually in royalties. We are dealing with a very significant industry and an industry with the potential to make a significant contribution. Nationally, coal seam gas represents approximately 10 per cent of Australia's gas production.

As coal seam gas and the coal seam gas industry have grown, and proposals for it have grown even further, the public debate has also grown quite considerably, as I noted in my remarks at the outset. The debate around coal seam gas operations and environmental impacts has especially focused on the impact that coal seam gas operations have on groundwater resources. I have been involved in some aspects of this debate and am aware of many of these issues. Back in 2009 I chaired one of the earliest parliamentary inquiries that looked into these concerns—the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts References Committee inquiry into the impacts of mining in the Murray-Darling Basin. It included hearings in Gunnedah in New South Wales and in Oakey in Queensland, and it reported in December 2009.

The committee made a number of proper and fitting recommendations to state governments, given that it is state governments who have the responsibility for the land management issues associated with mining and mining exploration. I do hope that participants in this debate will continue to remember and reflect upon the point that it is indeed the power and the domain of the states in this Commonwealth of ours to legislate and regulate the primary areas of mining and minerals exploration and development. During the inquiry there were some recommendations directed to the Commonwealth government. I place on the record, and I certainly hope that the minister responds when concluding this debate, that it concerns me that nearly three years after the conclusion of that inquiry a response from the government remains outstanding. It is little wonder that community concern about the operation of the coal seam gas industry is heightened, when they see processes of this Senate and of the parliament undertaken but then ignored by the government in terms of any responses being forthcoming from the government. It is commonplace and the expectation of this Senate that the government will respond to recommendations of Senate inquiries.

Debate interrupted.