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Monday, 27 February 2006
Page: 107

Senator MILNE (8:29 PM) —I rise to say how absolutely shocked I am that in a supposedly comprehensive rewrite of a piece of legislation, the Offshore Petroleum Bill 2005 and related bills, at this period in our history the environment is practically ignored. For all the talk about ecologically sustainable development, for all the talk about triple bottom-line accounting and for all the public awareness that goes on in relation to whale strandings, seismic testing and the ecosystem approach, neither the word ‘marine’ nor ‘ocean’ appears in the bills. Can you believe that? In 2006, neither the word ‘marine’ nor ‘ocean’ appears in the offshore petroleum bills. Where is offshore? Offshore is the marine environment. I find it absolutely disgusting that these bills have been written with, effectively, a prehistoric approach to our oceans.

Australia has been running around the world in international fora talking up its oceans policy. Australia has an oceans policy, but it writes offshore petroleum legislation that fails to mention the oceans and the marine environment and uses the sea only in jurisdictional reference—as in territorial sea. The generic term ‘environment’ is used but only in a very short section on restoration of the environment—that is a matter of a couple of pages in a massive bill. Even then, it only goes to minimal restoration of the ecosystem and environment.

This legislation should have been framed in the context of Australia’s oceans policy, which was introduced in 1998, and in the context of ecosystem based management—environmentally sustainable development, multiple-use management and regional marine planning. And yet it is not framed that way, not at all. It makes some fundamental assumptions that the marine environment is a free good; that it is there for the sole purpose of providing resources to humankind. So the marine environment only exists as long as it can provide oil, gas, fishing and whatever else humans decide they want to use the marine environment for—and use it for as long as it takes to destroy it without even understanding the complexity of it.

At the World Parks Congress in Durban a couple of years ago, it was recognised that 10 per cent of the world’s terrestrial area is in national parks protected areas of some kind but that less than one per cent of the world’s oceans have the same level of protection. It was moved in Durban that we should aim in the next decade for 10 per cent of the world’s terrestrial environment to be put into protected areas. It has long been understood that if you make marine parks then you not only protect ecosystems but you actually support fisheries, because those marine parks act as breeding grounds. They are protected areas for the fisheries to maintain resilience, breed up fish stocks and so on and maintain the wild fisheries outside those marine protected areas.

Senator Colbeck —Not true.

Senator MILNE —It is absolutely true of marine parks and protected areas. There is a vast amount of literature demonstrating the value to fisheries of marine protected areas. I would suggest that you read some of that literature if you dispute that. It is a matter of fact in ecosystem based management and in fisheries management.

Over this last summer we have had whale strandings around Australia. At the time we had a whale stranding off the south-east coast of Tasmania, we had naval vessels there using sonar and we had the oil and gas industry in Bass Strait also using seismic testing. Both of those things are in fact proven. The Navy admitted that it was there this summer using seismic testing and, indeed, the oil and gas industry were also testing in Bass Strait at the time.

What is Australia supposed to be doing in terms of strandings and tissue testing in regard to the impact of seismic testing on cetaceans? We were supposed to be developing a national network and protocols for rescue and post-mortem. As far as I am aware, little has happened with regard to the development of that protocol for rescue and post-mortem. There has been no word on that for many months. We have to have a protocol that includes investigation of noise pollution in cases where it seems likely that noise is involved. That is currently what is going on in the US. A noise protocol is being developed in the US as a result of court action that was taken because of the impact of noise from seismic testing and sonar activity on whales. The requirement for tissue testing of stranded cetaceans for possible seismic impacts is an issue that ought to be considered in this particular legislation. The marine environment is not a driver in the legislation, and it does not provide sufficient direction in terms of what should be done in relation to offshore petroleum and exploration.

The other problem with this legislation is that there is no reference to other stakeholders: other agencies or authorities of relevance to the marine environment with a stake in knowing what the oil and gas industry is up to. There is nothing about consultation and referrals with those other agencies. The government should have taken the opportunity to better integrate one of the major marine resources statutes—the oceans policy—into this particular legislation, and it has completely ignored it.

Another issue that concerns me is that an exploration permit lasts six years, the renewal of an exploration permit lasts for another five years and the option for a retention lease could last for another 15 if the area is not economically viable in current circumstances. On an initial read of the legislation, it seems possible for a company to have a commercial interest in an area for up to 26 years before production occurs. Add the production time onto that and it could be argued that this is effectively a property right over a public resource that could be used to stymie efforts to establish marine national parks due to claims by the industry for compensation. This cementing of rights appears again in several clauses and in the explanatory memorandum as well: the creation of the express right to recover petroleum in a retention area.

Once again, there is this idea of resource security. So we are giving a public good—the global commons, the marine environment—over to companies effectively for 26 years. If we move because the culture changes and people realise how important the marine environment is and we go to protect marine environment areas, you are going to have the petroleum companies arguing that they should get compensation for not being able to proceed even though they have not proceeded earlier because it suited them and it was not economically viable to do so.

There are no objects in this bill. Can you believe that? We have a complete rewrite of this legislation, and there is no object in the bill. One of the amendments that I intend to move on this bill tonight is to put an object into the bill to ensure that any offshore activities relating to petroleum exploration, recovery, storage and transport are carried out in a way that is consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development, especially in relation to the conservation of marine resources. I would argue that that is an entirely appropriate object for a bill of this kind. To bring to this parliament a bill which is effectively an administrative bill to cover the activities of offshore petroleum exploration, mining, drilling, seismic testing and so on and to not have an object in the bill is disgraceful.

