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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

FRASER, Mr Duncan, Chair, Mining and Coal Seam Gas Taskforce, National Farmers Federation

KERR, Ms Deborah, Manager, National Resource Management, National Farmers Federation


CHAIR: Ms Kerr and Mr Fraser, thanks for talking to us. The committee has received your submission as submission 3. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission?

Ms Kerr : No.

CHAIR: Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to question?

Mr Fraser : No, we are right.

CHAIR: Let's go straight to Senator Waters.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, Chair. Thanks very much for appearing today, both of you. I notice that in your submission suggest that certain additional extractive operations should be covered by the provisions of this bill. You mention geothermal energy production but you also mention underground coal gasification. Some of the witnesses earlier today also raised underground coal gasification, as well as shale and tight gas. Could you talk a little bit more about the impacts of those industries and why you think they should be covered by this bill?

Ms Kerr : Thanks, Senator. While I do not know a great deal of detail about those particular industries, I think the concern is that there is a lot of focus on coal seam gas and obviously large coal mines. But shale gas is being explored and developed in other areas of Australia, particularly in South Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and WA. Whilst I understand that the implications for water are much less than for coal seam gas, I think communities want to avoid the problems that have arisen with coal seam gas. With respect to geothermal, my understanding is the impacts on water from geothermal are much greater than from coal seam gas. Underground coal gasification in Queensland: one project has been closed down by the Queensland government and two others are still operating. We really do not know much about those particular industries. Not just in this area but in the other policy areas where we are working with governments, particularly the Standing Council on Energy and Resources national framework, we believe that we need to keep an eye on these other industries and the future, not just focus on the here and now and the big community concerns of today. Whilst they are very important, we want to make sure that the arrangements that are put in place will effectively deal with all these types of industries.

Senator WATERS: You mentioned in your submission—and it is a point I just raised with the previous witness—your concern that exploration should be covered by the bill. I ask you the same question I put to Mr Duddy: do you think currently the bill is broad enough to cover exploration given that the test is a significant impact on water resources?

Ms Kerr : Again my understanding is that exploration is about determining the knowledge base on which to assess the commercial viability of a project and whether or not governments will approve that project and, if so, with what conditions. To do that you need to explore, and people are concerned about the impacts of exploration. I am no scientist but I believe that those impacts are quite minimal. The community are concerned and farmers are concerned about it. Perhaps there is a need to put some independent scientific rigour around that to ensure that the community have their concerns allayed and their fears put to rest. If the scientific committee were able to have a look at exploration and make a determination as to whether or not it is a significant impact, that would be useful in terms of at least saying either, 'Yes, it is, and we do need to include it,' or, 'No, it is not, and these are the reasons why.' Having independent science determine that would be useful.

Senator WATERS: Some of the other submitters have suggested that there be a moratorium on new approvals while the committee does its work program. There are various aspects to the work program. There is, in the main, the reactive at the direction of the minister but there is also research of its own volition in particular respects, and there are the bioregional assessments. What is your view regarding whether or not anything should be halted while the committee is doing its work? Do you have a view on that?

Mr Fraser : Generally they are issues for our state members. We seek to work on a national level. The members who come to our task force bring the views of their state members and they have their own policy on that. Generally calls for moratoriums differ from state to state. It is really an issue we will leave up to them. At a national level we have supported the government on the harmonisation of regulations, or the work toward that. That is basically where we will put our endeavours.

Senator WATERS: I have lost track of which of your state constituents are backing a moratorium and which are not. Can you update me on who is for and who is against, if you are able to?

Mr Fraser : I think New South Wales are.

Ms Kerr : The positions are more about activities on farmland and having veto rights around activities on farmland, certainly in New South Wales. The VFF have recently passed a formal position requesting that farmers have that veto right. A moratorium on the industry versus a veto right about what activities happen on-farm: I think they are two different issues.

Senator WATERS: Absolutely. I have got a bill on both of them, so I am interested in both aspects. There have been some concerns raised by a number of health bodies. Doctors for the Environment Australia was one of the other submitters on this bill. Are you picking up from any of your constituents concerns about the health impacts of large coalmining or coal seam gas? Is there an increase in social and emotional distress from your members on the ground or are there any other health concerns?

