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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 2646

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (16:55): I oppose the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011. Whilst I do not dispute the environmental concerns held by the Greens or others, the veracity of those concerns or, indeed, the passion in which they are held, I believe that this bill is an unreasonable use of this parliament's powers. It is clearly enunciated in section 51 of our Constitution that encroaching on land-use powers, in the area of law-making, is ordinarily the domain of state governments. The Commonwealth, consistent with its powers enunciated in the Constitution, has a sensible and reasonable environmental protection regime that ensures stringent environmental impact assessment processes, appropriate natural protection safeguards and disallowance measures to ensure that coal seam gas cannot be extracted in circumstances which would produce environmentally damaging outcomes.

Coal seam gas is a longstanding source of energy in Australia. In the eastern states, approximately 33 per cent of gas production is through coal seam gas. For Queensland, 90 per cent of gas produced is through coal seam gas extraction. My view is that, as we move to a clean energy future, coal seam gas plays an important role as a transition fuel to that clean energy future. I accept the view that, in the long term, coal seam gas should not be our aim for the production of energy in this country. In the longer term, renewables must be our aim. That is the focus of the government's clean energy future. But, in the interim, coal seam gas plays an important role as a transition fuel to get us to that renewable energy future.

The facts are that coal seam gas is a damn sight cleaner than burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, and it is the only alternative fuel source at the moment that is capable of powering a baseload power station in Australia or, for that matter, a peaking plant. This issue highlights the fact quite clearly that the Labor government 'gets it' in terms of a transition to a clean energy future. We support a transition that ensures our economy and our jobs continue to grow and that, at the same time, we make the transition to a clean energy future. We believe that coal seam gas plays a part in that transition. In our view, this bill would make that transition a hell of a lot harder and, importantly, more costly, not only for businesses but also for Australian households. We believe that we can make a transition to a clean energy future and that we can grow our economy, grow jobs and grow investment, but that will take time. It is not going to happen overnight. To ensure a smooth transition and to iron out the bumps in the road to a clean energy future, we believe that coal seam gas plays an important part. To agree with this bill would send the wrong message to an economy in transition, to business in transition and to households in transition when it comes to jobs and promoting growth in our economy as we move down that path to a clean energy future.

It would make it harder to explore, invest and extract a fuel that will get us to the ultimate path of a renewable energy future in this country. Importantly, were Labor to support this bill it would be inconsistent with the approach that we have taken to this very important public policy issue. We have consistently said that we will move to a clean energy future whilst at the same time growing our economy, growing jobs and providing support for businesses and households to make that transition. An important element of our economy in making that transition is support for continuing this industry.

In terms of the environmental issues, I believe that the focus of the bill exemplifies its faults. Under this bill the Commonwealth would have the power to apply penalties to any constitutional corporation if it undertakes any activity to explore for or produce coal seam gas on food-producing land without prior written authorisation of anyone who has an ownership interest in the land. I understand the importance of food-producing land for this country, and the focus of Commonwealth laws should be on the protection of the environment through appropriate safeguards and approvals consistent with our Constitution. But, importantly, this applies on any land—not simply food-producing land—which is the ambit of this legislation.

Under the current federal environment protection regime that is exactly what occurs. Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the Commonwealth has the power, consistent with the Constitution, to assess these projects and to assess environmental concerns. Proposals that have been assessed by the Commonwealth have only been allowed to proceed after careful consideration of the potential groundwater impacts. The Minister for Sustainability, the Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Minister Burke, has approved three coal seam gas projects.

In his decisions, the minister imposed around 300 conditions on each project to protect the environment and water resources while providing for the continued development of this industry. This act and its decisions build on the 1,200 conditions that were imposed by the Queensland government in respect of the three projects that were approved under the EPBC Act. Collectively, they were aimed at addressing the cumulative impacts of multiple projects in terms of community sustainability, regional development and environmental outcomes.

The approval process for coal seam gas projects requires the projects to undertake detailed planning and monitoring to ensure the potential impacts on springs, ecological communities or groundwater resources are detected long before they exceed critical thresholds; to develop a timetable for the submission of management plans for aquifers, groundwater and surface water approval; to maintain groundwater pressure in aquifers above a conservative threshold; and to have plans for measures to re-establish pressure if it falls below these thresholds. They have to develop pilots for aquifer reinjection and water treatment programs to ensure that any water to be reinjected is of suitable quality. There are protections in place to ensure that under appropriate Commonwealth laws these projects undertake proper assessment and proceed with stringent environmental protections in place.

Also, the Commonwealth has recognised that there is a degree of concern within the community regarding this issue. It has become a hot topic. In that respect, the Commonwealth has established a land access working group. Although the Commonwealth does not have the power to regulate when it comes to land use management issues, the Standing Council on Resources and Energy and the minister have been working with state governments to facilitate a discussion regarding a uniform approach to the regulation of the industry.

