Australia’s surface and ancient groundwater systems are under threat
from significant and potentially irreversible impacts from the rash of mining
operations expanding across all our states and territories. Inappropriate
mining operations risk our environment, our food security, the viability of
diverse agricultural activities, and the sustainability of the groundwater
systems themselves - nationally important resources that do not respect state
This Bill gives the federal Environment Minister the power to refuse or
condition mining activities (including coal seam gas (CSG) activities) where
they would have a significant impact on our national water resources –
oversight so crucial for the protection of our farmland and natural
The Bill intentionally defines mining operations broadly to ensure that
any activities associated with mining that are likely to have a significant
impact on our groundwater or surface water are subject to assessment by the
federal Environment Minister.
Water resources are also broadly defined to ensure significant impacts
on all natural surface and groundwater systems are subject to federal
assessment, and these impacts include impacts not just on water levels, but the
quality, structural integrity or hydraulic balance of our water resources. This
means, for example, that the significant uncertainties around CSG’s potential
to pollute and deplete groundwater systems, and the significant risks
associated with the enormous quantities of salty brine extracted from wells,
will be properly considered by the federal Environment Minister.
The Bill also protects the integrity of our water resources from mining
activities, no matter what the tenure or land use – thus protecting water for
both current and future agricultural uses, as well as, critically,
environmental flows for our natural environment.
The inquiry heard a number of concerns to which the Australian Greens
would like to respond.
Concerns have been raised about the Bill’s commencement date, which is
to be from the date the Bill was introduced into the Senate – 1 November 2011.
As is clearly set out in the explanatory memorandum of the Bill, it is
acknowledged that under normal circumstances Bills commence on Royal Assent,
however in this instance retrospective commencement is needed to ensure
approvals for mining operations are not fast-tracked following introduction of
the Bill. This is to ensure all mining operations commencing after the day this
Bill is introduced are subject to Commonwealth assessment and approval where
these operations are likely to have a significant impact on Australia’s water
The current rampant expansion of mining activities across much of
Australia poses significant risks to our water resources and these are
currently being inadequately managed by the states and territories. In light of
this, and the time this Bill will take to become law, it is considered that the
public interest in ensuring adequate protection for our water resources
outweighs the inconvenience caused by retrospective commencement.
Some concern was also expressed about the fact that this bill is
industry specific – that is, targeted at mining activities likely to have a
significant impact on our water resources.
It is recognised that a broader trigger to protect water from all
deleterious activities could have merit. However the industry specific trigger
is proposed at this stage for two reasons. Firstly, the significant new risks
posed to Australia’s water resources due to the current rampant expansion of
the mining industry across Australia warrants particular focus and federal
oversight. As noted by CSIRO in the hearings:
The coal seam gas will, by very nature of extraction of
ground water, have an impact, as any extraction will. These are impacts that
relate to ground water resources through pressure changes, impacts of water
being brought to the surface and salt associated with that. The
depressurisation can also release gases into the aquifer. They are all impacts
that are caused by coal seam gas.
As it is a relatively new industry, whilst the processes are
understood, it takes some time to understand the properties associated with any
hydrogeological setting.... In a situation where you have done extraction for a
limited amount of time, you are working with less information and the
uncertainties are higher.
Mining operations can impact on ground water in much the same
say as coal seam gas.
Secondly, there are significant gaps and short comings in the states and
territories’ regulation of water in relation to mining activities, more so than
for other activities, as was heard in evidence before the committee.
The majority report notes that this is not the first time actions by a
specific industry have been the basis for a “trigger” under the Act. Nuclear
actions have been subject to federal regulation under the Act since its
Despite acknowledging that many farmers believe that this Bill may
benefit farmers, the National Farmers Federation (NFF) has failed to support
the Bill on the grounds that at some stage in the future this mining-specific
water trigger could be extended to agriculture. Any such change would naturally
have to pass through parliament and as such this seems like a rather misplaced
concern. We consider this Bill could deliver significant certainty and safety
for Australian farmers and we are surprised and disappointed that the NFF
doesn’t consider federal protection of Australian surface and groundwater from
mining activities as aligning directly with the interests of their membership.
It was also raised that the current reforms in this area are adequate.
Recent commitments to reform include a national harmonised regulatory framework
for coal seam gas through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), and the
agreement made between Prime Minister Gillard and Mr Tony Windsor MP of
November 2011 in regard to securing parliamentary support for the Mineral
Resources Rent Tax. This agreement involves the establishment of an Independent
Expert Scientific Panel to commission bioregional assessments of water
resources in priority areas, and provide scientific advice to state governments
in regulating (particularly) CSG and major coal mining projects.
While the Greens wholeheartedly support steps that ensure far better
science is available to inform decision-making in relation to all mining
activities, we believe these reforms and the bioregional assessments would
result in stronger outcomes for our environment and the agricultural sector if
the federal government also had legislative responsibility for protecting our
surface and groundwater. It is simply not enough to rely on States agreeing to
sign up to higher, nationally consistent standards for regulating these
industries, and to act on the advice of a federally funded expert body, given
state governments’ poor track records in protecting our water to date.
The Greens are also concerned at the timeframe for rolling out such
arrangements through each and every state legislature, when we are faced with
the rapid expansion of diverse mining activities across Australia -
particularly CSG. As noted in the inquiry’s hearings by NFF, COAG processes are
This is supported by the National Water Initiatives 3rd biennial assessment
released last year which found that many important actions under the NWI are
not complete, that political commitment and leadership have been variable, and
bureaucratic processes at the COAG level have been slow and lacking in
We consider that the federal government must play a role in protecting
our water from mining and coal seam gas now, which is what this bill will
Lastly we note the agreement between Prime Minister Gillard and Mr
Windsor MP set out that if COAG is unable to finalise a National Partnership
Agreement at its first meeting in 2012, then the Commonwealth will introduce a
Commonwealth trigger to assess the cumulative impacts of extractive industries
on water resources. This is an important commitment but we would like to see it
implemented both promptly and properly - that’s what this bill will do.
The Australian Greens believe our precious surface and groundwater
resources need and deserve federal protection. This is what this bill proposes.
The Australian Greens recommend that this bill be passed.
Senator Larissa Waters
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