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Thursday, 24 November 2016
Page: 3168


Senator WATERS (QueenslandCo-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (10:59): I rise with great pleasure to speak on my bill, the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill. Sadly, this is the third time in the last five years that we Greens have introduced a bill to give landholders some rights against huge fossil fuel companies, whether they are multinational coal mining companies or whether they are multinational coal seam gas or unconventional gas fracking companies. It is about time that landholders had some rights to refuse damaging activities on their land—particularly on their productive farmland, which we know we have very little of in this arid nation.

This bill would also ban the dangerous and risky process of fracking—an experiment with our land, with our geology, with our water; an experiment that we do not well understand and indeed that has been banned in many other countries. This bill would give landholders some rights to protect their land, their water, their communities, their health, and of course the climate, from the ravages of coal seam gas, shale gas and tight gas. It would ban the dangerous process of fracking.

This is not the first time we have had this debate—2011 was the first time I introduced this bill. Sadly, five years on, we see very little progress in this chamber. What I am pleased about is that we have seen some progress in state jurisdictions. I want to start by congratulating the Victorian state Labor government for their ban on fracking. They have just introduced legislation for that in their parliament this week. Of course many of their Labor colleagues around the country, most of whom are in opposition, have adopted similar policy positions to either ban fracking or, at the very least, have a moratorium on it. It seems that the tide is finally turning, and it is not a moment too soon because right around this country communities are being ravaged by this unfair balance of power—effectively David and Goliath battles with the gas and coal companies.

I am from Queensland, of course, where we have been at the epicentre of this destructive industry, where communities in the Darling Downs, in the west, right throughout our state, have been the test bunnies for this dangerous industry. Some of our best food producing land has been turned into open-cut coalmines. Some of our best food producing land and some of our well-settled regional communities have been turned into fracking pads, where communities' health is worsening, where local GPs have been silenced by coal seam gas companies and where the state government continues to turn a blind eye to the community impacts while utterly ignoring risks to our groundwater and hence to our future food productivity. It is an abominable situation in Queensland, and the one good thing that has come out of this is that other states have learned from our mistakes.

We have seen an amazing and inspirational community movement spring up, led by the Lock the Gate alliance, uniting many community members who feel that no-one is listening to them. The National Party in this place used to claim to represent the bush but now they just take the mining donations, and the two big parties also take generous donations from the fossil fuel companies. They have been deaf to the calls of those regional communities who are saying, 'We don't want to be test bunnies, we don't want the health of our children risked, we don't want our water stuffed up so that we can't keep producing the food that you eat and that this nation exports.' I do not know what it is going to take for those voices to finally be heard. We have been trying for five years to give voice to those concerns and give those people a voice in this chamber.

Sadly, every time this bill has come on for debate I have received no support. The last time we brought this bill to a vote we had the Labor, Liberal and National parties join to vote it down. They did not want to give landholders the right to protect their land and their water and the climate and their health—they wanted to let the gas and mining companies rip, because they keep getting those very generous donations. It seems we have had some progress at the state level, but unfortunately there is very little progress at this national level. I note the speaking list for today—we Greens are speaking in favour of the bill, and there are speakers from the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. No-one else on the crossbench is speaking up for residents against coal seam gas and unconventional gas. I think people around the country would be very disappointed that this issue is one on which the Greens have basically been alone in championing the community's voice. It is about time representatives in both this house and the other house started to represent the people again and not just the vested interests that make very generous donations to their re-election campaigns.

This bill, if passed, would use the constitutional abilities of this parliament to give landholders the right to refuse gas exploration, fracking or massive coal mines eating up their land; land that in some cases they have been on for generations and that they wish to pass on to their family. The bill would also ban fracking. I have talked a little bit about why that is such a dangerous process, and I have mentioned that many other nations have actually banned it. It is a process whereby billions of litres of water and chemicals and a proppant, usually sand, are blasted down through wells which go through aquifers, in order to get to where gas is held in either coal seams, shale or tight rock. Those fracking fluids are blasted down at high pressure to create fractures in those seams or in that rock, so that the gas can then be released and sucked back up. This is effectively an experiment with our geology which pierces our aquifers on the way down. If you can think of a more dangerous process in the driest inhabited continent on the planet, then you are doing better than I can, Madam Acting Deputy President. I cannot think of a riskier experiment to take with our most precious resource—which is, of course, fresh water.

