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ECONOMICS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
02/06/2009
RESOURCES, ENERGY AND TOURISM PORTFOLIO
Geoscience Australia

CHAIR —Welcome to Geoscience Australia. Do you have an opening statement you wish to make?

Dr Pigram —No, Senator.

CHAIR —Thank you. Senator Joyce.

Senator JOYCE —In your involvement with government and industry and community decisions on social environmental management, have you had any involvement in the modelling of the emissions trading scheme and its effects on agriculture?

Dr Pigram —No, Senator.

Senator JOYCE —I really am just fishing. Do you have any involvement in agriculture whatsoever in your department?

Dr Pigram —Within agriculture?

Senator JOYCE —Yes.

Dr Pigram —We do a little bit of work in relation to some remote sensing, some satellite imagery that we provide to the department of agriculture, but by and large we are not involved in that space.

Senator JOYCE —I was inquiring about the spatial component of the outcome. Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR —Senator Eggleston.

Senator EGGLESTON —It is a very interesting agency. I understand Geoscience Australia has contributed to Australia’s mineral export wealth over the past decade. Is that not the case?

Dr Pigram —That is a very general question, Senator. We provide the pre-competitive information to attract investment to Australia in the resources sector. Given that that sector has been very successful, we would say that we have made a contribution.

Senator EGGLESTON —It is a very important contribution to the Australian economy, we all agree. But, given that you have played such an important role in that area, I am a little surprised to see your funding has been decreased. What decrease in funding has your agency suffered?

Dr Pigram —Senator, that is a lapsing program in relation to the onshore and offshore energy programs. They were initiated by the previous government and are now in their third year, I think it is, and that was the funding regime that was put in place.

Senator EGGLESTON —So in fact that was a program that came to the end of its—

Dr Pigram —It is not yet finished but it is on a decreasing funding base, yes.

Senator EGGLESTON —Okay. I understand that Geoscience Australia has made an assessment that there are likely to be several major disasters, killing more than 10,000 people a year, in this region. This was as a result of research commissioned by the Prime Minister and Indonesia’s President, I gather, about disasters in the Asia-Pacific region. Do you want to make any comment about what your report was based on?

Dr Pigram —Are you referring to the work that we did for AusAID, Senator?

Senator EGGLESTON —It very probably is, I suspect.

Dr Pigram —The agency was commissioned by AusAID to undertake an analysis of natural disaster risk in the South-East Asia and south-west Pacific region, and that became an input to the government’s decision to establish an Australia-Indonesia disaster reduction facility in Jakarta.

Senator EGGLESTON —You have provided that information to the Indonesian government, as well as—

Dr Pigram —It has been shared with the Indonesian government; that is correct.

Senator EGGLESTON —Are you sharing information with other governments around the Pacific area or the South-East Asia area?

Dr Pigram —My understanding is that is the case, yes.

Senator EGGLESTON —Good. One of the other issues that I am interested in is tsunamis. I understand that Geoscience Australia has been involved in the setting-up of an Australian tsunami warning centre in Melbourne. Could you perhaps tell us a little about that.

Dr Pigram —Senator, the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre is a joint venture between the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia and Emergency Management Australia. We provide the geoscience component of that, which is the detection of the earthquakes and the identification of their tsunamigenic potential. Our input is to advise the bureau whether or not an event has occurred and what its tsunamigenic potential is. On the basis of that decision the bureau has the capacity to check with deep ocean buoys and tide gauges whether there is a tsunami wave in the ocean column. If that is confirmed, then they have the capacity through Emergency Management Australia to advise the appropriate SES people in the states and territories so that they can make an appropriate response.

Senator EGGLESTON —Why is that centre located in Melbourne?

Dr Pigram —It is not. Our capacity is located here in Canberra. The Melbourne node of the centre is in the Bureau of Meteorology. It is actually split.

Senator EGGLESTON —I see. I understand that the principal earthquake zones off our coasts and the greatest potential for tsunamis are off the south-east coast and the north-west coast. Have you any facilities located focusing on the north-west coast in particular?

Dr Pigram —We do, and the context for this is not where the data is analysed but where it is actually recorded. We operate a seismic network that draws on information not just within the Australian continent and the Australian plate but from all over the globe. We actually have sensors in Western Australia and we have sensors that are particularly located so that we have a good understanding of what is happening in that zone to the north-west of Western Australia because it is one of the high-risk areas for Australia in relation to tsunami events.

Senator EGGLESTON —When you say you have sensors, is this buoys in the ocean?

Dr Pigram —No, these are seismographs and they are all on shore. There is also one on Christmas Island, to give us advanced warning, and we are in the process of negotiating with the Timor-Leste government to install a facility in Timor.

Senator EGGLESTON —Thank you, that is very interesting. I understand that in Senate questions on notice Nos 1073 and 1074, dated 13 May 2009, Senator Carr answered a question from Senator Abetz about individual program underspends or overspends in the 2007-08 financial year. Geoscience Australia was shown as having an overspend of $0.9 million. It was explained that the main reason for the overspend was to offset an approved operating loss in 2008-09 of $6.945 million in relation to two carbon caption and storage preconceptual data and promotion of petroleum exploration schemes. Can you just tell us a little bit about why that variation occurred?

Dr Pigram —I will start it, Senator, but I might check with my CFO. My understanding is the key component of that issue relates to accessing vessels to undertake our offshore energy program. You will appreciate that at the time that that was meant to occur the oil sector, pre-GFC, was very busy. Getting access to the facilities we required to do the onshore energy initiative was fairly competitive and it took us some time to locate a vessel that could undertake the work we needed to do. Consequently, that activity slipped from one financial year into the next financial year.