That is the appropriate approach to take, in my view, regarding this issue. It is the domain of the states, and it is appropriate for the Commonwealth, recognising the concerns of the community, to work with those states on a uniform planning and assessment regime at the state level. So the claims that the government has ignored the concerns of the community on this issue are wrong. The government has acted within its ambit enshrined in the Constitution to ensure that it is working with the states, who have the appropriate control and law-making powers when it comes to this issue. This is a measured, appropriate approach which recognises our constitutional constraints but which complements the processes of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.

Coal seam gas extraction has been occurring for decades. It is an important industry for our economy. One of the issues associated with this is the fact that the state governments, which do have control and powers when it comes to law-making in this area, have reacted and enacted regimes which ensure appropriate controls are in place. The Queensland government has acted and the New South Wales government has acted. They have put in place a series of control measures to ensure appropriate development.

Queensland has introduced a strategic cropping land policy framework which aims to provide a balance between protecting prime agricultural land while allowing for the development of a coal seam gas industry. The Queensland Premier has also announced that coal seam gas and mining activities will not be permitted within two kilometres of population centres of over 1,000 people. The Queensland government has also developed a code of conduct for the industry which focuses on managing any impacts on land and water resources and landholders' activities. In addition, the Queensland government has formed a coal seam gas enforcement unit made up of environmental and groundwater experts, petroleum and gas safety specialists and staff specialising in land access issues. The unit is, importantly, based in local communities and acts as a centre point for contact for safety, land access and environmental concerns. That is what the Queensland government is doing.

In New South Wales, the New South Wales Liberal government has announced new policies to provide for the effective regulation of the coal seam gas industry. They include: a ban on the use of BTEX chemicals; requiring proponents to hold a water access licence if they extract more than three megalitres per year from groundwater; a ban on the use of evaporation ponds relating to coal seam gas; and requiring all new applications for mining or petroleum projects to submit an agriculture impact statement and a strategic regional land use policy. This policy and this approach by the Liberal government in New South Wales will provide greater certainty for the development of the coal seam gas industry in New South Wales. I note that the New South Wales upper house is also holding a parliamentary inquiry into the issue in New South Wales to examine the sustainability of the coal seam gas industry. In my view that is an entirely appropriate approach because it is within the remit of the states, who have the power to make laws with respect to land use management, to make these reforms. It is not, in my view, within the remit of the Commonwealth, which does not have the power under our Constitution to make laws with respect to land use management, to be encroaching on this area traditionally undertaken by the states. I have never been a big states'-righter, I must say, but on this particular issue I believe that it is appropriate—

Senator Farrell interjecting

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: I certainly do represent them, but I suppose I take a pragmatic approach, Senator Farrell, when it comes to these issues, and I believe that on this particular issue in this particular area of policy it is entirely appropriate for the states to make the laws with respect to land use management and for the Commonwealth's remit to be associated with environmental issues and the EPBC Act.

The debate concerning this issue has produced some unusual ironies. Some of the coalitions that have been formed in respect of this issue and the debate that has been occurring in the wider community are somewhat ironic. To see the Greens hand in hand with the farming community and the likes of Alan Jones and Bob Katter is incredibly ironic, particularly given the fact that Bob Katter, as a former mines minister under the Ahern government, in 1989 brought into the parliament the actual laws that are now being used by the coal seam gas companies to extract and explore for coal seam gas in Queensland. So here we have Bob Katter as part of the Lock the Gate coalition now campaigning against coal seam gas, but back in 1989 Bob Katter was the one that opened the gate to coal seam gas exploration and extraction in Queensland—a somewhat ironic situation which highlights the somewhat bizarre nature of the public debate that has been occurring in respect of this particular issue in our nation.

I draw my comments to a conclusion by once again stating that I appreciate the concerns of the green movement on this issue.

Senator Heffernan: With your indulgence, Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: I was just wondering what all politicians of all persuasions are going to do about the 20 million tonnes of salt that is going to be produced.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ): That is not a point of order, Senator Heffernan.

Senator Heffernan: You don't have the answer and no-one has the answer.

Senator THISTLETHWAITE: Perhaps, Senator Heffernan, you will be voting with the Greens on this bill given your concerns regarding the issue. We will wait and see. But I reiterate my points earlier made. It is in my view inappropriate for the Commonwealth to be passing these laws, which apply only to corporations but would allow, were this law passed, cooperatives, sole traders and partnerships to continue to extract and mine coal seam gas on land. This law would apply only to corporations. It is an area of lawmaking that is traditionally within the ambit of the states, and I believe it would be inappropriate for the Commonwealth to be passing these laws and encroaching on that ambit, particularly in the context of the fact that, when we are talking about environmental protection, the Commonwealth has in place a stringent process for the approval of these projects and, importantly, disallowance measures where the relevant minister believes that the safeguards in terms of environmental assessment have not been met and there will potentially be damage to the environment. On that basis I do not support the bill and I urge the Senate to reject the bill.