SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia): (12:37):I trust that is due respect being shown to the chair from the other side of the chamber. It is a pleasure to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012. I assure the chamber that that will be the last time I read the full title of the bill. This bill establishes the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. Hereafter I will refer to it as ‘the committee’, given that I do not think the acronym IESCCSGLCMD is terribly likely to catch on. I do note, though, that the Senate committee in its inquiry elected to go with the slightly less cumbersome ‘IESC’ but ‘the committee’ will suffice here.

The committee will have a number of functions relating to the consideration and better understanding of the impact on our water resources of both coal seam gas developments and large coalmining developments. All of us in this place are aware that there is a very significant level of community concern, which has seen us arrive at the point of the establishment of this committee. I acknowledge that the processes involved in the committee’s establishment have been undertaken in a relatively cooperative way across different parts of the political divide. The committee will provide scientific advice to government ministers-whether Commonwealth, state or territory-at their request in relation to proposed coal seam gas developments or large coalmining developments that are likely to have a significant impact on water resources.

The committee will also provide advice to government ministers at their request about how bioregional assessments should be conducted in areas where such developments are either proposed or being carried out. It will provide advice about priorities for research projects to improve scientific understanding of the impacts of such developments on water resources; it will publish information about improving the consistency and comparability of such research and about the standards for protecting water resources from the impacts of such developments; and it will collect, analyse, interpret and disseminate scientific information in relation to the impacts of these developments on our water resources.

The bill requires the Commonwealth environment minister to obtain advice from the committee in relation to coal seam gas development or large coalmining development in certain circumstances where the minister believes that the development is likely to have a significant impact on water resources and where the development may have an adverse impact on a matter protected by a provision of part 3 of the EPBC Act-essentially any matter of national environmental significance.

Finally, the committee is part of a framework which also involves, through COAG, the establishment of the National Partnership Agreement on Coal Seam Gas and Large Scale Coal Mining Development. This agreement came into effect on 14 February 2012 and was signed by the Commonwealth government as well as the governments of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The technology to extract coal seam gas, or gas from coal seams, has been in existence for some period of time-decades, even-but it is only in relatively recent years that coal seam gas development has occurred in Australia. The coal seam gas industry is in the process of growing substantially and has seen very rapid growth, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales. Already around 90 per cent of Queensland’s gas is supplied from coal seam gas operations, and there is an expectation that in Queensland alone the industry will deliver around 18,000 jobs and around $850 million annually in royalties. We are dealing with a very significant industry and an industry with the potential to make a significant contribution. Nationally, coal seam gas represents approximately 10 per cent of Australia’s gas production.

As coal seam gas and the coal seam gas industry have grown, and proposals for it have grown even further, the public debate has also grown quite considerably, as I noted in my remarks at the outset. The debate around coal seam gas operations and environmental impacts has especially focused on the impact that coal seam gas operations have on groundwater resources. I have been involved in some aspects of this debate and am aware of many of these issues. Back in 2009 I chaired one of the earliest parliamentary inquiries that looked into these concerns-the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts References Committee inquiry into the impacts of mining in the Murray-Darling Basin. It included hearings in Gunnedah in New South Wales and in Oakey in Queensland, and it reported in December 2009.

The committee made a number of proper and fitting recommendations to state governments, given that it is state governments who have the responsibility for the land management issues associated with mining and mining exploration. I do hope that participants in this debate will continue to remember and reflect upon the point that it is indeed the power and the domain of the states in this Commonwealth of ours to legislate and regulate the primary areas of mining and minerals exploration and development. During the inquiry there were some recommendations directed to the Commonwealth government. I place on the record, and I certainly hope that the minister responds when concluding this debate, that it concerns me that nearly three years after the conclusion of that inquiry a response from the government remains outstanding. It is little wonder that community concern about the operation of the coal seam gas industry is heightened, when they see processes of this Senate and of the parliament undertaken but then ignored by the government in terms of any responses being forthcoming from the government. It is commonplace and the expectation of this Senate that the government will respond to recommendations of Senate inquiries.