Senator EGGLESTON —Where is your budget now—is it in underspend or overspend?

Dr Pigram —It is balanced.

Senator EGGLESTON —Thank you very much. That is all.

CHAIR —Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM —I am just wondering to what degree the work of Geoscience Australia involves proving up uranium resources in Australia? Is that a separate portfolio area for you?

Dr Pigram —Proving up uranium resources in Australia?

Senator LUDLAM —Yes.

Dr Pigram —We do not operate that far downstream in that sense. As part of our activities, in the provision of precompetitive geoscience information to the mineral sector, we do identify areas that have potential to hold or contain uranium deposits. So to that extent we are involved, that is part of the portfolio of activities. But it does not focus specifically on commodities; it looks at the broader range of opportunities that might exist in a province.

Senator LUDLAM —If you happen to come across host rock that is likely to be prospective for uranium, then you will report that?

Dr Pigram —We will report that; that is correct.

Senator LUDLAM —As you would expect. Are you doing radiometric overflights of particular regions? Is there work that you do that is specifically targeted at radiation anomalies and that sort of thing?

Dr Pigram —Not specifically at this time. A couple of years ago we undertook a national survey where we flew a grid at 75-kilometre spacing across the entire continent and collected a range of geophysical data sets. One of those was radiometric data. The reason for doing that was to allow us to undertake a process to level the existing data sets. Collecting radiometric data is a very complex process, and individual surveys up until that point could not be compared. We did that work to allow those surveys to be compared, so there would be a nationally consistent coverage of those types of data. That data was released earlier this year in map form and digital form and is available to anyone who wishes to acquire it.

Senator LUDLAM —But that work was initiated a couple of years ago, wasn’t it?

Dr Pigram —It was flown in 2007-08.

Senator LUDLAM —So no further requests on your agency’s time or resources since that project—that has put that to rest?

Dr Pigram —We have done subsequently some specific surveys in a multi geophysical data acquisition context, which would include radiometric data.

Senator LUDLAM —That is fine. Thanks very much.

CHAIR —Does that overlay the work that the individual states have been doing in that geospatial—

Dr Pigram —It is done in collaboration with the states and territories. We work under an arrangement called the National Geoscience Agreement. All of the work we do onshore we do collaboratively with the states and territories.

CHAIR —You were saying that individual data sets could not be compared nationally. Is that now rearranged so that if any other group does a survey then that can be integrated into the national database?

Dr Pigram —That is correct.

CHAIR —Does the Commonwealth work need to be renewed from time to time or can you just integrate data from—

Dr Pigram —No, that data, once it is acquired, if it is acquired correctly, stands forever, and any new work can then be integrated because we now have this national framework of reference lines that allows us to integrate it and to level the data so that we have a consistent coverage across the nation.

CHAIR —In the near future there does not need to be any more Commonwealth work in doing the survey?

Dr Pigram —Not in the baseline work to ensure that comparative basis. There are still gaps in the national coverage. We do not yet have 100 per cent coverage of the Australian continent for that particular data set. We do for some others, but not for that particular data set.

CHAIR —Where are those gaps?

Dr Pigram —Primarily in remote areas of Western Australia, parts of South Australia and I think in south-west Queensland. It is dominantly the petroleum basins which will not have potential for the hard rock areas and the mineral resources that you might normally target with that tool.

CHAIR —That is the onshore petroleum basins or offshore?

Dr Pigram —The onshore petroleum basins. We are talking about techniques that are only applicable on the continent. They do not apply to our offshore marine areas; there are other techniques you need to use in that space.

CHAIR —So it only applies to prospective petroleum areas, not the minerals area?

Dr Pigram —No, it is primarily for the minerals areas.

Senator EGGLESTON —There is one other issue I would like to ask you about. I understand that you have had an industrial problem running within Geoscience Australia for about the last 16 months; is that the case?

Dr Pigram —Are you referring to our certified agreement negotiations?

Senator EGGLESTON —I think it probably is.

Dr Pigram —That is now resolved. We will be taking a recently agreed outcome to staff next week, more than likely. They will have an opportunity to vote on the offer. The minister has signed off on that offer and we will put it to staff in the very near future with a view to having it to the Workplace Relations Authority as soon as that vote is taken.

Senator EGGLESTON —I understand there were two episodes of industrial action in Geoscience Australia; is that correct?

Dr Pigram —That is correct.

Senator EGGLESTON —What was the cost of those industrial actions to Geoscience Australia?

Dr Pigram —They were both undertaken in staff time, at lunch time, and they represented around 100 to 200 people participating in a protest action, one outside the building at an adjacent traffic intersection and one at the front of the building recently. I do not have figures on the cost, but I would suggest that it was minimal.

Senator EGGLESTON —What was the basis of the dispute?

Dr Pigram —Essentially, trying to reach agreement about the terms and conditions for future employment under the certified agreement.

Senator EGGLESTON —Have staff resigned over this dispute?

Dr Pigram —No, not to my knowledge.

Senator CAMERON —Work Choices is gone, you know. You can actually collectively bargain now.

Senator EGGLESTON —That is quite true, Senator. I am just asking about an issue and I am grateful for your advice. Thank you very much.

Senator CAMERON —Good. If you keep asking about Work Choices, I am happy to inform you.

CHAIR —There any no more questions for Geoscience Australia. Thank you very much for your assistance. As we are close to the lunch break, we might just take that break now.

Proceedings suspended from 12.18 pm to 1.31 pm