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Tuesday, 14 May 2013
Page: 2412

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (13:03): In my opinion, it is well beyond time for us to have a full discussion in this chamber of coal seam gas and coalmines, particularly their effect on our precious and limited water resources—the subject of the Environment Conservation and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013, which is before us today. The Greens support this bill. In fact, we brought a bill quite similar to this one into this place about 18 months ago. We did so off the back of huge scientific concern about the potential for long-term damage to our water resources and off the back of increasing community concern—concern which has only intensified in the intervening 18 months. So I am pleased the government has now reconsidered its former position and has agreed that it is, in fact, incumbent upon the federal government to act in the national interest to protect our precious groundwater and surface water resources from the possibility of massive damage being done to them by coal seam gas and coalmines.

There have been a lot of remarks made by the coalition. Indeed, they have had several positions on this issue; it is difficult to keep up with them. But Senator Birmingham has put on record that they will be supporting this bill. I appreciate that support and I think members of the community will be greatly relieved to feel they are finally being listened to by this parliament. Some of the farming families who have had a strong attachment to their land for generations, and who have a huge dependence on groundwater, have expressed genuine, heartfelt concern for many years. Until now, they have felt abandoned by the other political parties. I think it will be a really lovely day for those folk—knowing that their parliament is finally taking an interest in conserving that precious water resource and protecting it from damage.

I want to put on record, though, that this bill is not a panacea. This bill will simply allow the federal environment minister to consider the impact on water of coal seam gas and coalmining. Whether or not he or she—depending on who the minister is—then decides to act upon those concerns is an entirely different kettle of fish. Today's bill will put in place the process for making a good decision, but it remains a matter of ministerial discretion whether those scientific and community concerns are properly acted upon and whether or not our water resources will actually be protected. I would therefore urge the current Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and whoever the next environment minister is—of whichever colour—to take the advice of the independent expert scientific committee, the advice this bill will now enable the minister to consider. I thought it a little farcical to set up a federal committee and then preclude the minister from listening to it. That seemed a bit ridiculous to me, so I am glad we are correcting that anomaly today.

The need for federal intervention is abundantly clear. We have heard evidence about this from all around the nation and not just one state, as Senator Birmingham seemed to contend. I do not think he attended all the hearings, so perhaps he missed the bits explaining, for example, the real problems in Queensland with coal seam gas. I am disappointed to report that the concern about the potential impact for damage is not confined to New South Wales. We heard from folk at a number of Senate committee hearings about their huge concern.

Anyone watching the Four Corners report of a month or so ago could see that the state processes are not properly dealing with the risks of coal seam gas and coal to our groundwater resources. Can I put on record my admiration for the courage of that wonderful whistleblower, Simone Marsh. I understand she has been on leave without pay because of the stress and anguish she has suffered after blowing the whistle on poor practices, and our heartfelt thanks go out to her. She revealed that after a fairly protracted environmental impact statement process done by the company, as is proper, she was then heavied by senior bureaucrats to issue approvals in sometimes as little as half a day. She was informed by folks in the department she was working for that there would not be government consideration of the water impacts of two of the big coal seam gas projects, QGC and Santos, in the Coordinator-General's report—effectively the summary report upon which the final decision is then made. That makes an absolute mockery of the process and it clearly shows up the highly political nature of these decisions.

Unfortunately we have seen that reflected at the federal level too. Previously the Labor government was not so keen on this idea; in fact, I think I was even laughed at when I first brought legislation to parliament a year and a half ago. Earlier this year Minister Burke ticked off on the big coal seam gas project in Gloucester, ticked off on the coalmine in Maules Creek, ticked off on the coalmine in Boggabri and about a week after that ticked off on the coalmine in Taranganba. About two days after that he suddenly discovered that water was a problem and, gee, he would like to listen to scientific and community concern. That is great, but unfortunately he had just ticked off on some of the largest projects in New South Wales, and the massive projects in Queensland had already been approved—barring the final project, Arrow, which we hope will never see the light of day.

We do welcome this belated action to protect our water but we are conscious that it comes after many concerning approvals have already been issued—and those approvals have been issued despite the scientific evidence warning of irreversible damage to the groundwater table and warning that we do not even understand the scope of the potential for damage; we do not even know enough about the interactions between coal seams, aquifers and the pressure system to know how much damage this industry could be doing. The sheer abandonment of the precautionary principle, the lack of concern for those long-term impacts and this overriding drive for short-term profit to the possible detriment in the long-term of our farming communities and of our very water resources make me crestfallen. It is part of the reason why the community is so disappointed with both sides of politics. Be that as it may, as I have said, the Four Corners program sadly highlighted the flaws in the state process, particularly in Queensland—all the more reason for the federal government to do more and to step in and protect this national resource, our water.

