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Speech on the CSG expert panel bill

Senator Larissa Waters speaks before the Senate about the dangers posed by coal seam gas mining and the failings of the expert panel being established to provide scientific advice on coal seam gas.

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (18:20): I rise to speak again on coal seam gas and I am pleased to have the opportunity to do so in this place because it is an issue of huge importance that communities right across the country continue to be incredibly concerned about. I will run through some of the reasons for that concern before turning to my concern at the changing position we have seen from the coalition on this issue. We have been banging on about coal seam gas and its problems ad nauseam for quite a long time now. The reason for that is that it is not just a risk to our groundwater and hence our food growing ability but it is also a risk to the climate, it is a risk to those regional communities and it is a risk to the Reef with most of it destined for export, requiring huge dredging for new ports to get all that liquefied natural gas out of port.

I remain concerned that when we have bodies like CSIRO and the National Water Commission who speak to us loudly and clearly and regularly review their advice and reiterate it, we still do not understand the long-term impacts of coal seam gas mining on groundwater resources because we do not know enough about the connectivity of aquifers and therefore we are potentially gambling with the long-term water supply for some of our food growing regions. Why on earth are we still steaming ahead giving this industry approvals? When we have unanswered questions that go fundamentally to where we get our water and food from in this country, surely that is an issue that everyone is concerned about. Why on earth are we still racing ahead and giving it approvals?

I now want to raise the litany of disasters that we have seen with coal seam gas—and these are not just concerns about long-term impacts; there have already been impacts. A few months back we saw gas bubbling up through the Condamine River close to a CSG mining operation. Of course, the company says it is not their fault, but the EPA, Queensland's environment department, were very slow to investigate. So it is hard to know what the real incidence is, but locals say this has never happened before. So one has to have suspicions. There was also the contamination of the Springbok aquifer with CSG mining operations back in 2009. The list goes on. There was the release of polluted waste water during the 2011 floods. There was a gas well blow-out and a drilling fluid leak near Chinchilla and there was the spill in the Pilliga Forest that I was privileged as a member of the Senate committee that Senator Heffernan chaired to go and inspect and see the damage that that CSG fluid had done to the local vegetation and the water in the creek that was flowing nearby. So despite this potential for damage and this potential for long-term damage and impact on our groundwater resources, Australian farmers still do not have the right to say no to coal seam gas. We think that is wrong, and we would like to give them that right. I have a bill to do that; but, unfortunately, it still remains lacking in support from either of the big parties. But, never mind; we shall persist.

I have three times now moved for a moratorium on coal seam gas until we understand better those risks that we are taking and those long-term impacts that we may have—potentially irreversible long-term impacts. Once again, unfortunately, the Greens have received no support from the coalition or the government for that moratorium. I also moved a motion which included an extract from the National's coal seam gas policy. Sadly, they did not come into the chamber to vote for their own policy—something which I find found very disappointing. I have also proposed an inquiry into coal seam gas—a national inquiry. It is not just one that will look at Murray-Darling Basin impacts, which this place has examined, but one that will actually look across the country, including shale gas in WA, which has the similar problems with hydraulic fracturing. It is one which will also look at those specific marine impacts from all of that dredging to dig new ports in order to get this gas out for export. And it is one which should consider the impact on household gas prices, given that much of that gas is now headed for the export market, which is putting pressure on domestic prices. Again, the Greens had no support on that, despite the fact that 68 per cent of the community are worried about the long-term impacts of coal seam gas and despite the fact that we all like to eat on a daily basis.

Senator Fifield: Nothing escapes you.

Senator WATERS: Well, food is a very important part of my life and I am proud of that. I would like to eat locally grown food and support our regional communities, as I am sure you would, Senator. That brings me to this bill. It is a very small improvement and, of course, that is why the Greens will be backing it. But, frankly, it is too little, too late. I am particularly concerned that there is not going to be a pause on coal seam gas approvals while this research committee does its research work. It seems to me to be patently ridiculous to charge a body with looking at the impacts of coal seam gas bioregionally, as we should be doing, yet not wait for its advice before more approvals are issued. I do not know whether anybody else thinks that is ridiculous. I think it is ridiculous. It flies in the face of the precautionary principle and it adds insult to injury that you bother setting up a committee and then not wait for its advice.

Senator Heffernan made the point—which is correct—that nobody actually has to listen to this committee. I wish that were not the case. I wish that were wrong. But, as we can see clearly from the National Partnerships Agreement, the state governments will only have to consider the advice of this committee. It will just be one of a list of considerations, and I am afraid as an environmental lawyer 'consider' is very weak. They can consider it and then they can decide to do something completely different. Effectively, they can ignore the advice of this committee, and they are getting paid $50 million each to boot. That is a very sweet deal for the states and, frankly, it is a very sweet deal for the government, who can now appear like they are doing something on coal seam gas when in reality this research body will have no impact at all on any of the approval decisions.