Ms Kerr : I am not sure arising specifically out of the activity, but certainly from the interaction they have, I would imagine it is more around the coal seam gas industry, because that is where most of their angst appears to be. There are certainly emotional issues, there are certainly mental issues and there are certainly stress issues. If you are a farmer sitting on a farm whose livelihood has been about agricultural production and all of a sudden you have this interest that wants to also come onto your farm, and you have to deal with this new business and you have no idea of your legal obligations or how you proceed, I think that some of the behaviours undertaken by the companies have in and of themselves resulted in a lot of social, emotional and psychological issues for farmers and their families. Not just the person actually undertaking the farming activity but the whole family can be affected.

Senator WATERS: And, indeed, the whole community at times too. Do you think that is something that this committee should be specifically charged to look at?

Ms Kerr : The independent science committee? Their expertise, as I understand it, is brought around for water and science. I would think that medical issues and the impacts on human health might be better undertaken by somebody with the appropriate expertise.

Senator WATERS: Do you think someone with that expertise should be put on this committee?

Mr Fraser : If need be. It is certainly an issue, say, in wind farms, which we see corollaries with in terms of the debate on the effect on landholders. Certainly the health issues have been well played out—the effect on landholders and neighbours adjacent to wind farms—and there is conflicting medical evidence coming out, especially from overseas evidence. So it certainly needs to be examined in the context of regulations for Australia, and we would not see any difference for this. Certainly the evidence from southern Queensland from when the original exploration licences for coal seam gas were applied for is that the uncertainty led to a lot of emotional issues which caused further, ongoing uncertainty. That is something we have stressed to the resource industry: that they have to be much clearer and more transparent in their dealings so they can alleviate that stress.

Ms Kerr : If I could make a suggestion, whilst the independent scientific committee might be one avenue, the National Health and Medical Research Council is probably equally qualified to deal with that, and maybe it is an area of work that it could be commissioned to do. They are about medical and health issues. There are also some social issues that we are seeing arising, coming into the fly-in fly-out 'mafia', as they are calling it—drugs and a whole range of social issues that are arising. So perhaps even there the NHMRC is an appropriate body to be commissioned to look at those particular aspects.

Senator WATERS: I want to finish up by asking about conflict of interest, which we have talked about quite a bit this morning. Do you have a view on whether or not the bill will provide those safeguards against a conflict of interest between the members of this hopefully independent scientific committee and the industry that it is now charged with researching and investigating? Is there any strengthening that you would like to see, or do you think it is fine as is?

Ms Kerr : Generally with governance in Australia conflicts of interest are managed quite well. If there is a particular member of the scientific committee that has a particular conflict of interest, I am sure that the governance arrangements around the committee will deal with that satisfactorily. I heard the conversation with the previous person about scientists on this committee perhaps being commissioned to do all sorts of other work, and I would have to agree with Tim's comments around that. Scientists are commissioned to do all sorts of work for all sorts of people, and I am sure that not only the committee but the secretariat in the department will adequately manage those conflicts of interests.

Senator WATERS: If I have some more time at the end, I will come back to a few other questions, but I will leave it at that for now.

Senator FISHER: Thanks, Mr Fraser and Ms Kerr. You are aware of the committee and the committee membership. One of the earlier witnesses suggested that there should be some representation of agricultural expertise on the committee. Are you concerned about that not being specified? If you are, how would you deal with it in any way that made sense?

Ms Kerr : We are not scientists. Unless you have a degree in science, it is a bit difficult to make a judgment on ground water, hydrogeology or any of those specific issues. As to the interim committee, we were certainly consulted about the appropriate people to nominate. A couple of those people are actually on the committee—I will not indicate who—and they have worked closely with agriculture before. I am confident that they would take agricultural interests into consideration in making their determination; but they are there for their science expertise, not their agricultural expertise. Looking forward, we would be interested in who is appointed to the permanent committee from 1 July.

Senator FISHER: I extrapolate from that that you are not concerned about the lack of a specific reference to agricultural pursuits provided that there is consultation on the appointments?

Ms Kerr : Yes.

Senator FISHER: Okay; that makes sense. The Minerals Council have expressed concern in their submission about the possibility that the bill would mean duplication with state and territory assessments—more green tape, if you like. Do you share that concern? Wouldn't that deliver uncertainty to your members' members, the farming community? You know: 'Being suspended—is this going to go ahead? If not, when will we know? If it is going to go ahead, with what conditions?' Do you share that concern?

Ms Kerr : In terms of your first question, it depends on where along the state assessment chain the committee's advice is sought. I think in some cases it would actually feed into some o the work of their EISs rather than duplicate them, so I am not sure where they think that would be a disincentive. So I suppose there are those two points: it is about when that advice is sought and whether or not it could also feed into their EISs, help and support that process and reduce their costs and effort in that way or assist them.