It is no wonder that Canada and many other nations have banned this process. It is also why many of the state administrations, some in government—and I congratulate them—and others in opposition, have said that they do not want take the risk with our most precious resource. I would like to see federal Labor follow the lead of the Victorian state Labor government, and finally endorse this bill after five years of opposing it. I commend our state colleagues, with the exception of Queensland, for the progress that they have made. It is now time for some consistency. If the Victorian Andrews government can see that fracking is dangerous, and Premier Andrews does not want it in his state, then surely the federal Labor opposition can look at the same evidence and—ideally—reach the same conclusion. I would urge them to do so.

As for the National Party; sadly, we know that they have abandoned the bush and that they now represent the big miners and the gas companies who make those generous donations. We do not even have any Nationals in the chamber at this time when we are talking about giving landholders rights to protect their land against coal-seam gas and coal. What an absolutely tragic falling from grace that party has had on this issue—and they know it, because people in the bush are not voting for them anymore. If they know what is good for them, and if they actually care about land and water, then I would hope for their support on this bill, the Landholders’ Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill. But—sadly—usually either they do not show up or they leave before the vote. It seems that that will happen again today.

I have talked a little bit about Queensland, and I want to again express my disappointment that, whilst some of the Labor oppositions or administrations around the country have listened to the community, it is a real crying shame that the Queensland Labor government has not. In fact, they have enthusiastically opened up our state to even more fracking, right as the evidence is mounting that this is a dangerous practice, and one which we do not fully understand the health or water consequences of. Labor continues to approve hundreds of new CSG wells across the Darling Downs, like at Wandoan where they have just approved about 400 new wells on some of our best grain-growing country. Now, you cannot have coal-seam gas well pads, and the Swiss-cheese effect of well pads, pipelines, roads, diesel generators, and trucks in and out—you cannot have those things coexisting with food production. Indeed, some of the farmers have recently invested in precision agriculture for irrigation techniques. I commend them for that. But the CSG well pads interfere with the GPS technology on those pieces of equipment. It is impossible for those farmers to continue to farm in a sustainable manner—to farm at all—when their farm is pockmarked with CSG wells, pipelines, diesel generators and people crawling over the land at all hours of the day and night.

A couple of years ago, the resources minister in Queensland opened up 11,000 square kilometres of new land to explore for shale gas, threatening the Great Artesian Basin and the Channel Country. Clearly, when we are talking about the Great Artesian Basin, this is not just a problem for Queensland. This is a problem for the nation's water supply. We know that basin underpins much of our surface water supply. We also know that we have job-rich alternatives that can supply energy and do not risk—our land, our water, our communities, their health, the climate or the Great Barrier Reef—in the way that coal seam gas and other unconventional gas mining does.

The communities at Tara and Hopeland on the Darling Downs are still waiting for strategic air quality monitoring studies that were promised and then scrapped by the LNP government. They have not had a response or any action from the Queensland Labor government. Instead we hear statements from the Labor resources minister in Queensland that gas is the fuel of the future. Well, I have news for you: there is something that comes up every morning, goes down every night, does not cost a thing and does not make communities sick. That is where we should be investing our money. The new, exciting storage technologies for solar—whether they be molten salt, whether they be granite or whether they be batteries—can provide baseload clean power which is job rich and does not stuff up our industries or the health of our communities.

In terms of the climate, we know that the fugitive emissions from coal seam gas make it basically as dirty as coal. Many of the studies that have been done on shale gas in the US prove this point. Australia is quite early on in the studies that it has done into this issue, which is kind of alarming because you would think you would do those studies before you let the industry rip. But no, they are now belatedly looking at a small slice of that a good 10 years into the approvals that have flooded out from this government and the Queensland state government.

Fugitive emissions is the gas that leaks from those wells and pipes and in the course of the production and transport process for coal seam and other unconventional gas, and we have seen that those fugitive emissions have been estimated to be far lower than they should have been. A recent report by the Australia Institute shows that Australia's guesstimate—because that is all it is—of the climate impacts of those fugitive emissions is in fact far less than those of other nations. So our emissions factor is far lower than it should be, according to the science and according to the approach that many other nations take.

