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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 2902

Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (10:19): I join with my Senate colleague Senator Williams in rising today to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013. This bill will amend the EPBC Act to create a matter of national environmental significance for coal seam gas and large coalmining developments which are likely to have a significant impact on a water resource. Other matters of national environmental significance include World Heritage sites, nuclear actions and wetlands of international importance—for example, our Ramsar wetlands. Whilst in South Australia we do not have the kind of coalseam gas development that we are seeing in New South Wales and Queensland, when I first came to this place in 2011 I sat on an inquiry into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, and in its interim report to this place we handed down a report focused specifically on the impact of mining coalseam gas on the management of the Basin. During the course of the inquiry I saw firsthand some of the coalseam gas developments near towns like Narrabri, Roma and Dalby.

We on this side of the chamber understand how costly it is to do business in this country. We know how to do business, because most of us have been in business—unlike most of those on the other side, perhaps with the exception of an old truckie and a couple of lawyers who previously sat in union-sponsored law firms. We know how big an impact government regulation and red tape have on industry. Over-regulation continues to strangle our business and to drive up costs in this country. As an Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Survey showed, 73 per cent of businesses report greater increases in regulation over the last two years. And now 60 per cent of business spends over $5,000 a year just meeting the ever-increasing regulatory requirements under this Gillard Labor government, who have abandoned business in this country, if May's federal budget is anything to go by. Sad but true: since coming to office, the Rudd-Gillard government has added nearly 800 pieces of legislation, published nearly 21,000 regulations and repealed just 104. That is not one in one out, as was originally promised by Labor; that is 200 in for every one out. This is why we on this side are committed to cutting $1 billion worth of red tape out of the economy, and I can assure anyone reading or listening to this contribution that we will deliver. My Senate colleague in the chamber, Senator Sinodinos, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Howard, will deliver this, if the people of Australia put their trust in the coalition on 14 September.

Australia has a broad range of comprehensive environmental laws—and so it should; we have so much to protect. However, this legislation adds another layer of bureaucratic red tape, and it will increase approval times and make Australia a less desirable place in which to invest. Further tax changes in the budget include the effects on exploration costs and thin capitalisation rules. That will also hurt the oil and gas industry's international competitiveness, further driving investment away from Australia. The interim report from the inquiry into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin highlighted how difficult regulations currently are, even without this bill. I quote from the interim report:

The gas companies have made much of the extremely demanding regulatory environment in Australia. In submissions to the committee, QGC—

which is wholly owned by the BG Group—

noted that the:

QCLNG Project was assessed for environmental and social impact under Queensland and Commonwealth legislation in a process that began in 2008 and took more than two years. The environmental and social impact assessment totalled more than 12,000 pages.

AP LNG has described the conditions imposed on it as "unprecedented":

… the Coordinator-General has, in addition to existing legislative requirements, imposed a set of conditions that have not been used to previously regulate project impacts in Queensland.

They were:

58 imposed conditions mainly related to environmental and water issues,

16 imposed conditions related to traffic and transport issues, and

5 imposed conditions (including many sub-components) related to social and economic impacts.

Conditions imposed under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 for each of the three components of the Australia Pacific LNG Project (gas fields, pipeline and LNG facility) total 261.

The large number of conditions is indicative of the many complex issues, challenges and uncertainties that are presented in regulating this industry.

In short, this bill means the Commonwealth will duplicate the state's approval processes. The protection of water is, rightly, the responsibility of the states. But, now, as a further checking process, the states will be provided with an expert panel—and this is appropriate—to provide the further testing that the community is demanding. The coalition did support the implementation of this expert panel, so let the panel do their work and report for all Australians.

The oil and gas industry is today responsible for more than 30c in every dollar of private sector investment. The industry is currently investing around $200 billion over five years—that is more than $1,200 per second—in new projects that will pay billions every year to governments and create more than 100,000 new jobs. We need to strike a balance between industry and the environment. We would never give up on the environment, we would never compromise the environment, but we must understand that it does house the resources we need to grow this country.

This bill questions the approach taken in targeting specific industries. The coal seam gas industry is an important part of our nation's future prosperity. It is important for jobs in many areas and it has to involve sensible practices. But the last thing any sensible government would want to do is stop this industry in its tracks by imposing impediments to investment by bogging down approval times on duplicated topics and escalating costs without an eye to common sense. We know that the Greens, on the other side, in their coalition with the government, will do anything in their power to stop this industry. They are diametrically opposed to it and they have, on hundreds of occasions in this place, done anything they could do to put an impediment in the coal seam gas industry's way.

A sensible government must find a way for industry and environmental practices to be balanced appropriately. Industry does not need another quick fix-approach which adds red tape to the impending developments that this country so sorely needs. Industry needs to be able to flourish in an economic and regulatory environment of certainty and strong policy decision making. The industry view reflects reservations towards the bill, with its many continued changes and lack of long-term foresight. The Australian Coal Association highlighted the burden on Australian industry, expressing disappointment in the 'regressive policy making', by saying:

At a time when we should be sharpening Australia’s competitive edge by improving the efficiency of our regulatory system, the Government has offered a knee-jerk reaction to campaigning by environment groups which adds another layer of green tape without delivering any environmental benefit …

Are we going to simply ignore this view of peak industry associations which are so important to Australia's economic prosperity?