I suppose we do not really have a particular view on whether that is going to lead to any uncertainty. Projects normally take a long time. This assessment process will be part of a process that might take two, three or four years. It is no short time frame. If I look at lessons from the Murray-Darling Basin, the view is different: people think certainty is a decision made today. If a decision made today is a poor decision, it gives you certainty but it is not a good decision. So I think certainty for farmers is knowing that due process is being followed, that it is transparent, and that the end decision is a good decision rather than maybe a shorter decision but a bad decision.

Senator FISHER: A good decision is an end decision—it works the other way as well. The Minerals Council has questioned what the act means when it talks about a large coal mining development having significant impact on a water resource. Do you think the protective and advice-seeking provisions of the bill are triggered for a sufficient number of coal mining developments?

Ms Kerr : I suppose time will tell. From the previous conversation I understand that the trigger is a significant impact that it is consistent with all protected matters under the EPBC Act. I am not sure about consistency with state legislation so I cannot comment on that. But certainly the language is consistent with the EPBC Act, in that you need to have a significant impact on a water resource. Any large coal mine, whether open cut or underground, will have a significant impact on water because, frankly, they have to de-water the coal seam to be able to extract the coal. Any activity is going to virtually trigger it from a production point of view when they are actually in the extraction stage. Seeking the committee's views during the assessment process probably makes sense for all coalmines because it will trigger that sort of impact.

Senator FISHER: The Minerals Council has also talked about the risk of broadening the committee's scope. You have suggested that it should be broadened, but the Minerals Council say that there is a risk that the committee scope may broaden to encompass matters outside the committee's area of expertise and unrelated to water. Do you accept those concerns and how would you deal with them if you got your choice of the committee having a broader remit?

Mr Fraser : No, at this stage we would not share their concerns. I am sure the expertise can be covered. We are just not quite aware of the specific reasons. They just want to keep it narrow but we think this is a good opportunity to look at these areas.

Senator FISHER: They say:

Specifically, for Example this could include ecological values and ecological factors in bioregional planning matters in which the Committee expertise is less established. … this would be a detrimental outcome diverting the Committee from its core focus on water resources and exacerbate assessment process duplication and inefficiencies.

Ms Kerr : I imagine it would be the terms of reference for the bioregional assessment and it is related to water. My understanding is they are only intent on considering water. Bioregional assessments can be done for a whole range of matters including those related to agriculture or development of a specific region. Urban corridors, for example, come under some bioregional assessments. It is a water committee. My understanding from the briefing I have had is the bioregional assessment will be related to water, not other matters. There are other mechanisms and processes within the department to consider those other areas.

CHAIR: Do you support the establishment of a scientific committee?

Ms Kerr : Yes.

CHAIR: It seems to me that it grates a bit with some of your members who will not accept the science on climate change. Why do we have an acceptance of the science when it comes to this, and you have this massive debate and opposition within many of your members about climate change?

Mr Fraser : I think it just shows how democratic we are.

Senator FISHER: Touche.

CHAIR: This is not about democracy. It is about science.

Mr Fraser : We always will argue we need much information on a scientific basis for this. I think if members might be called climate sceptics, then it is on the basis that we need more scientific information. That would be the basis for the argument. That is why we support this independent research. I am probably finding it a bit hard to understand the connection.

CHAIR: I think the connection is pretty simple. When it comes to climate change, the science is not accepted by many in the farming community. When it comes to the issue of mining, then the science is going to be accepted. I am just asking: why is the science on climate change different from the science on mining and coal seam gas?

Mr Fraser : I think the scientific understanding is evolving all the time. With coal seam gas extraction a lot of it is happening underground. We still need to get ongoing information about what is happening down there. That is why we support the call for ongoing independent scientific research to understand that. There is conflicting evidence coming out and I would say that is case in the climate change debate too.

CHAIR: So you are saying there is conflicting science on the effects of mining and coal-seam gas?

Mr Fraser : There is evidence evolving all the time about the effect on underground aquifers and the interference and whatever. The mining industry have made their claims that they feel there is very little impact. But that has been questioned and there is agreement that further research needs to be done to clarify that. We get anecdotal evidence from our members nationally about what is happening—just the recent debate about methane gas in a stream bubbling away and where it came from. Again, it highlighted that there was not really any clear-cut understanding of that. That is why we need this further research.

