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Thursday, 17 September 2009
Page: 6923

Senator SIEWERT (4:38 PM) —I rise to make a fairly short statement on the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 and the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Safety Levies) Amendment Bill 2009 because I particularly want to address the added amendments to the bill. These are in section 9.10A and deal with inquiries into significant offshore incidents. The Greens have circulated an amendment to this provision, although we welcome this additional amendment to this act. We do think it is important to provide the government with the ability to carry out an inquiry under this act and we understand some of the specific requirements, such as the inquiry having particular powers and being able to require documents from companies, et cetera. But we are concerned about the limited nature of the inquiry provisions in the bill.

The issue that has forced this addition has been a previous occurrence in my home state of Western Australia, where there were not sufficient powers, as I understand it, to carry out a full investigation of a previous incident in Western Australia. Of course, the Montara oil spill has produced a sense of urgency to include this investigative power into the act. I appreciate that there is a very strong need to look at the regulatory processes. Are they significant? Were they carried out? What caused the problem? I absolutely understand and agree with that range of issues. There is a very strong requirement to look at the incident and any or all of the operations in the offshore area, including offshore exploration operations, and recovery operations in the processing and storage of petroleum. However, oil spills of this nature are related not just to regulatory failures or whether regulations were actually complied with. By their very nature, they also have potential environmental consequences. For example, in this particular spill and others, you also have to invoke the national oil spill response plan.

The problem with Montara, for example, has become startlingly obvious to me and it is the fact that there are so many agencies involved. You have to keep going to each agency to find out information. For example, with the oil spill you go to AMSA because they are responsible for the cleanup. If you want to know about environmental monitoring or the impact on the environment, you have to talk to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts at a federal level. If you want to know about the impact on fisheries, you have to talk to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. If you want to know about the resource implications or some of the issues around the regulatory process, you have to talk to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism and Minister Ferguson’s office. You then have to talk to the NT regulators because they were the people that were responsible, under the delegated processes in the act, for making some of the approvals in the first place. Then you have to talk to the Western Australian authorities. You have to talk to the Department of Environment and Conservation in Western Australia. And then you have to talk to the Department of Fisheries in Western Australia. Are people getting the picture?

It is quite a complicated exercise to find out this information. Each one of those agencies has some form of responsibility. I understand and I take on board what I have been told by the government, that these agencies are meeting and talking daily. But it does not make it any easier for the community and stakeholders to find out what is going on. Each one of these agencies has responsibility. Each one of these agencies may or may not be carrying out their regulatory responsibilities effectively or adequately—in any circumstances, I am not just talking about Montara here—and also their regulatory legislation may not be sufficient.

The Greens very strongly believe that we need a wrap-around inquiry here. We also need to be reviewing what the environmental impacts are and whether the responses have been adequate. At the moment I do not consider that they have been. From the evidence I have been given there is still no monitoring plan in place. There is still no short-, medium- or long-term monitoring in place. People are still not adequately sampling the water. I understand that we have got some mechanisms in place to look after Ashmore Reef and Cartier Island. I also noticed on the AMSA website on 15 September that they mentioned that the sheen is getting closer to Cartier than had been previously indicated. But the overall monitoring program is not in place.

In fact, I have had two different answers on the monitoring program from AMSA, who I am told is not responsible for monitoring because they are responsible for the cleanup program and implementing the response plan. And I have had a different answer from the environmental authorities saying that they thought AMSA was doing some monitoring. Well, I was clearly told that AMSA are not doing some of that monitoring. The overall point here is that there is no overall monitoring plan in place yet. It is also a little bit unclear to me whether the company has accepted that they need to pay for long-term ongoing monitoring and what the extent of that long term ongoing monitoring will be.

The upshot here is that, while the Greens support the legislation and we support the inquiry mechanism, we are concerned that if this is the only investigation we are going to have into the Montara incident it is not comprehensive enough. It does not deal with the response plan, it does not deal with the environment side of things and it does not deal with the impact on fisheries, for a start. So we have circulated an amendment that will put specific requirements into this bill to allow a full investigation. If the government does not support putting those additional terms of reference into this legislation I ask the government what other mechanism they are going to put in place to review the overall response to and impact of this oil spill. We need to look at the current activities to see if they will be adequate into the future and if they need reviewing. I do not want to pre-empt any outcome but I do believe that they should be reviewed. Certainly, I believe that the way the environmental response has been handled needs to be reviewed. What is the government going to do about those elements of the response to this spill if they are not going to support the amendments that we have circulated? Their plans under this investigation are certainly not adequate.

I also add that I think the powers given here to the commissioner to enable the commissioner to investigate the areas that they have the power to under this amendment should also be provided to any other inquiry if the government envisages taking another course of inquiry to look at the other elements I have mentioned. Those powers are certainly the type of powers that need to be provided to any other inquiry, if the government sees that there should be a second or third inquiry, for example. The powers should be available to any other investigation the government undertakes. I ask that, when the minister representing the minister responds, he give an indication as to whether the government sees this as being the only form of inquiry that will be undertaken into this particular spill. The measures that we are asking to be included should also be included for any other offshore incident, but should be included particularly in the case of the Montara oil spill if the government is planning to have any other form of inquiry to address the other issues that urgently need addressing.