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Environment and Communications References Committee
Regulatory framework governing water use by the extractive industry

MINCHIN, Dr Stuart, Chief, Environmental Geoscience Division, Geoscience Australia


CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has your written submission. I invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we will ask questions.

Dr Minchin : I will make this pretty brief. The submission is available to you. I guess what I would point out is some of the key things that we highlighted in the submission. First of all, there is real value in the consistent application of the assessment of cumulative impacts across the nation. That has been an outcome of this legislation over time, so that is a real positive. We do note, however, that there is no particularly scientific reason for treating coal and coal seam gas any differently to any other water extracting activity, whether it be other mining, agriculture, town water supply et cetera. We have highlighted that it's our view that it should be the size of the extraction that counts rather than what industry it is going to.

We also highlight a number of other more technical points around the importance of understanding numerical modelling uncertainty in assessing environmental impact statements. There is still a lot of science to be done in understanding cumulative impacts and developing the baselines for that. Water monitoring and management plans are really critical in tracking and dealing with that uncertainty that will inevitably arise around impacts. Actually keeping track of the impacts is very important, and making sure that those water monitoring and management plans are effective is very important.

Also, I've pointed out the long-term issue of mine closure and how you deal with the aftermath. The timeframes for groundwater are often very long for actually understanding what the ongoing monitoring requirements are once the mine is closed and the extraction has taken place. I'll stop there. I'm happy to answer any questions.

CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Minchin. Let's start with that last point in terms of the ongoing impacts. Your submission also notes that the groundwater impacts may take years or decades to become apparent and that we need to have a regulatory system that accounts for that. What's the situation under the current regulatory regime? How long is monitoring and compliance currently occurring?

Dr Minchin : It would probably be best to ask the regulators that. As a broad-brush statement, a lot of the activity is left to individual state jurisdictions in terms of long-term monitoring. What we're suggesting is that it actually be built into the planning for the activity itself so that there is a commitment, if you like, to some long-term monitoring after the closure of the mine rather than that being the point at which that responsibility rests with the state.

CHAIR: And who should bear responsibility for that ongoing monitoring?

Dr Minchin : I guess we don't have a particular view on that. That's not a scientific question; that's really a policy question.

CHAIR: Right. In terms of how that should be funded as well?

Dr Minchin : That's a policy question, I'm afraid.

CHAIR: Basically, you know that it should occur and you leave it to the policymakers to decide who should do it.

Dr Minchin : Yes. Just to be clear, Geoscience Australia is a science agency; we don't have a role in setting policy. What we're trying to say is, 'Here are some objective issues to do with the science.' How the policymakers choose to address those issues is really up to them. What we can advise on is what the impacts of a particular policy can be.

CHAIR: From that scientific perspective, can you expand on what sort of ongoing monitoring is required?

Dr Minchin : It really depends on the individual development. I think in our submission we noted that in the case of an open cut mine there is dewatering that goes on for the lifetime of the mine, but even after the mine has been closed that pit, if you like, can act as a sink for groundwater. Understanding what those impacts are in the longer term is important. We also highlighted the importance of acid mine drainage as a concern. When you're actually extracting resources from the ground you can expose sulphide minerals that can cause acidic leaching and other problems. It really depends on the style of interaction and the style of impact. Many extractive programs do have some risks associated with that longer-term impact on the environment that need to be monitored and understood.

CHAIR: How well assessed can those likely impacts be at the beginning of the project? Would it be a regime where at the end of the project you would make a final decision about what the ongoing monitoring would be?

Dr Minchin : I guess this is where our point about the numeric modelling uncertainty comes in. You can model these impacts. Every model, however, has uncertainties associated with it. The best way to deal with those uncertainties is to have a monitoring program in place so that you're tracking what the actual impacts are and whether they're tracking according to a particular assumption that's been made in the original modelling that was done.

CHAIR: On the numerical modelling, tell us what your views are about the accuracy and reliability of the current models.

Dr Minchin : Again, it's a very difficult question to answer, because it will be different depending on the model and depending on the situation. However, I guess what we're pointing out is that quite often proponents will undertake modelling and present the outcomes of that modelling without being explicit about the uncertainties associated with that, so consequently there's poor understanding. The regulators are having to make decisions at times without really understanding the level of uncertainty associated with those models. What we're suggesting is that there's more explicit recognition of that uncertainty and an explicit definition of that uncertainty, so that people making decisions understand the range of possibilities that could play out within the environment.