We have been waiting for four years now for the CSIRO research into fugitive emissions to properly study this. There has been one study that they have managed to complete so far, and they looked at 43 wells. We have about 6,000 wells in Queensland, and, of course, there are between 20,000 and 40,000 wells slated, according to international gas markets. It is unclear how many of those will go ahead, according to the strength of the community's opposition to those. So this single study looked at just 43 wells, and it did not even look at all stages of production. It looked at some highly prescribed parts of the production process, and the study itself concluded, 'Look, we have actually got to do more work before we can be confident in these conclusions. Don't extrapolate from this.' So we are still looking and we are still waiting.

GISERA—a geological body that is effectively a partnership between government and industry, because government underfunds it and so they need to go to industry for funding—have some interesting work underway, but they also have some coal and gas representatives that have effectively stacked their board. When you have research budgets that have five industry reps, three CSIRO reps and one government rep, with voting rights split 50-50 between industry and CSIRO as to who gets to decide on research, then, again, I find it very unhelpful and you can hardly call that an independent analysis.

I want to draw my remarks to a close, because we have some other speakers who would like to speak on this bill. I welcome that. It is great that we are getting some engagement. Let us hope that they speak in support of the bill, but I will not hold my breath. But I would like to take my chance just to congratulate the local campaigners in a handful of areas that have been resisting the might of these big, well-funded, cashed-up, politically-influential gas and mining companies—the little mobs of communities around the country that have the strength and courage to band together and say, 'No way. You are not coming on here to wreck my land. I want to keep growing food for this country, and I want my kids to have that option. I do not want you to poison our water.' I want to commend all of the campaigners in Victoria that led to the state Victorian government banning fracking this week. I want to shout out to the Northern Territory campaigners, many of whom are the traditional owners of the land. We have 80 per cent of the Northern Territory that is currently covered in oil and gas exploration licences. Much of that, of course, is Aboriginal land, and the campaign from those traditional owners, who have been joined by the graziers and other residents, has been absolutely inspirational. In the recent election this was a key issue, and the new Labor administration was forced, by the strength of that community voice and community opposition to gas and coal, to adopt a strong position for a moratorium, which we intend to hold them to now that they are forming government.

Unfortunately, the moratorium applies to fracking only during the production process, not during the exploration process, and we know that our groundwater does not make a distinction between production and exploration. So, we still have a way to go. And of course there is a proposal that is still on foot for the Northern Territory gas pipeline, which will plough through into Queensland and send more of our gas offshore to export markets, increasing the gas squeeze domestically and increasing the pressure on communities to be opened up for this dangerous process. So, I want to commend the Wakaya Aboriginal Land Trust for the resistance they have shown and let them know that we stand with them, that we have seen these campaigns win around Australia and that together we can win this one as well.

In the short time I have left I want to finish by commending the Queensland communities who have faced the brunt of this industry from the outset, with no support from government and with very little scientific information—because of course the government does not want us to know; if you do not look, then you can say, 'Oh, we're not really sure about the dangers; let's just push on anyway'. So much for the precautionary principle. I want to pay tribute to Helen Bender and her family, who lost their father, George Bender, a man I met on several occasions when he came and gave evidence at various Senate inquiries that I had often instigated or participated in. I want to pay tribute to their bravery and to their emblematic struggle, which represents the struggle that so many Queensland regional communities have had—whether they be at Tara, whether they be in the north drifts—who have stood up against the Queensland Gas Company and won and had fines for breaches of environmental conditions imposed. The health impacts on that family are devastating. Again, they represent just one family of so many that are facing the brunt of the inconsideration of this industry—the carelessness and the profit motive once again overriding communities.

It is time we gave these communities the right to say no to this dangerous experiment on their land and to stand up for their health, to stand up for our climate and to stand up for food production and the sanctity of water supply—that most crucial resource. So it is with great pleasure that I speak on this bill again today, and I would urge, again, the larger political parties not to just do what your donors want you to do. Just because they give you money does not mean the science is on their side. Please listen to the community and stand with them, protect their health, protect our land and our water and the climate from these dangerous fossil fuel industries. We have clean alternatives that can generate jobs and generate clean energy and they will not stuff up our agriculture, our reef or the health of our communities.