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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7382

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:21 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, Senator Minchin. Recently documents were tabled in the Senate in response to a Democrat return to order from Geoscience Australia concerning exploration activities in the Coral Sea adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Is the minister aware that those documents included assessments of the petroleum prospectivity of the Townsville Trough, the Queensland Trough and other east coast basins and the purchase of satellite data for those areas as well?

Is the minister aware that at the estimates hearings in June Geoscience Australia indicated that such exploration activities were not occurring because government policy was that those areas were not being considered for release under the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act? Can the minister indicate, now that it has been revealed that this exploration is ongoing and continuing, that there has been a change in policy by this government? If there is no change in the government's policy, why is this exploration occurring?

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —I can confirm that, so far as the government is concerned, petroleum exploration within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is illegal and is certainly not being considered by the government. We are committed to the protection of the reef and the World Heritage area and are not going to allow any exploration activity that would be harmful to the reef. So far as Geoscience Australia are concerned, as I am advised there is nothing that they are doing that could in any way be connected to oil exploration in or near the reef. The fact is Geoscience Australia do have crucial responsibilities that extend beyond petroleum exploration, including supporting management of marine regions and underpinning Australia's claims under the law of the sea. Satellite data has been collected to assist in understanding environmental issues, such as pollution or growth of reefs over seepage as has been demonstrated by Geoscience Australia elsewhere around the nation. Informal discussions with scientific staff at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority about this work occurred in October 2000. I do not really have anything to add to the position.

Senator BARTLETT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Has the minister received any requests or recommendations for release of areas in the Coral Sea outside the marine park area under the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act from either Geoscience Australia or the oil industry? Will the government commit not to release any areas in the Coral Sea for oil exploitation under the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act in the term of this government?

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —I am not personally aware of any applications. If there is any further information I can give to Senator Bartlett, I will. I reiterate that the government are totally opposed to any petroleum exploration within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. We want to protect the reef and we will continue to do so.