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Tuesday, 14 May 2013
Page: 2417

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (13:23): I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013 and commend it to the Senate, particularly in relation to coal seam gas mining and water resources. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, typically known as the EPBC, is Australia's principal national mechanism for environmental protection. Many of Australia's international environmental obligations are discharged very much through the EPBC. These include responsibilities derived from our participation in international agreements and through our custodianship of shared resources. They involve caring for World Heritage sites, looking after wetlands and habitats for migratory birds, ensuring the survival of threatened plant and animal species and regulating nuclear actions, including uranium mining. The EPBC also includes some matters of national significance, such as places of national heritage and the declaration of Commonwealth marine areas, which have expanded substantially under the leadership of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

The listing of matters in the EPBC is indicative of matters that are of concern to all Australians—not just to local, state and territory communities but to all Australians. So the inclusion of threatened species in the EPBC reflects the fact that biodiversity, particularly iconic species like the Tasmanian devil and the Wollemi pine, is important to all Australians. Similarly, we take pride as a nation in our heritage and in our special places such as the ancient Gondwana rainforests or the Great Barrier Reef. Australians, too, believe in the close and careful regulation of uranium mining and the handling of nuclear material—an issue that has motivated and continues to motivate people across our nation.

The EPBC provides a trigger for projects to be assessed by the federal government. Many major developments fall under the EPBC by virtue of their direct and indirect impact on one of the matters listed in part 3 of the act, such as the effect of development on surrounding habitats in which threatened species may live. However, developments that do not have a demonstrative impact on any of the currently listed projects cannot be assessed by the federal government's environmental authority. The legislative scope of the EPBC does not necessarily grant the minister for the environment discretion to assess any or all developments that may have a substantial impact on the environment or on a matter of national significance that may have emerged. Indeed, when the minister for the environment introduced this bill in the other place, he noted that most Australians would reasonably expect the minister for the environment to take into account, by law, the matters included in this bill.

There is no doubt that when we learn more about the environmental impact of the different processes and operations we should ensure that our legislation reflects new science and our new environmental conscience. We must also ensure that our legislation measures up to the expectations of the Australian people. That is why this bill introduces a new category of matters to the EPBC. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013 adds the protection of water resources from coal seam gas development and large-scale coalmining development to the ambit of the EPBC. As it stands, there is no direct protection under national environmental law for groundwater and table resources that keep our land and waterways healthy and our arable lands balanced. Water resources are drawn on extensively by flora and fauna as well as by humans for consumption and agricultural use. As we have seen in other areas of environmental policy, such as in the debate on the Murray-Darling River Basin, the availability, use and health of our water table and waterways resonate right across our country. This is linked to the wellbeing of country communities, which are part of our national story and part of our national food security network.

While the science on coal seam gas extraction is still emerging, there is no doubt that coal seam gas exploration and extraction should be carefully monitored. The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee's recent inquiry into this bill received a raft of submissions from a diverse range of people and organisations on a diverse range of concerns. I will take a moment to highlight why the work of the Senate committee process is so important: it allows that deeper scrutiny of the legislation and it allows those peak organisations and individuals—anyone in the community—to come forward with their concerns, their science and their information as to why they believe the bill should or should not pass this Senate. I have to say that, during this process, I realised that perhaps coal seam gas was not something about which I had a great amount of knowledge. But being part of that committee process allowed me to have a much deeper understanding of why this bill is so important, why the amendments are so important to add water resources to the EPBC when we are talking about coal seam gas and large coalmining developments.

Among the number of concerns that were raised by submitters to that inquiry process was the uncertainty and ambiguity around current science. There were a range of concerns. In 2012 the parliament passed the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill to create a reference panel to provide that expertise to assessment processes and to address some of those concerns. However, the persistent perception of any stakeholder is that some regulatory authorities in states—particularly New South Wales and Queensland, where coal seam gas exploration is most common—have relegated good environmental outcomes and processes to a secondary role in favour of development. That is a very self-interested approach they have taken to address their legislative roles in their own states. I am particularly talking about Premier Barry O'Farrell and Premier Campbell Newman, who are happy to ignore genuine environmental concerns for a quick buck. As the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales submitted:

… it is important to recognise that the states do not necessarily have the national interest at heart when they are assessing these types of proposals. States can often directly benefit from projects that they are assessing, whether it is through royalties on mining and gas resources or through direct income to state-owned agencies that are carrying out projects within their own state.

That is exactly why the member for New England's amendment is so important. It is because of that self-interested attitude of some state governments when it comes to developmental proposals around this issue of coal seam gas in return for dollars in their coffers and poor environmental outcomes. That is why the EPBC is so important and that is why the addition of water resources to it is so important. It is also why, on top of that, the amendment provided by the member for New England is so important.

Further, the Australian Network of Environmental Defender's Offices, ANEDO, also made a number of representations to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, including the recommendation of a broad water trigger in the EPBC to cover other forms of mining. It submitted that:

… drawing on our extensive experience as environmental lawyers, we developed 10 best practice standards for planning and environmental regulation in response to COAG proposal to streamline environmental assessment. We then evaluated relevant laws in each State and Territory against these standards. Based on our analysis, no State or Territory currently has a regulatory regime that reflects ANEDO's 'best practice metric'.

The committee was sympathetic to these concerns, as it was to the significant level of community concern around coal seam gas proposals.

In addition to the environmental and agricultural concerns, there was a uniform concern about the general regulatory approach and the inability of farmers to prevent broad-scale development activity on their own properties. Farmers on their own properties are unable to prevent such broad-scale development. On that basis, I take the point made by Senator Birmingham, who tried to suggest that the opposition has interest and concern when it comes to the environment and, presumably, farmers—those living and working in the agricultural areas of our nation. Yet he then rebutted such a claim by not showing any kind of support for the addition of the water trigger to the act. He did not give any alternative though as to what his solution would be for farmers who have no opportunity to prevent broad-scale development on their own properties. Would Senator Birmingham like the addition of water to all developments? I did not hear him saying that. I would not think he would be referring to that. He did talk about the lack of uniformity of water and that it does not apply to all developments through this amendment, but it is actually focused on coal seam gas developments and large-scale developments of the coalmining industry. He did not provide any alternative and yet at the same time he wanted to appear to be all concerned for and interested in those poor farmers who are affected. All of that, to me, is just gobbledygook and does not make any sense. It does not do anything, as opposed to the bill that is before us today that does do something for those farmers. It goes to the heart of the Australian community's concern when it comes to our water resources that are affected by coal seam gas developments and large-scale coalmining developments. Through its process, the Senate committee found that:

… the rapid and extensive development of coal mining and CSG mining in particular and the great community concern that these activities have raised require that concerns about these activities should now be addressed.

That is exactly what we are doing here today. Indeed, it is important to recognise that the investigation into coal seam gas is substantially a story of powerful interests at a state level avoiding the proper scrutiny that the federal government is able to provide as a result of its expertise and distance from that specific development. That is why the committee and the government are supporting this bill to bring coal seam gas and other coalmining projects under the appropriate environmental scrutiny. The federal government very much has an important role here to act in the national interest. That is why the amendment to this bill is so very important.

In closing, I would like to recognise the efforts of a number of my parliamentary colleagues: those Senate committee members who were part of the inquiry into this bill, those colleagues who were part of the development of this bill in this place and in the other place—particularly Mr Windsor's amendment to ensure that proper assessments of coal seam gas are not overridden by bilateral agreements—and also Senator Waters, who previously presented a bill to the Senate attempting to address some of these concerns. Also, I particularly want to recognise the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, who has been a stalwart defender of the environment, due process and science. I commend this bill to the Senate.