The Senate inquiry that looked specifically into this bill further highlighted the high levels of discontent amongst the adverse effects of CSG and coal mining on the availability and quality of water resources. It further highlighted that assessment and approval processes for these developments are inadequate.

The inquiry I sat on highlighted just how complex an issue the coal seam gas industry is. While there are many significant economic benefits for rural and regional towns in terms of jobs and economic activity from coal seam gas there are also perceived and real negative impacts—like the doubling of the population of small towns overnight, and the social problems that flow from that. There are issues surrounding coal seam gas mining on prime agricultural land and, as the content of this bill suggests, on water. But flowing from that was an allocation of $150 million to define the real issues and apply solutions for all approval authorities, which includes state governments. But I will talk more on that later.

We heard from a lot of scientists and scientific bodies, including the CSIRO, about potential impacts of this kind of mining on underground water bodies and aquifers. A lot is still not known, which makes it difficult to regulate or make easy decisions about this. Most alarmingly, evidence was given in the inquiry of the clear lack of consultation in formulating the bill. What we need is a better understanding of the issues arming the existing approval authorities. We need an ability to streamline their scrutiny of the real issues rather than duplicating the status quo. It simply does not make for improved legislation.

This is made all the more difficult by the short life of this industry, with individual wells only lasting about 15 years, on average. So the gas is likely to be exhausted over the period of the next 50 years. We must be careful not to damage the prime agricultural land and aquifers for the next 500 years. But without economic activity to generate wealth we will not have the revenue to look after the environment and to conduct the research into the impact of this industry.

We on this side of the chamber are concerned about the absence of proper process in arriving at the introduction of this legislation as highlighted by the coalition senators in their additional comments to the final report of the EPBC amendment bill inquiry. As has become a hallmark of this government, there was no consultation undertaken on this bill before it was introduced into the parliament. Both the Australian Coal Association and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association drew attention to the absence of a regulation impact statement. They were quoted final report of the inquiry:

...we are particularly concerned with the way this legislation has been rushed into parliament, without any consultation or the preparation of a regulatory impact statement. There is no justification that we can see for such a gross failure of process and, accordingly, we welcome the Senate committee's close scrutiny of the bill …

Another hallmark of this government is to rush, rush, rush and that does not make for good policy. Putting all the key industry groups offside is another hallmark of this government.

As I have noted, the government have put aside $150 million over five years for a new independent expert scientific committee—and we support that—to provide scientific advice to government about coal seam gas and large coal mining approvals where they have significant impacts on water. The committee will commission bioregional assessments and research into the impacts of coal seam gas and coal mine developments on water resources and methods for minimising those impacts. This is a big concern across eastern Australia and anywhere where this mining is contemplated. But $150 million buys a lot of research. It is research that has not been done in the past, but will be done now. The allocation of these funds is overdue. It is about time. Let the independent scientific committee get on with that job.

Further to that, there are a number of ongoing studies, including the National Groundwater Assessment Initiative, the Healthy Headwaters program and the research looking into the Namoi Catchment in New South Wales. The science and data generated from this research needs to be made public to better inform decision-making and policy creation so that we are not making decisions in the dark or uninformed. This is the empowerment that we are looking for throughout this entire chamber. I urge all senators to support Senator Birmingham, representing the coalition. The coalition's amendments in this chamber look to counter the member for New England's amendments. Mr Windsor's amendments basically attempted to prevent bilateral assessments for the proposed coal seam gas trigger. Allowing assessments is a key way to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses while maintaining environmental standards. The New South Wales Minerals Council executive, Mr Stephen Galilee, recommended the federal government should reconsider their backward decision on the legislation. He said:

It is extremely disappointing that in an election year the Federal Government and Tony Windsor are seeking to create the impression that the State based assessment process isn't good enough. This is completely wrong. Water is already a fundamental aspect of the assessment process for mining projects in New South Wales.

Mr Windsor should also heed the comments from the National Farmers Federation, who have deep concerns about the potential for this bill to be extended to agriculture in the future. I quote from the NFF, who said:

Water is a critical factor for our farmers, and our strong concern is that this bill could actually have perverse negative outcomes for our agricultural sector. What may, on first glance, look like a win for farmers in the short-term could actually have long-term unintended consequences for our current, and future, farmers.

Coal seam gas offers significant economic benefits for Australia, particularly for rural and regional Australia. The industry must have the support of the community in recognition of its generation of billions of export dollars and new jobs. However, we must be careful to weigh up the impacts—I attest to that. In assessing coal seam gas projects, we must be careful not to burden the industry with additional and unnecessary regulation when there is a far more credible path to follow than the legislation in its current form.

I hope that all good senators embrace the coalition's amendments, which make very good sense. Sadly, good sense seems to be a rare commodity in dealing with enterprise in this Gillard Labor-Green's government administration. This morning, there are rumours amid the halls of this place that Minister Burke is wandering around the offices of the crossbenchers trying to do a deal—another grubby deal—proposed by the Greens by incorporating shale into this legislation. We will wait with interest to see what comes out of that. I would have thought that those on the other side should be worried about trying to fix the economy rather than be worried about who is going to lead them through the next pieces of legislation.

I urge all senators here to look at Senator Birmingham's amendments rather than look at the pantomime which is going on quite publicly in this place. I urge you to embrace those amendments and get this legislation through. (Time expired)