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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 6799

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (11:32): I am very pleased to rise in support of the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011 today. I support the bill because it is good policy, it is prudent policy and it also happens to be popular with the vast majority of the Australian community. The bill gives farmers the right to refuse a miner permission to extract coal seam gas on their properties. As it stands, farmers who grow the food we eat, and export food, do not have this right. When it comes to facing down the miners who want to move in, dig up their properties and extract what is underneath, farmers hardly have any rights at all. We do think that they should have the right to preserve the lands under their care from a potentially devastating industry. It is true that the minerals under their properties are public property. This bill does not change that fact. It does not seek to create a precedent.

In our mad scramble to exploit the supposed riches of coal seam gas, we are taking some very dangerous risks with one of our country's most precious resources: this nation's farmlands. If things are left to the mining industry, the methane under our farmlands will be extracted and sold as quickly as possible. Preserving our most fertile land for the future will be less than an afterthought. Given what we know about the risks of coal seam gas extraction, this is reckless and premature. This bill does nothing more than add a note of caution to the debate.

In terms of our food production, this bill is aimed at protecting agricultural land and our environment; in particular it is aimed at preserving our best quality farming land. Farming is important in terms of Australia's economy, but it is also important in terms of the Australian tradition. Despite this being a highly urbanised country, our farmers rightly hold a special place in the Australian consciousness. This nation was built on the back of our farmers and our agricultural resources. Agriculture remains an important sector of the economy and an important part of our national identity. We are extremely lucky in this country to have access to such a bounty of high-quality fresh food. Over 90 per cent of what we eat is grown here. We have food security. Food security has had a bit of press recently, and we do take it for granted, but it is becoming an issue of increasing urgency. Only a tiny proportion of this country is made up of high-quality farmland. We do not have any farmland to spare, so no populist campaign of dam-building is going to change that. Therefore, our best land should not be foolishly used for short-term gain.

Unlike what Senator Bishop was suggesting, this bill only applies to land that has been used in the last 10 years for producing food that Australians eat and that we export to the rest of the world. With the UN now projecting that global food production needs to rise by about 70 per cent by the middle of next century, safeguarding food-producing land should be one of our highest priorities. Coal seam gas extraction uses billions of litres of water, it competes with agriculture for this precious resource and we have not had the debate that says that mining should win out in this current argument.

Mining is, of course, very important for our country and for our economic prosperity. We are not an anti-mining party. We understand that the world needs our resources and that Australia can provide them. But the Greens are the party of long-term thinking. You can only dig up minerals or extract gas once. What happens then? What does the future look like?

This is particularly important when it comes to the coal seam gas industry. Once we have extracted and sold the gas, once the miners have left our properties, what does the land look like? Is it still fit for growing food?

We have not done a complete analysis of the risks associated with this industry. Let me name a few here. Of course, there is the significant risk of groundwater contamination. We know that some coal seams connect with the watertable. We know that the associated water that is produced as a by-product is often polluted with some dangerous chemicals, some of which I will refer to shortly. We know that this by-product often lies in evaporation ponds and risks leaking into rivers and becoming part of our potable water supply. We know that there are some real concerns about whether this industry is in fact helping us to make the transition away from high-emissions industries, particularly when one considers the potent nature of methane as a greenhouse gas, and that the footprint of this industry has been largely understated when we take a full life cycle analysis into account. We know that there are problems with leakage with compression for export. We need more independent analysis. We need to see Australian studies on this industry, independent of industry propaganda.

And coal seam gas is unnecessary. We do not need it now, especially from prime agricultural land. We know that there are alternative sources of energy.

As a medical professional, I want to spend a moment or two to focus on the health impacts of this industry. Most people would, of course, be very protective against any industry that might cause the potential health impacts associated with the mining of coal seam gas. We do not know enough about what those impacts are at the moment. We know that only four of the 60 fracking chemicals have been assessed as safe by NICNAS, the national chemicals regulator, but we know that there is very good reason to think that some of those chemicals will have very serious health impacts.

