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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 2650

Senator FARRELL (South AustraliaParliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) (17:13): I am in a similar position to Senator Thistlethwaite, and I should perhaps clarify my interjection there earlier. I understand he is not an advocate of state rights but is a very great advocate for his state, which is the—

Senator Sterle interjecting

Senator FARRELL: You are an advocate for state rights, Senator Sterle? Okay. We are obviously divided on this issue in the Labor Party.

Senator Polley interjecting

Senator FARRELL: We have Senator Polley here; she is saying she loves her state. I am sure Senator Cash loves her state as well.

Senator Sterle: Yes, but does her state love her?

Senator FARRELL: They did vote for her, and that is fair enough. But that is not the subject matter before us; it may be a debate for another time. We are here today to discuss this bill from the Greens, the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011. It is important to put coal seam gas in the context of its importance to the community and to people whose livelihood depends on it but, more particularly, in the broader context of what the federal government is seeking to do in reducing our carbon footprint. Coal seam gas is an absolutely vital ingredient to that whole process. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President Cameron, we have introduced our bill to reduce carbon pollution, but there are many more things that we need to do as a government, as a society and as a country to reduce our carbon footprint, and coal seam gas is going to be absolutely vital in that process.

At the moment, coal seam gas accounts for about 33 per cent of the domestic gas production along the east coast of Australia. In fact, when you look at Queensland, 90 per cent of the gas used in that state comes from coal seam gas. Coal seam gas already powers several domestic electrical generation projects in Queensland including Origin Energy's Darling Downs Power Station and the Braemar 2 Power Station. State governments have a twofold policy when it comes to coal seam gas: firstly, to ensure the appropriate compensation of landholders for access and use of their land and, secondly, to ensure that coal seam gas is exploited on behalf of its citizens by unlocking an important transition fuel to provide a source of employment and export income and to generate a long-term revenue source through royalties and rents. If this bill were to pass the Senate today, it would turn its back on that second objective by shifting the state based system, which seeks to ensure proper, if necessary judicially determined, compensation for affected landholders, to a Commonwealth imposed system transferring all powers to the rights, no matter how insignificant, of the landowners.

Coal seam gas exploration is a big opportunity for Australia. We hear about the mining boom, but coal seam gas is part of a much broader development of our resources. Since October 2010, investment decisions in the Queensland coal seam gas to liquid natural gas industry total around $45 billion. That is a very significant amount of money and a very significant amount of investment, and it is creating jobs and opportunities in Queensland. This industry will create jobs, especially in regional communities, and it provides opportunities for Indigenous Australians to seek work in this type of industry. Of course, it also boosts the economy not only of the state but of the Commonwealth. With the recently introduced mining tax, the Australian government is now seeking to distribute the benefits of the mining boom more broadly than to those industries associated with the mining industry. It is a very good project.

Senator Cash interjecting

Senator FARRELL: It is a very good piece of legislation, Senator Cash.

Senator Cash interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ): Order! Senator Farrell, ignore the interjections.

Senator FARRELL: I would like to ignore the interjections, Mr Acting Deputy President. It is very hard to do so in the case of Senator Cash because of the volume of her voice. I did once call it something else and she got upset, so I will not repeat that.

Senator Sterle interjecting

Senator FARRELL: I will tell you privately, Senator Sterle. The coal seam gas industry creates jobs and creates opportunities, but, more importantly, both the state of Queensland and the federal government get benefits out of it. The process that Queensland is using to convert the coal seam gas to LNG provides for a much cleaner source of fuel than coal fired power. As I understand, it produces the same amount of heat but does not have the same carbon impact that coal does. In our attempts to reduce our carbon footprint, coal seam gas converted to liquid gas is going to be a very important part of that.

In terms of the role of the federal government, we have been actively involved in the approvals process for all of these developments. They have not happened overnight and they have not happened without the active interest of the federal government, in particular Minister Burke, who has responsibility for this area. Presently, the federal government have certain environmental responsibility if a project or activity has a potential to impact on matters of national environmental significance as defined under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Water Act 2007. Proposals assessed by the Commonwealth have been allowed to proceed only after careful consideration of the potential groundwater impacts. There is a mechanism in place under the two pieces of legislation that I have just mentioned to make an assessment of the environmental impact on groundwater, which is what the federal minister has been doing. Minister Burke has approved three developments, three coal seam gas to LNG gas projects, and has imposed about 300 conditions on those projects. It is a very significant number of conditions, all dealing with applying the environmental responsibilities of the federal government. The aim of those conditions is to ensure and protect the environment and the water resources but, at the same time, to try to progress an industry which we see as being of great benefit in this challenge of changing climates and all the problems we have as a nation and as a world in dealing with the issue of carbon pollution.

