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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5247

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (11:40 AM) —I speak on behalf of the Democrats on the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Amendment Bill 2002. We have some amendments that have been circulated and that we will be moving shortly in relation to the bill. The amendments are designed to deal with a concern of the Democrats that the purpose of the act and this bill is simply to further encourage offshore oil exploration without reference to environmental protection, climate change or the imperatives of sustainability. It is this that the Democrats believe needs addressing.

The Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act is over 35 years old. It has been amended over 40 times. It is an act from a previous age and it is clear that it sits apart from some fundamental environmental and sustainability issues. Recently there was a national competition policy review of the act that produced some 26 recommendations for changes. This amendment bill implements only two of those recommendations. The government has committed to rewriting the act, partially on technical and syntactical grounds and partially on matters of substance. For instance, one of the recommendations of the review was a rewrite of the objects of the act. While the Democrats do not support all the recommended changes, which occur totally outside any context of ecologically sustainable development and are purely in terms of industry competitiveness, we are firmly of the view that if you are going to rewrite the act you should do it as a single, integrated exercise. If you are going to revise an act on a piecemeal basis, it is fundamental that you begin with the objects of the act. That is where you set out the direction and purpose of an act and the changes you are making to it. That is why the Democrats have circulated amendments to the objects of the act.

This amendment bill amends not only on a piecemeal basis but also, in our view, on an ad hoc basis. It is the whole act that should be reviewed. The government has committed to rewriting the whole act. The NCP review was a review of the whole act. The strategic assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is also an assessment of the whole act. Why, then, do we have an amending bill that contains ad hoc amendments? Is it the case that the government intends to dribble out the entire rewrite of the act section by section until, almost without our being aware, we will have a whole new act in front of us? Is the government trying to pass an act in small bits because the individual components seem more innocuous than a comprehensive overhaul of what is, let us not forget, a significant act? Surely it makes more sense to revisit the entire act, to think through the entire structure, to imagine its workings as a whole and to integrate the various elements of the act as fully as possible.

So the Democrats are tabling amendments that institute an objects clause in the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act. The provision of the objects clause is self-evident: it is to create a legal structure that relates to the exploration for, and exploitation of, offshore oil within a framework of ecologically sustainable development—that is, the offshore oil industry should be encouraged, facilitated and regulated in a way that ensures that the environment is properly protected.

No doubt the response from the government will be that environmental considerations are already assessed within the act itself and under the EPBC Act. However, the reality is that the level of environmental assessment occurs only after certain exploration and exploitation decisions have already been made. One of the fundamental purposes of ecologically sustainable development principles is that ecological matters are integrated into legislation in such a way that all decisions operate within that comprehensive framework. For example, decisions to release areas under the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act are not an action for the purposes of the federal environment protection act. In other words, no environmental assessment occurs until actual physical activity is proposed for the area, and then only if that activity is likely to have any impact on a matter listed as being of national environmental significance. This means that environmental matters do not actually get considered at the beginning of the decision making process, only after some fundamental decisions have been arrived at.

The decision to release lands under the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act invests certain rights in parties with leases over land. Impact assessment, if it occurs, takes place then within a development stream. This means that the impact assessment is more likely to be about mitigation than about good environmental decision making in the first place. This is not simply an academic criticism. As some senators may be aware, I have recently released material in this place that sets out the extent to which offshore oil exploration is, and has been, conducted in the Coral Sea adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. Those materials make it clear not only that the exploration is proceeding, much of it under the guise of science, but that government agencies have been party to it—they have misled the Senate regarding their activities and their intentions—and that all of this is leading to a release under this act of lands in the seas adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This should not be happening outside the public eye. It should not be happening under an act in which environmental concerns are secondary.

The whole story of the complicity of Geoscience Australia in the oil industry's interest in the Coral Sea highlights the desperate need for offshore oil exploration legislation that is responsible, accountable and public and cannot assert and grant exploration rights by stealth. The Democrat amendment is a small statement of that need. And, as I have said, we need to reform the entire act, and doing that is not negated by this amendment. Whilst the amendment does not go as far as it should, it does provide a context in which the government can begin to form a strategic overview of broad ecological considerations and begin to consider some of the implications associated with the offshore petroleum industry, such as climate change and coral bleaching. It also provides a context for public involvement, from the earliest stages, in decisions regarding petroleum drilling. Given the potential ecological consequences of opening up areas for oil exploration and exploitation, particularly in areas adjacent to such sensitive regions as the Great Barrier Reef, the Democrats believe it is crucial that the act used to open up those lands, the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act, does have a more comprehensive environmental component within its objectives. That is the reason behind the amendment which I will move when we get to the committee stage of the bill.