CHAIR: If the regulators then decide that this uncertainty is far too extreme, they'd then have to require further research to be done to try and reduce that level of uncertainty?

Dr Minchin : They have a number of choices. They could ask for further work to be done. They could take a risk-based approach and manage that risk through a tighter monitoring environment where you're basically using the monitoring to be an indicator of whether the model outcomes are being followed or not. The point we're making about the water monitoring and management plans is that quite often these developments will go ahead before there's a long enough period of baseline information and that's probably entirely appropriate, because it can take years to get that baseline. It's then very important that you use that monitoring information to provide adaptive feedback to the regulation.

CHAIR: One of the positions, for example, that Lock the Gate just put to us is that you then run the risk of being at a point of no return. Then you find out that the impacts are at the much more significant end of the spectrum than was expected when the approval was given. How do you think our regulatory frameworks should deal with that problem?

Dr Minchin : We highlight this issue around the water monitoring, and having some consistent guidelines for the proponents about where they should place that monitoring to give early warning before irreversible impacts occur, and how to design monitoring to tackle those impacts early, so that you're not finding out after the fact. That's why we suggest that it's of critical importance in getting those water monitoring and management plans right and keeping on monitoring their success.

CHAIR: We've had it put to us that, in fact, there are insufficient resources being put into that monitoring, so even where you've got a regime of monitoring that's put in place it's not being adhered to. Do you have any views as to—

Dr Minchin : I don't have any particular views on that. I guess that will differ depending on the particular development and the proponents involved. I'm sure the regulators will have a view on that as well.

CHAIR: Your submission notes, and we've been discussing, that establishing scientific baseline data to assess impacts, and particularly potential cumulative impacts of water projects across the regions, is really challenging. The regulatory models for dealing with the cumulative impacts need further assessment. Can you expand on what you think needs to happen there?

Dr Minchin : I guess the cumulative impact is something that can be both a temporal issue and a spatial issue. I will use an analogy: the straw that broke the camel's back. If you're that last straw then you can rightly argue that one straw is not going to make a difference when there are thousands of them on the camel's back, but if you're that last straw then you will make a difference. All we can do as scientists is try to identify the range at which that issue will break the camel's back, and give some certainty that it is going to be somewhere between one and 10 straws that is going to cause the issue.

The big issue for the industry generally is that they look at other extractions that have happened in previous times, in that period, and they say, 'Hang on, this person got to extract 10 straws and I'm only allowed one. Where's the equity?' That is really where policy has to play that role. We can only try as best we can to understand what the point of no return issues are and what a sustainable number of straws is.

CHAIR: It is trickier for the water being extracted through mining industries compared with, say, irrigation or a water licence for an irrigation take, for example—we have a water licence, so you can tell a person who wants it in an agricultural context that they just have to go and buy that amount of water from somebody else if they want to use that amount of water. But often the take for extractive industries is not controllable.

Dr Minchin : That is really a policy question or comment. We would highlight that the states have very different legislation around this stuff. Whether the water is being used for a coal mine or a coal seam gas development, or whether it is being extracted for agriculture or some other use, fundamentally doesn't change the fact that it is being used from that water resource. So, there are other factors that society might make decisions on—the value of that water and how it is being used for social and economic benefit—but they are not things that we comment on. There is nothing fundamentally different to water extraction for one purpose than another, in terms of the impact on the resource.

CHAIR: But do you acknowledge that the difference is that if you have an agricultural take from a bore, say, you take that much and then you can turn it off. Whereas, if you have the extractive industry take, say, having tapped into the aquifer, or if you are leaving a pit from a coal mine that is then drawing water into it, you cannot just turn it off.

Dr Minchin : It really depends on the type of development. We pointed out in our submission the issue with an open cut mine. There is a continual potential drain in the future, but other types of development, like coal seam gas, can be turned off. It is just the same as a farmer turning off the bore. It is very difficult to generalise in that way. Water extraction is water extraction. There may be long-term impacts from water extraction, both in the mining and energy area, as well as there are in the agricultural area. Reduction of pressure in aquifers has been a long-term issue for the country, in terms of agricultural extraction. So, it is not just this industry that is causing the issues with groundwater use. There are very different regulatory regimes dealing with groundwater than with surface water in the different states and territories.