CHAIR: But when you do research it is based on scientific understanding. So the scientific outcome is one way or the other. Do you accept the science that is produced?

Mr Fraser : If it is done properly, transparently, independently it is accepted—we would. With the climate change work, we know there is scientific evidence and research going back based on tens, hundreds, thousands of years and there is conflicting interpretation of that data. I think if people say they are climate sceptics it is not that they do not accept the science; it is just that they need more information.

CHAIR: I am just worried about an organisation that says on the one hand, if it comes to coal-seam gas and it comes to mining, we want to cling to the science as an approach that is appropriate to take, but when it comes to climate change the bulk of the scientific outcome, well, we will bring Ian Plimer into our national conference to get a different view.

Senator FISHER: I have not heard Mr Fraser say that. I think he is saying quite clearly they want to hear from the science on coal-seam gas.

CHAIR: Senator Fisher, I did not interrupt you, so don't interrupt me. I am just trying to understand that position. You had Professor Plimer—

Mr Fraser : We do not have a specific policy on climate change.

CHAIR: You do not have a policy. So even though the science is in in relation to anthropogenic effects on climate change, you do not have a policy on it?

Mr Fraser : That is your interpretation that it 'is in'; I would say it is evolving all the time and we are keen to keep hearing the scientific understanding behind it. We speak to all parties about it.

CHAIR: So the CSIRO has got it wrong?

Mr Fraser : No, I am not saying that. CSIRO has a policy on water science, too. I am a former rice grower, I will not go into it in detail there, but I remember several years ago CSIRO issued a report saying that it took 22,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram of rice. That went very public. When it was disputed they quickly acknowledged their error and said it was more like 17,00 litres of water. I am not having a go or saying anything about CSIRO, but sometimes information can be misinterpreted.

CHAIR: It just seems to me to be a dichotomy here from the farmers. On the one hand you are saying, 'We want to rely on science,' when it comes to coal mines and aquifers, but when it comes to climate change, 'We think it is all changing and do not accept the bulk of the scientific community's viewpoint.' So where do you stand on science?

Senator FISHER: They have answered that, Chair.

Ms Kerr : If I may comment. Water is a particular expertise of mine—not that I am a scientist, but it is a particular policy expertise of mine. We know a lot more about surface water than what we do about groundwater. Farmers out there, community people out there, do not know what is happening underground, so they are questioning what is happening, the policy decisions, whether they are robust enough. This independent science committee is put together to try and determine that in a better way and to give independence to that information. It is no different to climate science. The global climate science is quite robust, but climate science at a regional level is not. The downscaling of the models is not.

CHAIR: So the science changes when you come to Australia, does it?

Ms Kerr : No. I am just saying that the climate models that are in place on a global scale are quite robust but, if you try to downsize that, downscale those models to a regional scale—a New South Wales or a valley type scale—the science gets incredibly blurry.

CHAIR: No, it does not.

Ms Kerr : The models do.

CHAIR: Are you saying that the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO, who advise government on these issues, have got it wrong?

Ms Kerr : No, I am not saying that.

Senator FISHER: Chair, this bill is about coal seam gas not climate change. Come on, pull yourself back in!

CHAIR: It is about science.

Ms Kerr : It is about science. I am saying that groundwater modelling is not as good as surface water modelling. The committee that is being put together is to provide some independent science about that and to inform governments in their decision making—no different to climate science on a smaller scale. On a large, national scale or global scale the science is quite good. If you try to downsize that to a state or a catchment scale—like the groundwater systems, which are at a catchment basin scale—the models are not as robust as they are at a national level. We have asked for better modelling to be done on that local scale to help inform farmers and improve their decisions about climate on that scale. This bill is about groundwater science and improving and making more robust decisions about groundwater when it comes to the coal seam gas and coal mining industries.

CHAIR: Back in 2007 the Farmers Federation were saying this is a problem and we need to deal with it. Then—

Senator FISHER: What is the problem, Chair? What is this?

CHAIR: Climate change and science—

Senator FISHER: Chair, this is about coal seam gas. Come on!

CHAIR: No, it is about science. I have just tried to get—

Senator FISHER: Were I asking these questions, you would be pulling me in.

CHAIR: I am trying to get the National Farmers Federation's view on science and why their view on science for aquifers and science for the mining industry is different from their view on climate change.

Senator FISHER: The former is relevant to this bill; the latter is not, Chair.

CHAIR: No, it is about science.

