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Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Page: 7773

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (15:37): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum in relation to the bill.

Leave granted.

Senator WATERS: I table an explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Protecting Australia’s Water Resources) Bill 2011 adds a new matter of national environmental significance to our national environmental laws - mining operations that have, will have or are likely to have a significant impact on the quality, structural integrity or hydraulic balance of a water resource. In short, it adds a ‘water trigger’ for all mining activities to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).

If passed the Bill would mean that federal assessment and approval would be required for mining operations likely to have a significant impact on Australia’s water resources. That is, a person would need to seek federal approval for mining operations (including exploration and production of minerals, coal, petroleum and gas including coal seam gas, and any supporting activities) where those operations would be likely to have a significant impact on the water quality, structural integrity or hydraulic balance of a water resource - being surface and groundwater as well as the recharge areas for those water bodies.

This would give the federal Environment Minister the power to refuse or condition mining activities where they would have a significant impact on our national water resources - so crucial for our farmland and environment.

Water is the most valuable resource our country has, and yet our scarce surface and ancient groundwater systems are under threat from significant and potentially irreversible impacts from the rash of mining operations expanding across all our states and territories. Inappropriate mining operations risk our environment, our food security, the viability of diverse agricultural activities, and the sustaina­bility of the groundwater systems themselves - nationally important resources that do not respect state borders.

The Australian Greens believe that the federal government should have a regulatory role in protecting our important national assets of groundwater and food security from coal seam gas and other mining activities. The federal government appears to prefer to leave coal seam gas regulation up to the states. But that’s simply not good enough - federal protection is needed as the states are clearly failing to adequately protect our water resources.

Coal seam gas is subject to particular national concern and close public scrutiny due to its rampant expansion, and because it is risky. It’s not proven that coal seam gas can co-exist with agriculture. Numerous experts and scientific bodies including the National Water Commission and the CSIRO have acknowledged that there are significant information gaps about the long-term impacts of coal seam gas on our underground water resources. Without detailed understanding of the connections between underground aquifers in the Great Artesian Basin, coal seam gas activities risk a drop in the groundwater table from dewatering of coal seams to allow gas extraction, contamination of aquifers with hydraulic fracturing fluid or cross-contamination of naturally occurring toxins from coal seams into our groundwater systems.

It’s time the federal government took its share of responsibility for managing the water impacts of coal seam gas and the flow-on effects those water impacts could have on our environment, our food security and our rural communities.

Adding a water trigger to our environmental laws to ensure that coal seam gas and other mining operations are properly regulated federally was a 2010 election commitment by the Australian Greens, and community concern and demand for this has only grown since then.

The rapid expansion of the mining and coal seam gas industries is having massive impacts on our precious groundwater resources, and community concern has reached high level. It is time that the federal government had the power to protect important national assets of groundwater and food security when considering coal seam gas and other mining applications.

I note that the Senate Inquiry into the impacts of coal seam gas in the Murray Darling Basin isn’t due to report back until the last sitting day of 2011, meaning a government response to its recommendations is not likely before February 2012, and quite possibly may take a lot longer. The urgency of this issue, both environmentally and in terms of community concern, demands rapid and robust action, so the Greens are introducing this important bill now.

I note that the Independent member for New England, Mr Tony Windsor, introduced a similar Bill in the House of Representatives on 12 September 2011, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Mining, Petroleum and Water Resources) Bill 2011. The Australian Greens support and have adopted the parts of that Bill which give the federal Environment Minister the power to assess and refuse, approve or condition mining operations which will impact on water resources. However we have grave concerns with the parts of Mr Windsor’s Bill which allow the federal minister to delegate straight back to the states the power to assess and approve mining operations which impact on water resources. State governments have already demonstrated significant shortfalls in adequately dealing with this issue to date.

Currently much of the assessment processes for other federally regulated activities are conducted by the states under “assessment bilateral agreements” between the states and the Commonwealth, but never before has there been a delegation of the final decision-making power to the states (an “approvals bilateral agreement”) and Mr Windsor’s Bill would be tantamount to fast tracking such an approvals bilateral. The Greens’ Bill does not allow the Federal Minister to delegate his decision-making powers to the States - the final approval/refusal/conditioning decision will remain with the Commonwealth, ensuring that this crucial national issue is nationally regulated. For consistency with the other matters of national environmental signifi¬≠cance regulated by the EPBC Act, the Greens’ Bill does not alter the provisions of the EPBC Act which make it possible in future for assessment of impacts on water resources to be incorporated into bilateral assessment arrangements with a state or territory.

This Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Protecting Australia’s Water Resources) Bill 2011 complements my Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011 introduced on 24 August 2011, which is designed to provide Australian landholders with the right to refuse coal seam gas mining activities on food producing land without prior written authorisation, to protect the 4% of Australia’s good quality agricultural land from inconsistent land uses and stop the mining industry continuing to ride rough-shod over Australian farmers.

The Greens also stand with the 68 percent of Australians surveyed in August 2011 who support a moratorium on coal seam gas until the long-term health and environmental impacts are known. We need better scientific understanding of the impacts on groundwater, food security, rural communities, threatened species, the climate and the Great Barrier Reef.

This Bill is what the community wants and what the environment needs. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Senator WATERS: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.