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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 2640


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (16:32): The Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011 was last debated on 21 September 2011. All parties, except for the Greens, spoke in this chamber of their intention to vote against it. The ALP dodged the issue by saying states are responsible for coal seam gas rather than the federal government, the Liberal Party said that they have no problems with the status of the rights of farmers and the Nationals basically made something up. They said that we were hypocrites because we stop farmers from chopping down trees, so they just dodged the issue entirely.

This bill allows farmers to say no when coal seam gas explorers come onto their farmland. The bill requires coal seam gas corporations to gain the written authorisation of farmers to enter their land to conduct coal seam gas activities. This will have double value. Firstly, they will have to make the case to farming communities that particular gas wells or leases will not be harmful. It reverses the burden of proof and will require advance work to happen that will no doubt be beneficial to farming families. That, in itself, is already a benefit even in the event that the farmers concerned then say: 'Yes, we appreciate you have done your homework. We appreciate you think there is no risk here. You have proven that to our satisfaction. You are welcome on our land.' The companies will have been forced to do some of their due diligence in advance.

But the real key to this is farmers having the ability to say no. Let us cut to the chase. The system as it is at the moment is fundamentally broken and needs improve­ment, so I congratulate Senator Waters for bringing this bill forward. It obviously does not deal with the environmental impacts, it does not deal with the salt that comes to the surface, it does not deal with the fugitive emissions of greenhouse gases and it does not deal with the fact that the Greens were voted down this morning when we put a proposal for a moratorium on projects such as this. There is strong support in some of Australia's regional areas for such a moratorium. This bill does not go to those larger issues. The bill goes simply to questions of consent. The reason we are having this debate today is to have the opportunity to provide consent rights to farmers. They then become the primary defenders of the land that they have in production.

Tightening the regulations on a case-by-case basis is important, but it does not address the question of whether the short-term benefits of mining on productive farmland outweigh the long-term costs of compromised land, damaged aquifers and reduced food security. It is extraordinary that the debate has even come to this in the driest inhabited continent on earth when coal seam gas companies propose to damage regional aquifers. They have no idea what to do with millions, and then tens of millions, of tonnes of hypersaline water or salt that they will be bringing to the surface. The evidence around the greenhouse gas emissions, once the full life cycle of these projects is taken into account, is ambiguous at best and some of this farmland will have to be taken out of production if these projects go ahead on the scale proposed. We believe that leaving the determination of these issues to environ­mental impact statements undertaken by state governments is manifestly unsustainable.

I had the good fortune a year or two ago to visit the Darling Downs and southern Queensland around what is now the ghost town of Acland out the back of Toowoomba, a town with a resident population of one because of encroaching coalmines. I visited a Santos gas well where they were doing some early exploration work. They could not tell us what would become of the salt that a full-scale production well would bring to the surface. It is incredibly sad to see good farming country on our dry continent overrun by industrial development of this scale, particularly when they are fossil fuel developments. Sooner or later, the old parties are going to have to come to grips with the idea that some of Australia's fossil reserves will have to stay in the ground. There are no two ways about it.

On matters of national environmental significance, in the case of irreversible damage to water resources or to destruction of prime farmland, everybody has a responsibility. The Commonwealth, state governments and individual farmers have a duty of care to keep land in production. The bill helps protect land that has produced food at any time in the last 10 years. It does not alter the ownership of minerals or underlying titles to various things; they remain vested in states. If the states and the Commonwealth fail to protect food production, this bill gives farmers the right to step in and protect their land.

The Senate inquiry into this matter revealed that companies had treated farmers very poorly in relation to access—not all companies but some. Some companies are quite clearly giving the rest of the industry a bad name. This is not an issue that is being undertaken in the abstract, and this bill would fix that problem.

We believe that we should also amend the Water Act 2007 to prohibit the licensing of mining and extractive industries where they will have adverse impacts on groundwater resources and the environment. This bill does not address directly those issues, but what we need in the short term is to hold the line, because once this damage is done it cannot be undone. The proposition about amend­ments to the Water Act was something that I proposed when I was a member of the Senate Environment and Communications Arts Committee that visited some of the communities that are under such enormous stress from industrial encroachment. We were met on the road outside town by farming families who were wearing green T-shirts and carrying bright yellow triangular placards—they had really turned everything on for the committee. It was almost a festival-like atmosphere except when they told us what it was that they were confronting and where various things would go in the landscape. They are really up against it and they need the support of this parliament. It is not going to be good enough to hear the dismissive comment: 'While we support this in principle, we are going to vote against the bill.' I hope that there has been a change of heart since the last time this matter was debated. Coal seam gas directly threatens these farms and Australia's food bowl where our precious groundwater is concealed beneath the surface.

The upstream consequences of permanent­ly ruining the hydrogeology with coal seam gas extraction and the downstream consequences of filtering inland Australia's drinking water through coal mining projects are potentially devastating. We know that state governments are hopelessly compro­mised by mining royalties and they are not really prepared to face the reality that a large fraction of the coal seam gas in this fertile country will probably need to remain right where it is.

The Commonwealth seems unwilling to break the coal and coal seam gas hypnosis, and I think that was the reason we saw the chamber vote the way it did this morning on our proposal for a moratorium. We must protect the nation's food bowl. We are a net food exporter, and, in an age with the kind of challenges that the world is moving towards in the 21st century, that is a precious thing. That is a service that we provide to people around the world who do not have good quality farming country. They must be scratching their heads wondering how it is that, for a short-term fossil hit ,we would compromise these precious groundwater resources in country that we cannot get back once we have ruined it.

We support the actions of farmers to lock their own gates. They know the land. It was something that I was pleased to be able to do, because at that stage it was one of the first actions of locking the gate. A community had locked out BHP and they had maintained a blockade on their country for a very long period of time. They were eventually successful. We know that collectively we are extremely powerful. But people are tired, communities are stretched and they have got a lot of other challenges on their plates. The last thing they need is unregulated and unrestrained expansion of this particular industry on their farming country. We should be listening a lot more closely to what they tell us. They know their land and they know the way the groundwater behaves in those areas.

As a nation, we are fortunate that these farming families have stepped up into the regulatory void to say that enough is enough. I believe their voice should be amplified, and that is what we are seeking to do this afternoon. It is time to choose between coal seam gas and food, and I know on which side I will be voting when this one is put to the vote.