Senator FISHER: Am I allowed to rule that question out of order?

CHAIR: No, you are not.

Senator FISHER: But the witnesses are nonetheless entitled to restrict their answers to the bill.

CHAIR: I am happy for them to take it on notice. The other issue is: Ms Kerr, I notice that you brought Professor Ian Plimer to your national conference. Would you then be bringing the coal seam gas people to your conference—they argue for coal seam gas—on the basis that they think the science is okay?

Mr Fraser : We are having our next congress in October this year. The Prime Minister will be attending and she will be the key speaker. We propose to have a forum on coal seam gas. We will have representatives from all sectors of the debate there to get an informed forum. I think the congress you were referring to was our first one. Professor Plimer was there, which is not to say that that was a measure of support. It is like saying we might have Coles and Woolworths coming to speak at conferences, which they do. That does not mean we support their competition.

Senator FISHER: I can see you are a democratic organisation, then—

CHAIR: In relation to Professor Plimer, who is way in the minority, are you saying that he has equal standing to the CSIRO scientists?

Senator FISHER: Chair, didn't you talk about the restricted terms of reference of this inquiry?

CHAIR: This is about science. Mr Fraser, is that what you are saying?

Mr Fraser : I was not involved in the organisation of that, so I am not fully aware of the reasons. But I have no problems having people from all sides of the debate there. I do not know if someone was invited from CSIRO.

Senator FISHER: I think Senator Cameron wants an invite.

Mr Fraser : He will certainly get one.

CHAIR: I will be happy to go along.

Ms Kerr : It is a bit like the media: anything controversial will get you good media.

CHAIR: So Professor Plimer was there for the media?

Mr Fraser : Senator, we are happy to take it on notice and get back to you.

Senator WATERS: I just want to take you back to the status of this committee. You mentioned earlier that obviously the states have to take account of the advice of this committee but are not obliged to adopt it. Clearly even that requirement is not in the bill; it is in the national partnership agreement. Do you think that is enough insurance that this committee's advice will be properly factored in to state based decisions?

Ms Kerr : The state society will develop guidelines about how they refer, what they refer and how the committee is engaged. As the IGA is an intergovernmental agreement it would seem a bit silly if they sought the advice and did not take it on board, but that is a decision of the state and territory governments.

Senator WATERS: Likewise, are you concerned that the committee, although set up under federal legislation, is able to advise the federal minister but the federal minister is then not able to act on that advice where it pertains only to water impacts, because he lacks the jurisdiction to address water impacts under those laws?

Ms Kerr : In reality, the approvals for these developments will be a state decision. The federal minister only has jurisdiction over protected matters under the EPBC Act. It is probably appropriate that it is dealt with at a state level amongst all the other issue that the state has to deal with and considering making that decision whether to approve a development.

Senator WATERS: So you do not think the Commonwealth should have a greater role in protecting water from coal seam gas and large coalmining?

Ms Kerr : Not through previous proposals to amend the EPBC Act to include a water trigger, no.

Senator WATERS: Through any other ways?

Ms Kerr : We would be willing to consider other ways, but certainly the NFF position is clear: we do not support the inclusion of a water trigger in the EPBC Act. And the introduction of this Independent Expert Scientific Committee is a welcome step forward in looking at those things.

Senator WATERS: So, just to be clear: you are supporting the Commonwealth doing something about water, but just not a water trigger.

Ms Kerr : No—

Senator WATERS: Sorry. I don't want to go over you; I genuinely want to understand.

Ms Kerr : We are prepared to consider all sorts of policy proposals, but NFF reserves the right to make decisions on whether those sorts of arrangements have positive or negative impacts on farmers like we did on the water trigger. But certainly in terms of other opportunities we are supportive of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee. We think that is a good idea. For anything else that comes forward, we are prepared to look at it on the basis of that proposal and make a decision through the members' council of our support or otherwise.

Senator WATERS: So you are happy to consider proposals but you are not initiating any proposals yourself for the Commonwealth to do more to protect water from coal and coal seam gas?

Ms Kerr : No, we are not initiating anything on our table at this point in time.

CHAIR: I think we have run out of questions for you. I do have some more, but—!

Ms Kerr : If they are related to climate change, I do not think it is appropriate!

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your input, and I look forward to that invite to your conference—at the instigation of Senator Fisher!

Mr Fraser : I think you would have got one anyway!

CHAIR: Thanks very much.

Proceedings suspended from 12 : 23 to 13 : 27