The EPBC Act decisions built on 1,200 conditions that the Queensland government imposed, a very good government.

Senator Cash: Not for long.

Senator FARRELL: They will be comfortably re-elected. You laugh, Senator Cash—

Senator Cash: I do at that.

Senator FARRELL: but I can recall the last election when the Liberals and Nationals—I cannot remember whether they were a united party back then—

Senator Sterle: They're still not now.

Senator FARRELL: No, I suppose that is true. There are significant divisions.

Senator Sterle: I reckon they should do it in WA.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Farrell has the call.

Senator FARRELL: Thank you for that protection, Mr Acting Deputy President; I need it. The EPBC Act did build on those very stringent conditions that were applied by the Queensland government and added to all the regulations that are required by all of these companies which would wish to develop these resources, and when you total them there are 1,500 conditions that they have to meet. These conditions are aimed at addressing the cumulative impacts of multiple projects in terms of community sustainability, regional development and environmental outcomes.

Minister Burke's approval of three coal seam gas projects in Queensland requires the projects: firstly, to undertake detailed planning and monitoring to ensure any potential impact on springs, ecological communities or groundwater resources is detected long before they exceed any critical thresholds; secondly, to develop a timetable for the submission of management plans for aquifers, groundwater and surface water for approval; thirdly, to maintain groundwater pressure in aquifers above conservative thresholds and plan measures to re-establish pressure if it falls below these thresholds; fourthly, to develop pilots for aquifer reinjection and water treatment programs to ensure that any water to be reinjected is of a suitable quality; and, finally, to cooperate with other coal seam gas proponents and the Queensland Water Commission in the development of a regional model for the ongoing assessment of the potential impacts of coal seam gas production on groundwater. All of those five conditions have been imposed by Minister Burke on these projects and are all designed to get the absolute best environmental outcome while allowing the projects to proceed.

In addition to the things I have just mentioned, the minister has established an expert panel of academics and industry experts to provide advice on groundwater related matters and the adequacy of the water management plans which the companies must submit under the project approvals. An interim committee has been set up pending the formal establishment of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. In fact, just today, Mr Burke has introduced legislation into the other house to set up that independent agency as a statutory body.

In terms of the projects that have been approved in Queensland under the water management provisions, Minister Burke's conditions stipulate that the companies must test and monitor every relevant aquifer to verify whether or not they are hydraulically connected. The companies have to submit detailed water management plans and monitoring regimes to avoid or minimise the impacts of groundwater and surface water, and these plans are subject to rigorous assessment by an expert scientific panel. On 10 September 2010 Minister Burke released an independent expert report on the impacts of the coal seam gas operation in South-East Queensland on surface water and on groundwater. I will focus on groundwater for a moment, because that is an important area when it comes to the consideration of these coal seam gas projects. Work is currently underway to better understand the cumula­tive impacts of multiple coal seam gas devel­opments on groundwater resources. This has been a matter for some public issues and consideration, and that work is currently underway.

The government has also committed $1.5 million to the Namoi Catchment Water Study looking at the potential impacts of proposed coal mining and coal seam gas extraction on the region's water sources in the Liverpool Plains. Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop, I am sure you are very familiar with this study. In addition the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism sought and received advice from Geoscience Australia on phase 2 of the Namoi Catchment Water Study that included data collection, data analysis and model conceptualisation for the Namoi catchment.

I turn to the work that the CSIRO have been doing in this area. They are working on a range of research projects to enhance the characterisation, production and stimulation of coal seam gas, and address the environ­mental impact of coal seam gas production. In July 2011 the CSIRO and the Australian Pacific LNG founded the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance to undertake research in five key social and environmental areas: groundwater, surface water, biodiversity, land management, the marine environment and socioeconomic impacts. The CSIRO and the Australian Pacific LNG have provided initial seed fund­ing totalling $14 million over the next five years for the alliance to undertake this research into the Queensland coal seam gas industry. The alliance has been established with a robust governance framework designed to ensure the delivery of quality, peer reviewed and publicly available science for the benefit of the industry, government and the community.

In addition to what the minister has done and CSIRO is doing in this area, the Australian government has an interest in land use changes, particularly those that affect our agricultural industries in food production. As you would be aware from your background, Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop, decision making with regard to land use and planning ultimately rests with the state and territory governments. A number of states already have policies which protect prime agricultural land, and some states are addressing community concerns by developing such policies. The Australian government is very confident that mining and farming communities can coexist as they have done in Australia for a very long time. This should not be any different for coal seam gas. It is fair to say that to date mining and urban expansions have not threatened Australia's food security. We are in the good position of having food security in this country.