IN CONTINUATION 9/10/12 16:41

I do want to address a few matters, including some of your comments, Senator Conroy, but I want to pick up Senator Xenophon’s comments, in particular on the constitutional issues, and the comments of Senator Waters on some of the more general themes, and to highlight the challenge when it comes to this legislation and the issue of coal seam gas more generally. Senator Xenophon, I am sure, is correct in the advice he is relying upon from our esteemed Deputy Clerk.

Indeed. We get unanimous agreement around the chamber on that for Mr Pye. The advice may indicate that certain changes to this bill may be constitutional; however, what I hear when I listen to Senator Waters and other contributors to this debate, and indeed to many commentators in this space, is that people do want to see an exercise of power by the Commonwealth that goes far beyond what was intended in the drafting of our Constitution. I think that is a concern. We do need to appreciate that the challenge we have in this debate is that there are many passionate contributors. We have heard from Senator Heffernan, and most undoubtedly he is one. Senator Nash is another on this side. There are those who are passionate about this topic, and I know that Senator Xenophon, Senator Madigan and Senator Waters are equally as passionate about this topic. But we do have a clash where we have land use powers that are traditionally the domain of the states and that many are seeking to have legislated or dealt with at a federal level. That is a challenge.

I unfortunately missed the opportunity to have carriage of this legislation at that time but here I am now, getting to deal with it. If you listened to the rant from Senator Conroy, though, you would think that the legislation that has come back to us is in exactly the form that the government first presented it. That is not the case.

However, there has been a lot of concern particular to water, and it is the concern about groundwater that has seen this legislation brought forward. When I listened to the rant from Senator Conroy before-unfortunately, I was not here for the two sitting weeks prior to this week.

I acknowledge that, notwithstanding Senator Conroy’s theatrics, Minister Burke has worked cooperatively with coalition members in the other place to get amendments-initially amendments to this legislation that we believed improved the bill and the credibility of the committee in terms of the qualifications and expertise of the members of the committee; and then following the changes that were made in the Senate there are further amendments, particularly in relation to salinity. I will quote from Minister Burke in his contributions to make clear that in fact we are accepting and the Senate will accept not the exact amendments that the Senate had agreed upon last time but some important changes that do in particular reflect the concerns Senator Heffernan had about salinity issues and that he spoke on so passionately before. Quoting Minister Burke:

The amendments I am proposing now clarify a few things. First of all, they clarify that I must obtain advice from the committee when I believe a coal seam gas or large coalmining development will have a significant impact on water resources, including but not limited to the impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity.

Salt production and consequent salinity impacts are major issues in considering coal seam gas and large-scale coalmining proposals. Salt and related salinity impacts may arise from co-produced water during coal seam gas development, including aquifer interactions and groundwater and surface water diversions from large coalmining developments. They are therefore relevant considerations in working out whether these developments will have a significant impact on water resources. The amendments make it clear that the coal seam gas Committee will have to consider the impact of salt production and/or salinity.

So there are some changes and they are important changes. I think what I can say is that, inelegant though perhaps the law-making process in this regard has been at times, the process has provided and produced a better outcome as a result-a better outcome that sees a stronger committee, a more credible committee, and indeed a committee that will now also ensure the minister must consider and be advised not just on groundwater factors but specifically on salinity factors overall.

With that, can I indicate that the coalition is happy with the amendments that have been brought back by the government and that we will support the passage of this legislation. We have always wanted to see the passage of this legislation. We know that this at least will provide a basis to develop, hopefully, a credible expert platform of information about groundwater and the impact on groundwater by coal seam gas operations. We hope that it will provide the community with greater certainty and greater confidence in this important industry that is important for Australia’s export industries, for our energy needs and for our future but does need to enjoy a level of confidence in the community that its environmental impacts are not adverse and that they have all, of course, been considered. We welcome the strengthening of this legislation that the parliamentary process has provided for.