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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 2654

Senator STERLE (Western Australia) (17:34): It is always a delight to follow Parliamentary Secretary Farrell, especially as he has a wide and vast knowledge of water issues. I listened intently to every word of his speech. I rise to make my contribution to the Landholders Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011. But before I do I would like to say that it is a pleasure to contribute to these debates, particularly on mining. I come from a mining state—as you do, Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop—and know that while mining has its challenges it also has its rewards. It is great to come from a state that has these resources. We know when times are quiet or difficult every industry has its challenges, but it would be wrong to think that mining is the only thing that Australia is about. It is not; Australia has a very proud history of numerous other industries, particularly agriculture.

For colleagues from states that do not have offshore or onshore oil and gas activity, it probably would be a strange and difficult industry to grasp, so I would like to share some experiences. As Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop and I are both well aware, there are benefits for our economy, investment and jobs in Western Australia from the gas industry. We do not have coal seam gas production at this stage, which is not to say that we do not have the opportunity to explore, discover and extract any form of gas—whether it be coal seam, CNG, LNG or shale. I have been involved in some way, shape or form with the LNG industry from the first time I took a load of furniture to Woodside's offices on the Burrup Peninsula at Hearsons Cove back in 1984. Like Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop, I interact with a lot of Western Australians who are employed by our gas industry there. I also had the opportunity late last year, as the deputy chair and a long-time member of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural, Regional Affairs and Transport—that is right, the RRAT committee—to look into the coal seam gas industry in western Queensland. On that inquiry I had the privilege of being joined by Senator Waters, who has put up this bill, Senator Heffernan, Senator Edwards and—how could I forget?—Senator Joyce. We visited Brisbane, but we also went out to Roma and Dalby in western Queensland, where we had community meetings and site visits. We were hosted by some farmers. We went out to see coal seam gas wells on their properties and then we had town hall meetings which were very well attended by the communities—some 70 or 80 people in each town. I must admit that the feeling towards the coal seam gas industry by those attending these hearings was anything but warm and friendly. We had to decipher what the heck was really going on.

What we did discover was that the coal seam gas industry in Queensland is not new. I will stand corrected if I am wrong, but I am led to believe that Santos has been extracting coal seam gas for about 40 years in Queensland. Senator Heffernan is indicating it is a little less. It is not a new industry to Queensland, but what we have seen is a massive boost of pipeline investment of about $45 billion. We spoke to coal seam gas employees, industry representatives, farmers and shopkeepers. Coming from WA, I know the challenges that are faced when mining companies come into a town to explore, develop and then process. It can be quite a shock to some people. What I took away from this visit was that there are about 2,700 properties in Queensland that have coal seam gas exploration or wells on their properties. I was led to believe quite clearly that about half were quite happy—there had been some form of negotiation which was a secret that they are not allowed to talk about but they get paid a certain amount of money to have a coal seam gas well on their property—and that the other half were not happy to have coal seam gas wells on their land. To decipher why is always a challenge—they will probably take me to task on this—but I worked it out that some were happy and some are not.

There are other issues that came into it. In Roma we were accompanied by the hardworking member there, Mr Bruce Scott, and he spoke very highly of the industry on his patch and what it has delivered to the towns that he represents in the federal parliament. In Roma, like any town in north-west WA, there isa mix of local businesses—except we do not have an agricultural industry up there in north-west WA—and a lot of fluorescent vests and a lot of steel capped boots. I asked people as we were travelling whether we would see the number of shops open in these communities if there wasn't a gas industry. What I took away, and Senator Heffernan might argue with this, was that—and I go through the Great Southern to our wheat-growing areas down in Western Australia—it was pitifully sad to see shops boarded up. We have only had drought for the last two years whereas New South Wales had nine years before it broke—and didn't it break! But we did see the benefits of the industry. We took evidence that there were quite a few people who had profited—their small businesses had become buoyant and they were able to employ people. There is also an opportunity—and it is an argument for WA as well—for local people to stay in the region. From my side of the country, that is a very big thing, and it was at the forefront of our travels through Queensland.

With the coal seam gas to LNG industry in Queensland—the $45 billion pipeline investment—I know that Australia is now the fourth largest exporter of LNG. On my side of the country and yours, Mr Acting Deputy President—and you and I have both had input through Gorgon, the Wheatstone announcement and, fingers crossed, the Browse Basin project by Woodside and its partners off the coast of Broome, if it goes ahead—these projects not only will increase our GDP, productivity and our economy but also could possibly put us at No.2 in the world for the production and export of a much cleaner fuel supply than coal. I certainly have my fingers crossed, because I hope that, with the blessing of the majority—and I stress the majority—of the traditional owners in the Kimberley, the Browse Basin project will proceed. Senator Siewert will probably remind me on the way out that there was not 100 per cent agreement. I thought I would get in first, because I felt that something was going to be said pretty soon.

Coming back to the coal seam gas industry in Queensland, I know that it has put quite a few people off. There was a lot of debate around intrusion upon land. It would be wrong if I did not acknowledge that we did hear some stories. I do not put it down to coal seam gas; I put it down to very poor public relations and the practices of one or two of the gas companies. I fully support that, if you are going onto someone's land, you should have the decency to introduce yourself, make sure the gates are shut and behave in a way you would expect—

Senator Heffernan interjecting—

Senator STERLE: I am having a giggle with Senator Heffernan. In fact, I would love to hear Senator Heffernan have his five minutes worth. Senator Heffernan will probably have his opportunity in the adjournment debate. If he does get an opportunity to speak, would he please flick me an email and I will make sure I am in the chamber to hear it?