We also heard some very telling evidence in the hearings into this bill in New South Wales about the new you-beaut revised coal seam gas rules which were meant to solve everything. Unfortunately, according to the community and the experts in that state, they have not solved the problem. The example was given that, in dry times, cease-to-pump-water notices can be issued that irrigators and farmers have to comply with but that coal seam gas companies and big mining companies can seek a compliance exemption from. Once again you have two sets of rules—one rule for farming folk and for the average person in the street and a special rule for the fossil fuel companies. This is exactly the sort of behaviour that is yet more proof that the states are not up to the job of properly protecting water and properly acting to regulate this potentially very damaging industry. So, I am relieved that the federal government is finally deciding to list the impact of these industries on water as a matter of national environmental significance. It is long overdue.

Senator Birmingham referred to a poor process in the formulation of this bill. Perhaps he has not been paying attention, but this issue has been bubbling and has been a matter of community and scientific concern for many years. It is belated action that we are seeing from the government; it is not hasty action—far from it. They are finally catching up with community sentiment, and we welcome that. On the point of process, we saw the big mining companies chuck a bit of a hissy fit—they were annoyed that they had not been able to write their own rules, like they normally do, so they pulled out of the Senate inquiry hearings about 24 hours before they were due to proceed. The irony of complaining about not being consulted and then voluntarily withdrawing from a process where they could have shared their views was clearly lost on them. Thankfully it was not lost on other participants in the inquiry.

I want to put on record how the Greens will seek to improve this bill. The bill is a good start and it does bear a very close resemblance to legislation we introduced 18 months ago which, sadly, did not receive support at that time. There are some key areas where we can do better. Given that the debate has moved on and given the acceptance now of the need to act on this issue, I urge senators from both sides of politics to properly consider these amendments and see if they can support them. The first amendment would be particularly attractive to the opposition, given their on-again off-again, on-again off-again, on-again as of last weekend position about protecting landholder rights. Mr Tony Abbott has had a vexed position on this. He seems to be changing his mind quite frequently, but his most recent statement is that actually he does think that landholders should not have their livelihoods disrupted by big coal seam gas companies and big coalmines, and they should be able to say no. We agree, which is why we proposed legislation to allow farmers the right to say no when Tony Abbott first made those remarks. Unfortunately, he has now resiled a little from that and said that, even though he thinks that—it is his personal view—'It's up to the states.' It is out of his hands; he cannot do anything to fix that!

In good news, I have an amendment that would enable him to fix that issue and would enable this parliament to allow the farmers the right to say, 'I don't want to take the risk with my land that has been in my family for generations that the water resources will dry up and my kids won't have anything to farm with. I don't want to take that risk.' It is a very simple amendment. It is clearly constitutional, using the corporations head of power—no need for excuses on that basis. If we get to move those amendments today, or whenever this bill comes back on if we do not get to it today, we will see just what the coalition really think about landholder rights, particularly whether the folk from the Nationals are willing to put their money where their mouth is and act in the interests of those farming communities. I look forward to the opportunity to give a voice to those farmers who feel that they have not had their rights respected—indeed, because they have no rights in this issue. Let us try to give them some.

The second amendment that I will be moving to strengthen this EPBC Act goes to the very projects I mentioned before and that the environment minister, Mr Tony Burke, ticked off on just before announcing this bill. The reason we would like this new bill to apply to those projects is that they have only just been ticked off; they have not commenced work. Clearly, the government had an inkling that this was what they were going to do: within days of those approvals, this bill was announced. Let us make sure that communities in that region, the Namoi region, can actually get the benefit of this protection for their water resources. The amendment goes further, saying, given that we still have some projects in Queensland that have not yet been approved, thank goodness—namely, the Arrow coal seam gas project—let us make those existing three coal seam gas proponents, QGC, Santos and AGL, do those water studies, because they got off scot-free last time. Look at the process that was exposed on Four Corners; the government did not even properly scrutinise water impacts. Let us make them do those studies and put that information on the table so that the federal minister can be properly armed with that information when making future decisions. There is no interruption of their approval processes, no acquisition of rights, no change to their legal status but simply an obligation to now supply that information—to turn their minds to those water impacts and inform our decision-makers of the consequences of future decisions on other projects. So that is a very important amendment that will overcome, I think, the cynicism of the minister's announcement and the timing of the announcement of this bill.