Much more environmental detail needs to be in the bill, and it is not there. We need to have a public process with notices in major relevant daily newspapers, on the web, to various organisations and so on. There is no requirement for that. The application process for an exploration lease does not require an environmental constraints assessment; it only requires a statement of the economic viability of the company applying. Before exploration leases are allowed, there should be an environmental constraints assessment. It is unbelievable that a company can apply for an exploration lease but it does not require any assessment of environmental constraints.

This legislation might as well have been written in 1900. That is how backward it is in terms of current oceans policy around the world. This is from a government that, as I said, goes to marine conferences and argues that it is passionate about cetaceans, that it has got an oceans policy and has set up an oceans office. To do what? This is an oceans policy that has no legislative backing. None of the principles of the oceans policy are incorporated into this bill. I would expect that, when Senator Colbeck gets to his feet to explain the government’s position, we will get an explanation as to why there is no reference to environmental or ecosystem management; why there is no reference to ecologically sustainable development; why there is no object in this bill; and why there is carte blanche for the oil and gas industry. It is going to be even more critical in the coming years as we face the oil crisis.

As other senators have mentioned earlier tonight, we are facing an oil crisis. That is why the Greens in this house moved for a reference to a Senate committee to start looking at the strategic planning issues for energy security and oil supply for Australia. The government did not recognise the need for it, because it takes the view that all you have to do is give people more concessions, give companies more corporate welfare, incentives, tax breaks, environmental breaks and whatever else to get them to drill and somehow they will find more—that is, we have a planet which is infinite.

We have a finite planet. The oil and gas companies have pretty well combed the entire planet. They know where the reserves are that are easy to get, and most of them have already been accessed. I believe we have already reached the rollover point where demand has exceeded supply and, if we have not already reached peak oil, we are likely to do so in the next decade. I agree: we need to have some strategic planning to get Australia off the oil drip in the same way as has been talked about for the United States. But that is separate from this issue that we are discussing here tonight, which is a bill about how Australia deals with its offshore petroleum activities.

It should be noted that Australia has the largest marine jurisdiction in the world. We have twice as much water as land, and only five per cent of the world’s ocean area has already been discovered biologically. We hear virtually every month that new sea mounts are being discovered. People are moving rapidly to try to protect the biodiversity around these sea mounts before the trawlers get there and smash the areas as they have currently been doing. The best thing this government could do, if it wanted to take some leadership on the marine environment, would be to protect the sea mounts and ban trawling in Australian waters. That would make a significant contribution, but I do not expect that kind of leadership from the government.

Simply saying that all you have to do when you apply for an exploration licence is give a statement of economic viability of the company, not the environmental constraints of the area, demonstrates precisely where the government is coming from. I am really shocked that the people drafting this bill did not think to incorporate the principles of ecological sustainable development and ecosystem management into this particular legislation.

Senator Bartlett mentioned a moment ago the issue of marine parks and cetaceans—and one of the Australian Greens amendments tonight will be moving to prohibit oil exploration in marine reserves. That is entirely appropriate. If you are going to stop fishing in marine reserves and recognise that marine reserves protect the ecosystem then you do not favour the oil industry by kicking out the fishermen in order to give access to the oil companies, which is effectively what is happening around Australia’s coasts. In goes the oil industry, and what sort of damage do they cause in marine parks, especially when they get involved in seismic testing? It is extremely noisy, as we know, and can have a significant impact on marine species.

It is entirely appropriate that we do not have oil and gas exploration in marine protected areas, and I will be moving that in these amendments. We are also putting an object into the bill that offshore activities relating to petroleum exploration be carried out according to the principles of ecologically sustainable development; that an environmental plan must be required before any petroleum activity is given any kind of approval; that any plan for exploration must comply with an improved environment plan; and that operations must not continue where new environmental risk is identified in compliance with something apparently the drafters and the government have not heard of—that is, the precautionary principle. It is a new idea in Australia, it seems. It is well recognised in other parts of the world and is especially recognised by people who take marine protected areas and ecologically sustainable development seriously.

The other problem is that there is no cradle-to-grave approach to environmental protection from the industry. No mention is made of the EPBC Act at all. Where is the integration between this act and the EPBC Act? It seems like a disjointed approach that will not add up to marine protection and could never be satisfactory. A moment ago I raised the issue of whether the seismic guidelines are in place. Senator Colbeck seems to think that they are. I would like to ask specifically what has happened to the Department of Environment and Heritage seismic steering committee dealing with the EPBC seismic operations and cetacean guidelines. I want to know whether they have been updated, whether the new guidelines that were being drafted are in fact out there and implemented and, if these new guidelines have not been implemented, why haven’t they, because they were hideously outdated and there was a strong recognition that they needed to be.

So we have some big issues with this. We are simply seeing a premise in this bill that the ocean is a free commodity for the benefit of the offshore oil and petroleum industry, providing maximum resource for use in the whole fossil fuel industry and that the environment can be compromised. It is disgraceful and I never want to hear the minister for environment, Senator Ian Campbell, stand up in this place again and talk about oceans policy and how he is the great champion of cetaceans. He is not here tonight. I would like the minister who is representing the minister responsible for this legislation to explain how you can bring in here an offshore petroleum bill which has no object for the bill, no recognition of the problems with cetaceans and in the marine environment, no recognition of the concept of ecologically sustainable development and no recognition of environmental management and does not mention the words ‘oceans’ or ‘marine’ once. What a joke this legislation is!