When we look at the hundreds of different chemicals used in the extraction process, in particular there has been some focus on the BTEX group of chemicals: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes. These are the same products that are found in cigarette smoke. They are the same products that are found in exhaust pollution from motor vehicles. We know that they cause a range of health impacts. We know that some of them are potent carcinogens. We know that they affect a number of the body's systems, including our nervous system and circulatory system. So there are some real concerns about the impacts of the chemicals used in this process.

We know that these chemicals leave a lasting legacy. They have the potential to contaminate billions of litres of water through the process. I am really concerned that we do not have enough information to be able to say that this industry is safe and that we can safeguard against the potential health impacts on the Australian community. The potential for these chemicals to get into drinking and irrigation water supplies is significant, and we simply do not understand their impact on human health.

We need in this instance to use the precautionary principle. Until the toxicity profiles of all of these chemicals—in particular, the BTEX group of chemicals—are clearly understood, why on earth would we take a chance with one of our most precious resources, our groundwater?

Of course, there is a risk that the chemicals from the coal seams themselves—that is, the chemicals that lie dormant within these seams—will in fact be brought to the surface and into the water supply and our food chain. We know that there are a number of volatile organic compounds that exist within these coal seams and that they have the potential to cause cancer and other teratogenic effects. We also know that the underground channels by which a coal seam might link to an aquifer are complex. We need to make sure that we get more evidence and that we have a greater understanding of the impacts of these chemicals and their use before we jump headlong into the coal seam gas gold rush.

Given the potential for damage to human health, we think that one of the things that has been lacking in this debate has been the involvement of the public health community and public health experts as part of this process. I refer to publications in the Medical Journal of Australia which indicate some of the concerns expressed by the medical community when it comes to coal seam gas. It is important that, when we plan for proposals such as this, no proposal should go ahead without a complete consideration of the public health ramifications of this industry, and none should operate without strict and rigorous monitoring of the full impacts of the industry. Prevention is much, much more sensible than cure. Let us apply that principle not just to our health system but to this debate around coal seam gas mining.

I would like to say a few things about my home state of Victoria. While this debate has largely focused on the states of Queensland and New South Wales, Victoria is now the next target in the coal seam gas battle. In Victoria over 30 applications have been received for exploration for coal seam gas mining, and a number of these are exclusively for coal seam gas. It is of great concern to me and to many Victorians.

We in Victoria have some of the nation's most productive farmland. For example, Victoria produces two-thirds of this country's milk. We have a dairy industry that is worth approximately $2 billion in exports. The Victorian public is now very, very alarmed by the coal seam gas gold rush.

It is clear that in my own local community in the region of Colac and south of Colac there is growing anxiety about an exploration permit that has been granted now to ECI International. At a community meeting that was held in the town of Forrest last Friday, in the wonderful Otway Ranges, my own place of residence, we saw almost 100 residents attend a community meeting who were particularly concerned about the impact of coal seam gas mining on groundwater.

We have seen issues in other areas such as the Ovens and King valleys, which were very strongly opposed to the possibility of coal seam gas exploration licences. In fact, the city of Wangaratta also expressed that view. An exploration licence for an area near the town of Warrnambool was withdrawn after significant community opposition.

We know that that story is consistent with what is happening right across the country. A Galaxy poll indicated that 68 per cent of Australians do support a moratorium on coal seam gas until the full health and environĀ­mental impacts are understood. We know that is how the Australian community feels. In fact this bill does not even go that far. All it says is that farmers should have a say. Disappointingly, this was not reflected by the other parties, who voted down the Greens motion for a moratorium on coal seam gas just last week. Their position is out of step with that of the majority of the Australian community.

The passage of Senator Waters' bill is nothing more than a nod to caution and good sense. It does not ban coal seam gas mining. It simply taps on the brakes and says: 'Look, we don't know enough about this industry, its impact on agriculture and its impact on human health. Let's make sure we get a much fuller picture around what those impacts are before we rush headlong into this industry.' I proudly stand here in support of the bill. I think that, if we do not support it, we do risk damaging human health and we do risk long-term damage to our groundwater and to our farmland. For those reasons I very proudly stand here in support of this bill.