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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 7607

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:02): I rise to support the Clean Energy Future package. I am deeply convinced that Australia needs to play a strong role in taking global action on climate change. Our country faces many threats to our coastal cities and towns. Much of our agricultural and water resources are already vulnerable. There are unprecedented levels of species extinction. Our responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is clear. In New South Wales there are tremendous opportunities to become economic leaders in the low-carbon economy and to be manufacturers of solutions to climate change such as with renewable energy technologies and public transport. We owe it to our children to act responsibly, to be world leaders in climate action and to invest now in the move to 100 per cent renewable energy, to give them a safer, cleaner future.

The biggest failure of successive coalition and Labor governments over the past year, when the need for urgent action on climate change has been so apparent, has been their lack of willingness to place the public interest ahead of the greed of the coal industry and rein in the runaway expansion of new coalmines and extensions to existing coalmines across the state's major coal regions. The current New South Wales government, like its predecessor, has a blind determination to continue to rely on coal-fired power at the expense of the sunrise renewable energy alternatives. The Labor and coalition parties pay lip-service to protecting the environment and reducing the state's carbon emissions and then, in the next breath, they announced an expansion to the Newcastle coal loader to feed the burgeoning export market for coal. Other failures in New South Wales, which highlight the need for extensive government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, include the years of underinvestment in public transport, while billions were pumped into building motorways. Regional rail services have been bled dry and rural rail branch lines, which are the real heart and should be the heart of so much of the movement of freight and grain across New South Wales, have been allowed to fall into disrepair.

I am very mindful that although climate change is now firmly on the national agenda, the phenomenon of peak oil and the threat of future oil scarcity is still unfortunately a side issue in this parliament. Measures in these bills will make a very practical difference to people's lives. Assistance that will be provided to households provides a fairer distribution of wealth and will assist people to manage the increases in costs that will flow from some of these changes. From the many meetings I have had on these bills across New South Wales, I can tell you that many people will welcome these changes. Nine out of 10 households in New South Wales will receive some level of compensation, with the most generous support going to the most disadvantaged. The $250 million Low Carbon Communities fund is a huge achievement. I do congratulate Uniting Care, the Brotherhood of St Lawrence and the other groups that made this proposal so low income households would be able to handle rising energy costs through energy efficiency upgrades. The change in personal income tax with a tripling of the tax-free threshold, which allows working people to retain at least the first $18,000 they earn each year, is a most significant development that I do applaud.

As I mentioned, I have spoken about the clean energy package at a number of events across New South Wales. One issue that I often get a questioned about—not just in country areas—is the carbon farming initiative and what we are doing around biodiversity. The Carbon Farming Initiative certainly has got a lot of interest in farming areas and people are very keen to know how the projects will work. It will provide a way for farmers to create offset credits which they can sell to polluters. That will be through a range of projects and it will be very useful when this fund is actually working. I am looking forward to gaining more information about it so I can more thoroughly answer the questions of the farming communities that we work with on the Liverpool Plains, in the upper Hunter, in Gloucester and in other areas. The biodiversity fund is a real credit to those who worked on bringing these bills forward. Already there are so many people working on some very significant projects that bring stewardship to our land, and the fact that they can be rewarded for that work in our wetlands and restoring waterways and riparian areas will be very significant.

In New South Wales, government energy and economic policy has been heavily influenced by the powerful coal industry lobby. The New South Wales Minerals Council and some of the multinational corporate mining giants like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Gujarat, China Shenhua and Peabody have worked so hard to maintain the New South Wales government's tunnel vision for coal. This has been to the great detriment of a sustainable future for New South Wales, our planet's climate and the health of local communities. In the next decade Australia faces a tripling of coal exports nationally from around 300 million tonnes last year to over a billion tonnes. I find that figure deeply troubling. New mines across Australia account for 800 million tonnes of coal. About one-third of the mines are in New South Wales. In our state there are currently over 50 new coalmines or expansions of existing coalmines currently on the books, either proposed or underway. This equates to around 240 million tonnes of coal every year, which in turn will result in the emission of over 550 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. I emphasise that that is New South Wales alone. There is another 150 million tonnes of new coal handling capacity coming online at Newcastle Harbour to ship much of this coal overseas. Many of these new mines have a life of 30 years. These are wrong decisions about our energy future and they will remain a burden for the next generation.

