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Economics Legislation Committee
Geoscience Australia

Geoscience Australia


CHAIR: Good evening, Dr Pigram. Thank you for coming. Is there anything you would like to put on the record?

Dr Pigram : Nothing from me, thank you.

Senator KETTER: I understand that the organisation has had significant funding cuts. In answer to question on notice A146 it was indicated that there were 90 voluntary redundancies to January 2014. Can you provide an update on this?

Dr Pigram : There were a total of 99 redundancies up until the end of April.

Senator KETTER: Is that an additional nine?

Dr Pigram : Yes that is correct.

Senator KETTER: In the answer you provided you spoke about nine employees who were seeking to be voluntarily retrenched—you have just told us about those?

Dr Pigram : That is correct.

Senator KETTER: Can you provide the number of graduates in 2015?

Dr Pigram : The graduate intake this year was nine.

Senator KETTER: Can you tell us how many you are hoping to offer in 2016?

Dr Pigram : We are currently recruiting and we are in the interesting situation where, with the resource sector having turned down, instead of getting our usual 50-odd applicants we have 150 applicants this year that we are filtering through. We will make a decision on the total number of offers that we will make. We will probably make an offer of 10 geoscience graduates and we would expect to get eight or so acceptances. We will make an offer of two to three ICT graduates. In total we would make about 13 offers, I would expect, and we would probably bring in maybe 10 in total.

Senator KETTER: The next question goes to whether or not Geoscience Australia has ever attempted to quantify the economic benefit that it delivers to the nation through its provision of pretty competitive geoscience information.

Dr Pigram : We did attempt to do that in 2010-11. It is one of those interesting subjects where we have worked through that process using what we believed at the time was an appropriate methodology, a Treasury methodology. It was done by one of the consulting firms around town.

Senator KETTER: Is that publicly available?

Dr Pigram : Yes, it is. I can find a link for you, if you would like. I will take that on notice.

Senator KETTER: Yes, please.

Dr Pigram : It is a bit out of date, but that is the most recent study.

Senator KETTER: I have a series of questions in relation to whether or not you are involved in enterprise bargaining—

Dr Pigram : We are.

Senator KETTER: What is the status of the negotiations at the present time?

Dr Pigram : We have had a number of meetings with staff and with the unions through our workplace relations committee. We are yet to make an offer to staff. We are still negotiating with the Australian Public Service Commission to get approval for an offer. So we have yet to place an offer in front of staff.

Senator KETTER: Have staff undertaken protected industrial action?

Dr Pigram : They have. Yes.

Senator KETTER: What sort of action and how has it affected the organisation?

Dr Pigram : We were notified of an intent for action to be taken in relation to not answering emails in certain areas and taking time off and hours not working. Let me take this on notice and I will provide you with the details, but we understand that one individual has taken some action within the prescribed areas that were identified and formally approved by the Fair Work Commission.

Senator KETTER: Have you previously experienced a bargaining round as hard as this one?

Dr Pigram : We have had some interesting rounds. We had one a few years ago which was probably comparable to the one we are dealing with at the moment.

Senator KETTER: What do you think is different in this bargaining round from previous bargaining rounds?

Dr Pigram : The key issue for us has been to find the productivity savings to justify the level of offer we might make around salaries. You would appreciate, Senator, that we have been working in an environment where we have been subjected to the efficiency dividend—as everyone else has—and a range of other savings. We feel that we have been finding productivity savings on the way through. To find additional productivity savings has been somewhat challenging. But that is one of the issues that we are working on and are still attempting to have resolved through our negotiations with the Public Service Commission.

Senator KETTER: Okay. And is this having an impact on morale?

Dr Pigram : Not so much at this time, no.

Senator KETTER: Is it taking up the time and focus of your management team?

Dr Pigram : It certainly requires some effort on our part. It is not anything over and above what one would normally do in this environment.

Senator KETTER: Okay. And what would help you to resolve this bargaining round?

Dr Pigram : I think getting an opportunity to actually have a position that we could put to staff would help us progress the matter at this time.