Getting back to what I was saying, it is inexcusable for people to behave in the ways we heard in Queensland. We did go and visit a number of sites. We had a look at the size of the wells. Let us not pussyfoot around: one is led to believe that the wells are only a tiny intrusion on the land—I think we were told they were about 20 metres by 20 metres—but when you see the swathe of cleared land between the wells you understand it is a lot greater than I had envisaged it to be. But I have to come back to why we are in a world where we continually argue about the level of concern around climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. It is very, very hard to argue against it. We do have to explore every opportunity to seek a cleaner source of energy and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that CNG to LNG is the way to go for Australia. We have vast amounts of this resource in our country and we are right to extract it, to treat our communities with dignity and to bring the Australian economy along with us, whether it be in the agricultural areas or offshore.

I am in full support of the coal seam gas industry. I have said that on the record on a number of occasions and I continue to say it now. But I come back to the coal seam gas in Queensland. I did say that it is a longstanding energy source. I would like to put on the record that I have figures that tell me that 33 per cent of the eastern states' domestic gas production is coal seam gas, and 90 per cent of the gas used in Queensland comes from coal seam gas.

I am also very well aware of the bill. The bill wants the Commonwealth to have the full rights to the development of coal seam gas fields, but I cannot support that. I cannot support the states being overridden on that. I do not support the bill. There was a lot of conversation around the loss of prime agricultural land, and I know that a large swathe of Senator Waters's bill is concerned with what happens on prime agricultural land

Senator Heffernan: No-one has defined prime agricultural land!

Senator STERLE: I also know that when we were in Queensland everyone we spoke to saw that part of the world as prime agricultural land. Then again, we have evidence from other people who said that it was not the best agricultural land around. We also heard evidence—and I am sure that Senator Heffernan or Senator Waters will correct me if I am wrong—that these coal seam gas wells were potentially threatening the life of the Great Artesian Basin. That was put to us. A number of arguments were put to us saying, 'What the heck is going to happen to our water?' We also heard a number of times, 'What happens if we poison the aquifers?' and I think that is a very fair question.

I also know that there are vast concerns—and I would not stand here and lie about it because I have no need to—about the salt that is left, which we saw. We went out and we saw that. But then we came back to Canberra and we had a presentation from a mob—and I cannot remember the name, and I apologise—about what they could do with the salt.

Senator Heffernan: Penrose.

Senator STERLE: Penrose, thank you, Senator Heffernan. They believe that the leftover salt could be a viable industry. They need to prove that to us, but that is what they said. But if you sit back and listen to certain groups of activists against the coal seam gas industry—one comes to mind, and I normally get this wrong: is it Shut the Gate—

Senator Siewert: Lock the Gate.

Senator STERLE: Lock the Gate is headed up by a gentleman by the name of Drew Hutton—am I right?

Senator Waters: Yes.

Senator STERLE: Thank you, Senator Waters. I think that gentleman also was a founder of the Greens in Queensland. Mr Hutton attended all three hearings. He was out in Dalby and in Roma and he came into Brisbane. He gave evidence. He was passionate and is leading the charge for blocking all coal seam gas exploration and development on farming land in the area.

But the sad part is that he also got himself in a little bit of a pickle when he turned his back on the development of best practice regulation and an article reported that 'the bill ignores the reports that they do not like or, as in the case of Mr Hutton, they simply falsify'—these are the ones against—'the facts to suit their predetermined conclusions'.

It is such a help for us on our RRAT committee. I think it is a committee that works extremely hard. We value our witnesses that make an effort to come to us to give evidence. Most of our witnesses who come to us are traditionally people in rural and regional Australia and we are talking to people at the coalface and we should be very proud of that fact. But it is very, very disturbing when someone who heads such an out-there, very active lobby group against coal seam gas is falsifying facts to suit predetermined conclusions. If anyone is listening to me out there and thinks, 'What is he going on about?' I would encourage them to grab a pen and a piece of paper and write down: and then see for themselves. That does not help the argument. I had never paid any attention to coal seam gas and all of a sudden I heard that some movie had come out called Gasland and everyone got the horrors with the coal seam gas industry even though it has been around for 40 years.

Then again, I come from Western Australia. How many times do we see the opportunity for vast investment in our state to deliver not only growth and investment but also jobs, and then all of a sudden someone will pop up who does not like it and we will hear some of the most absurd claims. If some are true, they need to be proved. But, unfortunately, when they come from the lobby against mining the truth gets thrown out the window. We used to play Chinese whispers at school, but this is not done through whispers; it is out there. We see all sorts of nonsense and hear ridiculous claims about what it is going to do the environment or to our health, then we have mining companies—most of the time, or some of the time: you decide yourself—all of a sudden being guilty, then having to sort out the facts. And none can be more in your face. In Western Australia it is not about coal seam gas, as I was saying, but I fear it is happening up in Broome.

I understand as much as anyone who wants to protect and save the pristine and rugged beauty of the Kimberley, and if there is something that is environmentally destructive I will be lying across the road with them. But when I go into Broome I see signs with the name of a company—and it is no secret, it is Woodside; Dr Eggleston knows that and so do you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop. And then these signs have an 'equals' sign, the two-fingers sign you gave to me, and the word 'genocide', so they are saying 'Woodside equals genocide'. These are not traditional owners using this language; they are white people. I do not know if they are born and bred in Broome, nor do you have to be, or if they are residents of Broome. But this is the sort of rubbish that is being peddled by the environmental movements. I have respect for environmentalists who genuinely have a concern for the environment. But when it is the same 'usual suspects' that use the most vile language to destroy reputable companies that pay reputable wages and have reputable investments and reputable training for Australians I get very p'd off.