Since taking office as a senator in July I have been contacted by many community and environment groups who have grave concerns about these mining projects. There are community groups in Gunnedah, Narrabri and the Hunter and Illawarra regions who are opposing the rapid expansion of coalmines. When it comes to coal seam gas, the opposition is going up exponentially. Just yesterday I was at a 100-strong public meeting in the electorate of the New South Wales Premier, Barry O'Farrell, Ku-ring-gai. People were deeply troubled by the idea of coal seam gas spreading across this country. The presentations were very clear about how coal seam gas can affect local communities with such a quick move from the exploration stage to full mining, to the point where they really cannot be separated, because the infrastructure that is used in the so-called exploration is the exact same infrastructure that allows coal seam gas operators to go into full operation.

One coalmine that stands out is a massive open cut coalmine proposed for the Leard Forest near Boggabri, the Maules Creek coalmine owned by Aston Resources. The scale of the mine is extreme. The mine pit will be so deep it will be below sea level. The damage it will cause the local environment will be irreversible, clearing one of the remaining quality stands of an endangered ecosystem—all to send 13 million tonnes of coal per year to Newcastle Harbour for export. The Hunter Community Network has formed to tackle their ongoing health problems from coal dust, focusing on uncovered coal wagons moving through their towns.

When it comes to the coal industry the New South Wales state government have a massive conflict of interest. They have an enormous financial stake in these projects going ahead and earn hundreds of millions in royalties from mining, yet they also need to take action to reduce the state's emissions, protect threatened wetlands, safeguard communities from the ill effects of mining pollution and secure prime agricultural land and water resources from the encroachment of new mines. To date they have not come close to getting the balance right.

But there is another way. The New South Wales Greens took a policy on solar thermal energy to the last state election, to show what needs to be done to kick-start the transition to renewable energy in New South Wales. The proposal is to build three baseload solar thermal power stations with heat storage in Central Western New South Wales, financed by green infrastructure bonds that raise revenue from the sale of the electricity, renewable energy certificates and other green energy products. These publicly owned clean power plants would harness the energy of the sun to power steam turbines, providing reliable zero-emission baseload electricity 24 hours a day. It is achievable, and how fantastic that would be. Future modelling shows that coal prices in the next decade are expected to double. Building solar thermal power plants will protect people and businesses from electricity increases and create new jobs. The model proposed by the Greens would create about 4,500 jobs at its peak, with the potential for further manufacturing jobs if components for solar thermal are created in Australia. One power plant would cost approximately $2.1 billion to build, or around $525 million for each of the four years of construction. The second and third plants would cost significantly less as the technology matures and state experience is accumulated. The operation of these plants would create another 1,900 ongoing jobs.

A 2009 report by the Centre of Full Employment and Equity, based at the University of Newcastle, clearly dispelled the myth that transiting to renewable energy would lead to job losses. The CofFEE report found that if New South Wales were to shift to renewable energy, including some local manufacturing of generators, up to 73,800 jobs would be generated. For the Hunter and Central Coast alone, the report predicts that shifting to renewable energy would create up to 14,300 new jobs. The Greens have a deep commitment to ensuring local communities benefit in this transition period and when it comes to job creation that is where the benefits kick in, and they will be benefits that will last for many years.

This is an exciting vision for New South Wales that could start today. It needs to be replicated across the country. The challenge lies before us. Government investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency will be critical to take Australian down the path to clean energy and a jobs-rich economy. In New South Wales the government should build those solar-thermal power plants so we can phase out our oldest and most polluting coal-fired power stations, such as Lake Munmorah, on the New South Wales Central Coast, and Liddell, near Muswellbrook.

The time for a new way of thinking has arrived. These bills are a most significant step towards a safer climate. I do warmly congratulate the members of the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee for what they have achieved. It is historic and far-reaching. I give particular thanks and credit to Senators Christine Milne and Bob Brown, Adam Bandt, the Greens member for the seat of Melbourne, and their staff. Their insight and leadership have been critical to the achievement that these bills represent.