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Senator Larissa Waters' adjournment speech on Coal Seam Gas

I rise to talk about coal seam gas and why it is, sadly, only the Greens who are standing with communities to protect our land, our water and our climate from this untested scourge—which is, frankly, the last gasp of the fossil fuel industry.

Our most learned research bodies, the CSIRO and the National Water Commission, have said that we do not understand the long-term impacts of coal seam gas mining on our groundwater and our aquifers, and we do not know if we are doing irreversible damage. Likewise, we have no independent science to establish whether coal seam gas is actually cleaner than coal. We simply have industry claims, and the government continues to refuse to do its own independent studies.

The process involves punching holes in aquifers to get to coal seams. A mixture of water and hydraulic fracturing fluids is then blasted in to force the gas out of the seam. Those fracking fluids can contain toxic benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene—carcinogens—and the very process of fracturing and cracking the seam can release naturally occurring BTEX chemicals. So we have potential contamination of the water table and, with the punching of those holes, we have the potential to change the pressure dynamic, which could lead to a drop in the water table. So we are talking serious threats to our water, which underpins our best farmland. Of course, we have very little good-quality agricultural land in Australia and very little water.

I think it is time for a snapshot of where the other parties stand on coal seam gas, because there has been a bit of talk about it in the last couple of weeks. Suddenly all of the old parties care about coal seam gas because it is going near Western Sydney, where there are about 12 marginal seats, and it is an election year. I think an examination of some of the most recent of these statements is warranted. In New South Wales, the O'Farrell state government has belatedly acted. They have put in a two-kilometre zone for urban areas where coal seam gas mining cannot happen. That is great for urban folk. It is a bit late—but, hey, it is great! What about all of the regional and rural folk that are facing this scourge as well? Sadly, it is too little too late, and it does nothing to protect our food-producing land.

Off the back of that announcement, perplexingly, Paul Howes—factional heavyweight of the Labor Party and head of the Australian Workers Union—said that he thought coal seam gas was great and that the Labor government should remove any barriers that block coal seam gas development and embrace this fuel. That was a couple of days after he called the miners corporate robber barons, so I am a little confused about what exactly Mr Howes thinks of the mining industry.

Federally, Minister Burke has now weighed in, given those marginal seats in Sydney. I am afraid it is a bit rich for him to pretend that all of a sudden he is interested in this issue when he is the minister that has approved every single coal seam gas project that has come across his desk. The federal government often tries to say: 'This is a state issue. It's got nothing to do with us. We'd love to do something about it but we can't.' I am afraid that is just not the case. The Greens have bills to increase the federal environment minister's powers to properly deal with this issue and the government will not have a bar of them.

We have some freelancing backbenchers—Justine Elliot, from the Northern Rivers, has had to stand down from her position of Parliamentary Secretary for Trade to allegedly fight coal seam—

Senator Carol Brown: Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I remind the senator to address the member in the other House appropriately.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Moore ): Senator, it is Ms Elliot.

Senator WATERS: I believe she stood down. That is the point I am making.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Yes, but you have to call her by her title.

Senator WATERS: I do not think she holds that title any more.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Ms Elliot.

Senator WATERS: Sorry, I thought you said 'Minister'. Thank you for that correction. It would be nice if we had more senators with the title 'Ms' in this place, frankly. We need more women in parliament, but that is a matter for another night. Ms Elliot has resigned, allegedly to fight coal seam gas in her community. That is great, but her focus is now on the state government, who, she says, are not doing enough—and that is true: they are not doing enough—but how convenient it is that she leaves the federal government, her own government, out of the picture entirely. Again, the minister has approved every coal seam gas project that has come across his desk.

I thought it was somewhat amusing that Minister Albanese, who likewise jumped on the coal seam gas bandwagon, claimed it as his own win that Premier Barry O'Farrell had blocked coal seam gas in urban areas. He sent an email asking folk to congratulate Labor and to send the email on, but he got the name of the company wrong—rather embarrassing for Minister Albanese, and also very illustrative of the lack of interest that federal Labor has had in properly dealing with coal seam gas.