Senator KETTER: Would a more realistic definition of 'productivity' also be of some assistance to progress the matter?

Dr Pigram : I think the definition of 'productivity' is understood. It is a matter of finding a way to apply it appropriately in an organisation like ours.

Senator KETTER: Has the APSC or the Minister for Employment sought your view as an agency head on what might resolve the matter?

Dr Pigram : No, not at this time.

Senator KETTER: Have you been told by the APSC or your minister about what you are allowed to say on this matter?

Dr Pigram : We are working within the same guidelines as everyone else in terms of negotiating.

Senator KETTER: Where do you see the bargaining process going from here?

Dr Pigram : The next steps for us are, as I said, to get an offer that we can put to staff—to get approval for an offer from the APSC and the minister so that we can put that to staff. That is the next step, which we would be hopeful of doing in short order.

Senator BUSHBY: Dr Pigram, we have discussed on a number of occasions the issue of coal seam gas and the concerns that a number of people in the community hold about the fracking processes and associated matters. You have given me what I presume is your objective analysis of that, so we will not go over all that again. What I would like to ask is: since the last time I asked you that, have you become aware of anything new that might have impacted on anything you have told us before? Particularly about any geological or environmental impacts, such as observed subsidence impacts on water tables et cetera.

Dr Pigram : No, I have not. As we have discussed on other occasions, as you have indicated, we have had a look at the issues from a scientific perspective and from an objective point of view. We have sought to understand what potential impacts might be around the activities associated with coal seam gas. We are not the regulator, so our knowledge about things that may have happened tend to be what is in the public domain and what we have been able to glean from our colleagues in the states and territories. Certainly, as of the end of last year, 2014, there are no discernible regional-scale trends in, say, the drop of groundwater pressure in any of the coal seam gas areas in Queensland, for example. And we are not aware of any subsidence being caused by any coal seam gas developments at this time.

In relation to subsidence, we do have a monitoring regime in place. We have put out a whole range of reflectors which will enable us to detect, using satellite technologies, whether any subsidence is taking place. But as I said, at this time we have not seen any—

Senator BUSHBY: If there were something happening, you would—

Dr Pigram : We would pick it up. That is correct.

Senator BUSHBY: Just for general information: what is the size of Australia's CSG resource? And how does it fit into the overall gas resource picture in Australia?

Dr Pigram : The most recent figures we have come from Australia's Energy Resource Assessment, that we completed in 2012 and then updated for the gas resource assessment. I can give you detailed figures, but if I give you the overall figure of an identified resource, the current identified resource figure for coal seam gas is 223,000 petajoules or 203 TCF. This compares with the conventional figure of 183,000 petajoules or 166 TCF. Currently, the identified resource in the coal seam gas context is slightly larger than the conventional resource.

Senator BUSHBY: So there is plenty of potential there, provided we can satisfy ourselves on the geological and environmental issues—and it sounds like you have not yet observed any problems.

Just a final question and then I think we will probably wrap up for the night. There have been reports of gas being found in dams, bores or even coming out with water in taps and things like that. Can you give any insights into any of that?

Dr Pigram : The major one in that space that gets a lot of publicity is the gas that was bubbling up through the river in southern Queensland, in the Balonne. That has been thoroughly investigated by the Queensland Chief Scientist. What was happening in that space is that the shallow sediments, the alluvial sediments, from the flood plain are sitting right on top of the coal measures that are being exploited for coal seam gas purposes. So they are much shallower than they are elsewhere in the system, and that leakage has been occurring for a long period of time. It was happening there before the coal seam activity started. However, it does appear that the combination of the groundwater bores and the coal seam gas activity has lowered the pressure, so there is more gas coming out. But in investigating that they also discovered that there have been reports dating back to the 1890s of methane in groundwater bores and in dams leaking from those natural sources. So it is not a new phenomenon; it has been known about for some time. It has not accelerated. The background levels are much as they have been throughout the last century.

Senator BUSHBY: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Dr Pigram and your officers, we thank you.

Committee adjourned at 20:26