That brings me to the point about the limitations of our federal environmental laws and the fact that it is great that we have this science body who will now give the federal environment minister some advice on the water impacts of both coal seam gas and large coalmining but the environment minister will not have the power to act to protect our water resources. He only has the power given to him in that environment act for species, wetlands, World Heritage areas, Commonwealth waters, nuclear actions and the Great Barrier Reef—there is a list of about eight of them. Water is not on that list. So what good is this committee going to do to be providing advice to the federal minister that he cannot act on? I mean, for God's sake! Excuse my language, Chair. We need to give the environment minister power to act on the advice of this committee. If the committee says there are going to be long-term impacts on groundwater, our environment minister needs to be able to do something about that. This is why I have another bill on this matter before this place to give the minister the power to add that water trigger to our laws. I would urge all senators to reconsider their previous opposition to that bill, because it would certainly improve decision making.

I want to talk now about my disappointment in the backflip that we have seen from the coalition. We saw an amendment co-sponsored by Senator Xenophon, Senator Madigan, some coalition MPs and me to expand the purview of this research body to include land and its uses—that is, the impacts of coal and coal seam gas on land and its uses. It was quite a broad amendment and I was incredibly supportive of it. I had had a similar amendment which I had moved, but unfortunately it did not get support. So I was pleased to see that this slightly modified wording was then able to pass this place. I am very disappointed that the House saw fit to reject it. And I am dismayed that the coalition backflipped, changed their mind, and agreed with government on a much smaller amendment which was solely focused on the impacts of salt production and salinity.

Of course, salt is a huge problem and I do not for a moment claim that it is not. It is one of the largest problems with coal seam gas as well as those general groundwater contamination and depletion impacts. But my concern about limiting the scope of the committee to just salt production and salinity rather than the broader land and its uses, as this place originally insisted on and as the Greens will insist on again today, is that it excludes a whole lot of other impacts. It means this research body will now not be able to look at, for example, whether coal seam gas and farming can really co-exist, as the industry likes to claim at every opportunity but as producers say, 'No. In fact, that is an impossibility.'

It also means that this committee won't now look at the real impacts of subsidence from coal seam gas wells being sunk or from pipelines being laid for that matter, which is a massive problem both for farming operations and for the topography as it will lead to run-off problems.

Another issue that this committee will now be precluded from considering because of the unfortunate backflip by the coalition is a related issue: erosion from collapsing pipelines. I am sad to say that I have seen a few of those collapsed coal seam gas pipelines already—again on that Senate inquiry that I was privileged to participate in last year. Likewise, the impacts of land clearing for the roads, the pipelines and the wells themselves will now not be considered by this research committee. Interference with farming operations from coal seam gas will now not be considered. Fire safety and chemical storage, that now will not be considered. And, lastly, impacts from the actual infrastructure footprint of coal seam gas operations, which are significant—pipelines, roads, power lines, generators—will now not be considered.

We took evidence in that same Senate inquiry from some Darling Downs farmers who said that in fact the grid that was proposed for coal seam gas operations would inhibit their farming practices. They also said they had purchased some equipment that would have enabled more efficient and directed application of various fertilisers and pesticides, but they were now not able to use these because of the grid of the coal seam gas pipelines that would now be laid on their land. This is a direct example of where the surface impacts on farming from coal seam gas are going to be huge, and of course costly, for those farmers, not to mention costly for the environment.

All of this could have been considered by the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining; it could have been considered by that committee under the amendments that this place insisted on. And yet the House, and the backflip of the coalition in agreeing now with the government to constrain the breadth of that research back to just salt production and salinity, means that all of those impacts are now not going to be examined. I think it is a great shame that we have seen senators in this place speak out on those important issues, only to get rolled by their colleagues in the House. I am sure Senator Joyce in particular is dismayed that he has been rolled by Mr Abbott.

I want to conclude by saying that I was really pleased that as a result of that Senate inquiry there were some strong recommendations made. They were multiparty recommendations; everybody signed off on that report. In fact, there were recommendations for action on all of those land-use impacts that I just listed: recommendation 8, which talks about subsidence; recommendation 16, which talks about erosion from collapsing pipelines; recommendation 17, which talks about protecting strategic agricultural land from coal seam gas and having no-go zones; recommendation 20, which talks about fire safety and storage of chemicals on farmland; and recommendation 24, which talks about buffer zones for small communities subject to interference from coal seam gas. When this place and the House had the opportunity to put into action those recommendations, they squibbed it. They folded. They have been rolled. I think that is to the great disservice of all of the regional and urban communities out there who are really concerned about coal seam gas and who want to know that our groundwater, our land and our regional communities—and our reefs and our climate for that matter—are going to be properly considered in this absolutely unseemly rush to dig as many coal seam gas wells in this country as possible.

We will be insisting on those amendments. I would like to think we would have some company, but I suspect the two old parties will again remain with the coal seam gas and large coal mining industries and vote against proper scrutiny of all of those land-use impacts that this committee would otherwise have had the purview to look at.

For further information on Larissa's work on Coal Seam Gas, visit her campaign page.

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