CHAIR: Regarding the regulatory models, particularly for dealing with the cumulative impacts, what are your views on the different regulatory regimes across the different states and territories?

Dr Minchin : I don't have any particular views. Again, that is for the policymakers to decide. I would point out—and we do point this out in our submission—that those legislative controls are quite different in different states and territories. There is a table in there highlighting the different approaches taken by the different states and territories. What we have got with this legislation with the EPBC Act is an overlay that is consistent at the national level for that. But there are quite different approaches, and prior to this legislation those different approaches resulted in quite different outcomes.

CHAIR: Would it be of value to have those regulatory models streamlined across the country?

Dr Minchin : I am sure you are getting input from industry and other proponents on that. Again, we are a science agency. We will tell you the outcome of a particular policy and the impact it will have on the environment but we really don't comment on what is the best policy, because policy is really a balance of the social, economic and environmental outcomes. It is the role of government and not the role of science to do that balance.

Senator DUNIAM: On Geoscience Australia's role in terms of working with state and territory entities, given the different ways states and territories manage these issues in each of their jurisdictions, what advice does Geoscience Australia provide, or do you provide any advice to the state and territory organisations that look after it at their level?

Dr Minchin : We are certainly available to provide advice when asked to. We tend to provide most of our advice to Commonwealth agencies. We regularly provide advice on water to the environment department, to agriculture and to others—

Senator DUNIAM: And those agencies may well provide advice then to their equivalent agencies in the states and territories?

Dr Minchin : Yes, exactly. We do work closely with our state colleagues on a technical basis, but we tend not to directly provide advice to regulators in the states. But in the overlay of the Commonwealth coming in we inevitably get involved in providing advice on the technical aspects of some of these proposals as they come through the Commonwealth process.

CHAIR: Going back to adaptive management and shifting the regulatory responsibility to make sure that the monitoring occurs through water monitoring and management plans, do you want to expand on what you see as being the strengths and weaknesses of that occurring?

Dr Minchin : I think we pointed out in our submission that often developments will be given approval, subject to a water monitoring and management plan, which is appropriate in terms of actually then using that monitoring to provide early warning of impacts as they occur. We have pointed out that sometimes the time frame given to regulators to assess those documents when they get provided by the proponent is very short. But there is a lot of technical analysis that needs to go into that. We have pointed out that that can be a constraint, in terms of properly assessing those things. We have also pointed out that—

CHAIR: Why are those time lines short?

CHAIR: To minimise the regulatory burden on industry, I think. I suspect that is how they came out with those time lines originally. We have also pointed out that actually having that monitoring data available more broadly and more quickly would be beneficial. Often you will receive a report from the proponent detailing the findings, but getting access to the actual data to do your own assessment on what the data says can be quite tricky.

CHAIR: Is that deliberately withheld?

Dr Minchin : I don't believe so. We just haven't set up the processes to make it easy for proponents to provide that. And the expectation has not been there that that stuff gets routinely delivered. Given the importance of those plans, we are suggesting that finding a way to make sure that that data is as transparent as possible would be valuable.

CHAIR: Would you want to see that data publicly available as well?

Dr Minchin : I think that would be appropriate for transparency.

CHAIR: In terms of the water monitoring and management plans being such a key regulatory tool and then relying upon making decisions based upon what comes out of that monitoring, does that impact on—we discussed it a bit earlier—how potential impacts on water resources may be inadequately addressed because of that?

Dr Minchin : Again, it is difficult to generalise, but a properly designed water monitoring and management plan would target its monitoring at key locations and times that are likely to show early warning of potential impacts and/or to constrain uncertainties around the original modelling that was done. So, without having those plans properly monitored and delivered, there is a risk, as you said before, Senator, that you find out a bit too late that there's an issue. Coming back to the original point, a lot of our decisions—because of the sparsity of the scientific information we have about the groundwater systems themselves, the structure of those systems and how they are connected—really rely on an adaptive approach, and the modelling that's done in order to make the initial decision will contain many assumptions. Testing those assumptions requires some ongoing monitoring to make sure that you're really keeping track of the things that are most likely to be indicators that you've got the modelling wrong in the first place.

