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Senate Estimates: Bureau of Meteorology - CSG flaring and the Burrup.

Estimates & Committees
Larissa Waters 19 Nov 2013

Senator WATERS: I have just a few brief questions. Firstly, has the department ever asked the bureau for expert advice on specific major projects, particularly on proposed coal seam gas projects and whether there is any increased bushfire risk from these projects?

Dr de Brouwer: That is a question to the department. I am not aware of that, but we will come back.

Senator WATERS: Can you speak up? I cannot hear with other people talking.

Dr de Brouwer: I am not aware that we asked the Bureau of Meteorology for advice around coal seam or coal or mining projects. I will come back, but I am not aware of any requests to the bureau on that matter.

Senator WATERS: Has the bureau of its own volition advised the department on the bushfire risks of flaring CSG wells-as they do in the preproduction stage? It is obviously a clear bushfire risk.

Dr Vertessy: No, I am not aware of that.

Senator WATERS: Is this on anybody's radar?

Dr de Brouwer: I think the issues of flaring risk-and I will come back; Mr Knudson will come up. Those sorts of issues would be dealt with as part of the safety and the general conditions around the project.

Senator WATERS: Can you shed some light please?

Mr Knudson: The secretary is exactly correct. The only way that we would be taking a look at flaring would be if it is connected directly to an impact on a matter of national environment significance. The more general provisions with respect to noise, air quality et cetera are generally regulated by the states.

Senator WATERS: Which is why I directed the questions to the bureau, given that I would have thought they keep an eye on these sorts of things. Just to be absolutely clear, no-one from the bureau is looking at the increased bushfire risks from flaring coal seam gas wells?

Dr Vertessy: I am not aware of anything like that.

Senator WATERS: So the new government has not asked for that to be looked at?

Dr Vertessy: Not of the bureau, no.

Senator WATERS: No-one has in the past either?

Dr Vertessy: No.

Senator WATERS: Wow. Let's hope they change that sometime soon. Can you tell me more broadly what work BOM does on bushfire risk and bushfire mapping, planning or projections?

Dr Canterford: The bureau works with the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and agencies around Australia prior to the season to determine areas of bushfire risk. That would be based on our seasonal outlooks for the coming season plus input from fire agencies in terms of the fuel loads, curing and deployment of assets. That is a joint activity under the auspices of the cooperative research centre and that does look at risk of various areas of Australia prior to the season in terms of us getting prepared. Closer to the season we do provide briefings to most fire agencies regarding where we see conditions for fire weather which might affect particular parts of the country. We provide a briefing based on our knowledge of our forecasts for the season and also several days ahead. So we do talk about fire risk leading up to certain events and we can do that with our numerical weather prediction models which are achieving a lot better accuracy now. We provide that information also into the fire agencies who use that atmospheric profile and information to drive their fire behaviour modelling. That is what they use for determining maps of where fires may occur and where they might run.

Senator WATERS: So you are obviously looking at the risks and at things which influence what is likely to be a high risk area. Why are you not then looking at potential causes such as flaring of coal seam gas wells? How is that not a relevant risk factor?

Dr Vertessy: It is a good question. Our role is quite clear. It is really to observe climate and weather parameters. For instance, we do not systematically measure fuel loads. That is done by the fire agencies. If we were to look at flaring I suppose there would be other possible ignition sources that might fall into the frame as well. We are not really fire behaviour specialists. I do not see how it is relevant to our mission.

Senator WATERS: Who is it relevant to? Which agency should I be asking these questions of? I find it very alarming to think that nobody is looking at this. Surely somebody is looking at this.

Dr de Brouwer: It goes back down to if flaring may occur in a project and that would be subject to conditions either by the state or, if relevant, by the Commonwealth. They may in fact be state safety and fire issues, maybe even state conditions, that that would go back to.

Senator WATERS: No no-one federally beyond the significant impacts on matters of NES which were now about. Beyond that no-one is looking federally at the increased risk of bushfires from CSG flaring.

Dr de Brouwer: It is determined by the authority of the Commonwealth in these matters and on the EPBC that authority comes as a matter of national environmental significance, which comes from heads of power. For the Commonwealth to be involved it has to have a head of power-

Senator WATERS: Well for the environment department to be involved yes, it has to be an NES, but is there a different department. Pardon me: I could genuinely be missing something here.

Dr de Brouwer: Off the cuff, I think that one is a state issue.

Senator WATERS: That is a worry, considering the state that I am from. I have a few questions about the Burrup, again. I am asking these on behalf of Senator Ludlam, so bear with me, because I do not have the context that he has about these issues. I am aware that there have been industrial emissions threatening the Burrup. Apparently, the emissions in the area are so substantial that the Bureau of Meteorology's radar has picked them up as rainfall on clear days. Is that accurate and can you give me a bit of context around that?

Dr Vertessy: We are not familiar with the circumstances of that particular case, but it is not uncommon for radars to pick up all kinds of pollutants in the air: pollution from bushfires, for instance; I think we even pick up things from military exercises every now and again. It is conceivable that we could have picked up something here, but I am not familiar with that particular case.

Senator WATERS: It is detected and it is recorded as rain; is that what happens?

Dr Vertessy: No. To be specific, it is detected as something that the radar beam is reflected off. It is not necessarily rain. We get a lot of false returns. Part of the meteorologist's job is really to discern what is rainfall and what is not.

Senator WATERS: Do your meteorologists examine what it might be if you know it is a clear day and it is not raining, yet the radar is picking something up?

Dr Vertessy: No, we do not.

Senator WATERS: You mentioned some of the false readings that the meteorologists look at. How come they are not looking at this one?

Dr Vertessy: Probably the only time they would ever get looked at would be in a radar research project of some kind. Again, it is not really our job, I suppose, to deconvolute what all the things on a radar image could be. Our job is to provide a real-time estimate of rainfall, and that is pretty will where we stop.

Senator WATERS: Does the department follow that up at all under EPBC purview, given that it is a National Heritage site?

Mr Knudson: In respect of this particular project and its approvals, there was a condition put in place that requires the company prior to the commencement of reaction to have a pretty extensive air quality monitoring system. I know the stuff from my division visited the site within the last several weeks. They have seen that the equipment exists and is in place and that the proponent is collecting what is effectively baseline data on air quality. While the BoM might have the particular focus on whether systems et cetera, this condition was designed specifically to deal with the question that Senator Ludlam and you are raising.

Senator WATERS: I have a follow-up on that, Mr Knudson. The response to the question on notice that Senator Ludlam received this morning indicates that no conditions were placed on Woodside to mitigate the potential effects on the heritage values of these emissions. Are you are saying that there is air quality monitoring but then no conditions that would protect the site if anything was detected in that monitoring? Is that right? That seems a little strange to me.

Mr Knudson: The piece that I am familiar with is the air quality monitoring requirements. I would have to take the second part of the question on notice and come back and clarify.

Senator WATERS: If you would; it seems odd to monitor for something and detect it and then do nothing about it.

Mr Knudson: I understand.  

 

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