The opposition continues to back coal seam gas to the hilt. Mr Tony Abbott had a very brief moment in the sun, about 18 months ago, when he said landholders should have the right to say no to coal seam gas. Sadly, 24 hours later he changed his tune and backed down on that. What a depressing result that was, and what a tragic backflip.

Unfortunately, the Nationals released a coal seam gas policy about a year ago. I then moved a motion which contained much of that policy. Sadly, they did not come into the chamber to vote for their own policy. I think that folk in the bush would be very disappointed to know that they were not prepared to put their money where their mouths were.

The Nationals will have another chance on Thursday. I have yet another motion about coal seam gas—we Greens do not give up lightly—and it will be calling on all parties to take account of the science and stop this dangerous and risky industry. It will be very telling to see the position of the other parties when this motion comes to a vote on Thursday, if they bother to turn up.

Unlike the other parties, the Greens' position on coal seam gas has never been confused. We have always been crystal clear. We think that the risks of coal seam gas to our land, our water, our climate, our communities and, frankly, our reef—through which most of this stuff is exported, at least in Queensland—are simply too high. We do not know enough about this industry to know whether it is safe.

All indications are that in fact it is not safe and it is not much cleaner than coal, anyway. So, when the interim independent expert scientific committee on coal seam gas came before this chamber for tick off, we moved for amendments. We moved for a five-year moratorium that said: 'You've got a research committee. Great. Let's let that committee do its work—do that research—and understand better about the impacts of this industry before you issue any more approvals. Let's have that moratorium for five years to let the science get done.' Sadly, we got absolutely no support for that very sensible amendment.

I have also consistently called for some proper climate studies into the claims made about coal seam gas—industry claims that it is so clean and so much better than coal, never mind the farmland impacts! I am afraid we have no independent evidence to suggest that. In fact, we have evidence from other jurisdictions that shows that a similar style of gas—shale gas—is much dirtier because it leaks. It leaks out of the wells and it leaks out of the pipes. We could well have the same problem here and we need to investigate that.

I have two bills before this place that would properly deal with coal seam gas. The first would allow the federal environment minister to look at the water impacts of coal seam gas mining—and other large mining for that matter. At the moment he has this tenuous ability to regulate. He could still say no on the basis of his environment powers, but he does not have those water powers. So I am afraid we need to arm that office of the minister to do a better job to protect water from coal seam gas. Sadly, no-one agrees with the Greens on that point, and others in this chamber are happy to let the environment minister continue to approve coal seam gas projects without properly considering their water impacts. I think that is reckless in the extreme.

The other bill that I have before this place to deal with coal seam gas is a landholder rights bill. Thanks to Tony Abbott and his thought-bubble that lasted 24 hours—

Senator Williams: Mr Tony Abbott!

Senator WATERS: Mr Tony Abbott. Thank you for that correction, Senator. His thought-bubble lasted 24 hours. The bill would give farmers the right to say no, given the risks to their land. We think they should have the right to say no to this industry. We do not understand its long-term impacts. They should not have to risk their land and the future of their kids. Likewise, they should not have to risk the land that feeds us all—and that feeds the world, given that we are still a net food exporter.

I have introduced countless motions calling on the government to press 'pause' on coal seam gas. There will be another one on Thursday saying, 'This industry is just too dangerous; let's stop it.' This is not a state issue. We are talking about water resources—this country's water resources—that do not respect state boundaries. This has become a national issue, and I am afraid that it is well past time that the old parties started listening to the serious community concern that is being expressed on this issue—and not just in pockets of Queensland; this has gone everywhere now. There is a real uprising in rural communities, and they are being joined by city folk.

People do not want their land destroyed by this industry when we have alternative, cleaner energy sources. We only have one way of growing food and we only have this one water resource. We need to properly look after it. So the Greens will continue to do that. We are proud to stand with the community in their opposition to coal seam gas, and I will be proud, on Thursday, to bring yet another motion to this chamber, which will unfortunately probably expose the old parties' complicity and their continued support for this dirty fossil fuel.

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