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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5186


Senator O'BRIEN (6:45 PM) —The Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act is the primary legislation for the administration of Australia's offshore petroleum resources. The amendments before the Senate in the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Amendment Bill 2002 are driven by two imperatives: first, to reduce the complexity of the act and associated compliance costs and, second, to rid the act of any anticompetitive provisions in keeping with the competition principles enshrined in the 1995 COAG agreement. The opposition supports these amendments. The act, now 35 years old, is due for review and amendment and is unacceptably complex. It contains within it unacceptable compliance costs which are a burden to Australian energy companies. Likewise, the opposition agrees that it is unacceptable that the current provisions in the act allow precious and major sources of energy to be locked up for such extensive periods of time—according to the Bills Digest, for up to 26 years.

Not long before the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Bill was enacted, Australia imported 100 per cent of its petroleum, and natural gas was virtually unknown here. Today petroleum and gas represent Australia's most valuable commodities and we are a net exporter of energy. Of course, none of the energy sources which underpin the Australian economy are renewable, and while further discoveries will be made Australia's energy reserves will not last forever, at least not as we know them. The government has an important role to play in ensuring that these resources are exploited in a way which maximises the benefit to the Australian people, the people who own them. This bill will assist in that process but I must say that it will not be sufficient to deal with all of the issues involved and much more needs to be done.

What we need is a comprehensive energy policy and that is a failing which one would ascribe to the policy framework that this government has. I know that this government is wont to accuse the opposition of lacking in policy in this area. Clearly, there is no doubt that the Howard government, having been in government since 1996, and its ministers in this area over the last six years have been derelict in arriving at a comprehensive energy policy for this nation for the future. If that had occurred and we had such a policy framework in this country at this time, we would not be having the debate now about whether gas from the Sunrise field in the Timor Sea should be exported from a floating facility or brought to an onshore facility and also used for domestic gas purposes.

Some would argue, I am sure, that government intervention in the market would cause a flight of capital and leave some of our important reserves unexploited. That is not the opposition's view. These resources are finite. They are, as we understand it, not renewable resources and not renewable reserves of these resources within the constraints of the boundaries of this nation and its territorial waters in particular. Whether they are exploited this year, the year after or in a decade's time is, in many cases at least, irrelevant and certainly not the key point in determining Australia's position and our national interests in this debate. We can rush in, and that seems to be an approach that this government takes, or we can plan in a way which maximises the benefits of our natural resources for all Australians and for the future of this nation. This is a nation which is young now but which we would expect to have a great future.

Debate interrupted.