The third of my four amendments goes to the scope of this bill, to the fact that it is not just coal seam gas that is threatening our groundwater and our surface water on the east coast but also shale gas and tight gas, which we have across this country. It seems strange to me that we are contemplating creating two tiers of rights, where east coast folk, where there is coal seam gas, could have their water protected by the minister if he or she makes the right decision, based on the evidence, but folk in the south, west and north would not have that same level of protection from shale gas mining extraction, which uses similar extraction processes and has similar potential impacts on water. Let us make sure that we are not creating a two-tiered system of rights here, and let us make sure that all of those unconventional gas resources can be treated the same and can be scrutinised for their potential to damage our water resources. So I look forward to moving that very sensible amendment to put all unconventional gas resources on a level playing field.

The final amendment I will be moving relates to the amendment to this bill that was made in the House. I am really pleased that Mr Tony Windsor moved the amendment that he did, after many discussions with many folk, including community groups, to make sure that this new power to protect water not be simply given back to the very state governments who, frankly, stuffed it up in the first place. It is a crucial amendment to the environment laws because there is that little section in the act where it says you can hand off your federal approval powers to the states, write yourself completely out of the picture, but the amendment means you cannot do that for water. I think that is really important. But, again, we are creating two classes here. We have a special rule for water, where those powers need to stay where they belong—in federal hands. But all of those other matters of national environmental significance, which are, as the name suggests, nationally significant—and sometimes internationally significant in the case of World Heritage, such as migratory birds, wetlands and threatened species—can be given away to state premiers.

We have seen the environmental legacy of state premiers. The whole genesis of federal involvement in the environmental arena came from the Franklin Dam, as we all know, when Bob Hawke stepped in and said to the states: 'No, it is too important. You cannot simply trash the Franklin River. We're going to take it all the way to the High Court using our constitutional means of doing so,' using the foreign affairs power, 'and protect this river in the national interest.' It would be a great shame if a Labor government, 30 years on, undid that very important reform, which was really the springboard for all of our federal environmental regulation over the last 30 years.

So we have 30 years of environment protection at stake, and the amendment I will be moving is to delete that section, section 46, where it simply says, inoffensively, that you can accredit the states to make your approval decision for you. The effect of that will be that the federal government will always have to tick off on a damaging development in a World Heritage area. It will always have the power to veto anything that is going to have a significant impact on something that is so nationally significant that the government has seen fit to protect it. I think those powers to act in the national interest should stay in national hands. We do not expect the states to act in the national interest; it is not their job. They will always act in their own interest, and that is what they are meant to do. So let us make sure that this national government can act in the interests of all Australians and protect those places that are too precious to lose and those species that are unique to Australia and make them so special to Australia that they are part of our very identity.

This is a really important amendment because we know that the coalition have said on many occasions that they will use that ability. They will give away to state premiers the approval powers that sit now with the federal government. The thought of Premier Campbell Newman in Queensland having even more power to wind back even more laws than he already has—we are up to about 12 environmental protections that he has wound back—and the thought of him having the sole say over our nationally significant environmental icons sends shivers down my spine, and I hope it sends shivers down the spines of at least half of this chamber. We will let you guys off the hook, given that it is your side that is running the states in the main. As a question of process, no matter what colour you are from, we need to make sure that we do not simply have one level of government in sole control. We need the national government to act in the national interest. That is why it is crucial that in the last few weeks of our sittings this Labor government takes the chance to protect its very own legacy—the original intervention of Bob Hawke—which has led to the Commonwealth being able to step up and protect the environment. Let us make sure that those powers can be maintained.

I congratulate the government and I certainly congratulate Mr Tony Windsor on bringing this bill forward; it is long overdue. It will provide the framework to protect water from coal seam gas and coalmines. It will still be up to the minister's discretion whether that eventuates. I urge the minister to listen to the science, the advice of that independent scientific committee, the advice of CSIRO and the advice of the National Water Commission, to take proper decisions and to act employing that precautionary principle that he or she is meant to employ when making those decisions. We do not know if coal seam gas is safe. All indications are that it is going to do immeasurable damage to our aquifers. We know that it leaks like a sieve, so it is no better than coal when it comes to climate impacts. We know that, if Australia is going to continue to be a net food exporter in the coming age of food insecurity, we will need to safeguard the precious farmland that is so unique to us. So I commend this bill and the amendments to the Senate. (Time expired)