CHAIR: Do you think that, overall, there is a case, and, if so, how strong is the case, that there needs to be more thorough background, baseline research done before a project is potentially approved?

Dr Minchin : What you're seeing with programs like the Geological and Bioregional Assessments program is an attempt by the Commonwealth to get some baseline information for these regions on the cumulative impact baseline, if you like, and the situation, and to look at broadscale issues around the likelihood of there being a problem with a particular development. So I think that's a really good step, but it is at a regional scale. With a particular proponent, of course, that needs to be brought down to a more local scale relating to the particular aquifers or impacts that that particular development is likely to have.

CHAIR: Is Geoscience Australia involved in doing those bioregional assessments?

Dr Minchin : Yes, we're a key partner in that process.

CHAIR: How much actual, on-the-ground, extra research is being done as part of those assessments?

Dr Minchin : It depends on what you mean by 'research'. The bioregional assessment program is very significant in terms of actually taking into account the existing knowledge. It's really a comprehensive pulling together of all the known data in these regions, including data from proponents and from industry, where that's available, to give us the best available picture of what we know about the groundwater in the region and then, combined with some stochastic modelling processes, looking at what the potential risks of particular coal resource developments might be, whether coalmines or coal seam gas developments. It's looking at a broad regional scale, but it's giving us a range of impacts so that then regulators can use that as a guide as to whether there is very unlikely to be an impact in this location or there's actually a risk there that they need to put some tighter controls and monitoring around to make sure that they are aware of any early warning of impact.

CHAIR: Is there any actual extra data gathering—underground observation or monitoring, with bores being put down and that sort of stuff?

Dr Minchin : Very small amounts. There were not resources to do a whole lot of on-ground work. It's very expensive to drill a bore, for example. It's the first time that this kind of comprehensive baseline picture, and the flow-on impacts to environmental receptors like wetlands and other environmental assets, has been done in this way. It's a very significant and, I daresay, world-leading kind of approach in pulling together all of that knowledge in a given region.

CHAIR: Are you identifying regions where there is not enough knowledge for you to be able to get an adequate picture?

Dr Minchin : Not really. From past work, there's always some knowledge. What we often find and have found in the Bioregional Assessment Program is that identifying where there are likely to be resources that will be exploited is the first step. If there's no interest in developing coal or coalmines in a particular area, then you can pretty much cross out that there's going to be any development of that—

CHAIR: They might be exacerbating the value of groundwater resources!

Dr Minchin : Fantastic! But that's not the purpose of the program. Effectively, what they do is develop a coal resource development pathway and work out where there are likely to be future requests for access to those resources. That quite significantly narrows down the areas to focus on. That's been the basis of the program.

CHAIR: So, in those areas, there has been enough—

Dr Minchin : As a scientist, there's always a wish to do more. But, from a policy perspective in government, we can't let perfection be the enemy of the good. Decisions have to be made. What we're trying to do is make sure that those decisions are made on the best available evidence.

CHAIR: Finally, I want to ask you about your comment on the water trigger in your submission. You say:

… there is no scientific reason to regulate potential impacts to water resources differently …

and that the applicability of the water trigger should be based purely on the potential water impacts of a project, not on the type of project occurring. What would be the practical effect of expanding the water trigger to apply to any extractive projects that may have a potential impact on water resources?

Dr Minchin : We're not necessarily suggesting that there should be an expansion of the water trigger. We're saying that a consistent approach is desirable, whether that's to consistently not apply it or to consistently apply it to everyone. We don't have any view either way. What we're pointing out is that, under that legislation, an open cut mine for coal is currently treated differently to an open cut mine for any other resource. A small water extraction for a coalmine or coal seam gas will trigger the trigger, whereas a very large extraction for agriculture won't trigger that trigger. These are inconsistencies that don't make any objective sense from a scientific point of view, but may make good sense for social and economic reasons. We don't comment on that; we're just pointing out that there's no scientific reason why you would treat those extractions differently.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence today, Dr Minchin, and for the submission from Geoscience Australia.

Dr Minchin : Thank you very much.