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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 2938

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (12:57): I will not be existentialist in my contribution. I will not even mention Albert Camus! I just want to refer to the legislation. I indicate my support for this bill. There has been a significant amount of research done on the impact of coal seam gas mining on the environment, particularly in relation to groundwater and water supply. Several years ago I spoke at a groundwater conference in Adelaide and there was a real concern that this precious natural resource, this natural treasure, must be protected at all costs. We must be very careful not to impact on it in an undue sense. It is an issue because, by virtue of the Great Artesian Basin, it impacts on a number of states. South Australia, as always, is particularly vulnerable when it comes to the issue of water. It has been estimated that, over the next 20 years, there will be 40,000 coal seam gas wells in Australia. Conservative estimates suggest that coal seam gas wells could suck 300 gigalitres of water from the ground each year, which is a significant diminution of groundwater in this country.

I understand where the clash is here. There is a need for the Murray-Darling Basin to continue to be the food bowl of Australia. That prime agricultural land provides a future not just for this nation but for overseas as well, exporting into Asia in particular, in terms of clean green produce. That is very important. But there are also increasing demands in terms of energy needs, and that is a factor that needs to be considered as well. The problem is that, if we do anything to compromise our prime agricultural land production, that is something that cannot be fixed easily, and that really concerns me.

I note that Senator Birmingham and Senator Cormann, among others, have commented about the level of red tape—green tape, if you like—in relation to this. They are matters that I think ought to be dealt with appropriately. Obviously, if there are appropriate approval processes, they must be streamlined, efficient and effective. It is important that we have an extra layer of protection for our prime agricultural land and for our water resources.

Because the Great Artesian Basin impacts on a number of states, one state could do something in its approval process that could impact on another state—South Australia, for instance. That concerns me significantly. If we rely simply on state or territory approval, we risk the same problems we have seen with the Murray-Darling Basin. One state's actions can impact on the whole system and others are left to clean up the mess, which they have no control over, down the track. So there are some important safeguards for our environment. There is a big debate about what the rights of landholders are in relation to mining projects. It is not commonly understood that farmers' rights over their land are circumscribed by virtue of a clash with mining laws. There need to be greater safeguards for our farmers.

There are many unknowns about the process of coal seam gas mining. I am concerned about its impact on the watertable. We have set up a $250 million fund for expert scientific advice and I note that that legislation was improved as a result of the intervention of Senator Heffernan and others in considering issues of salinity and the impact of land use. As a result, an amendment was put forward, which I co-sponsored with Senator Heffernan, my colleagues in the Australian Greens and the DLP senator, Senator John Madigan. These are important issues that we must consider. In South Australia we can see only too clearly what happens when environmental resources are sacrificed for short-term gain.

The Great Artesian Basin is one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the world. It underlies approximately 22 per cent of Australia, occupying an area of over 1.7 million square kilometres beneath the arid and semi-arid parts of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory. The total value of all agricultural production supported by the basin was estimated back in 2007 at $3.5 billion per year. That is why it is important that we are very cautious when it comes to the use of our precious groundwater resources. That is why I support this bill. It is incumbent on this government and any future government to look at issues of dealing with red tape and streamlining approval processes, but at this stage the important factors to consider are the protection of our water resources and the impact on my home state of South Australia if we simply leave this up to the states.