Australian Greens — Additional Comments
The Australian Greens have long raised the serious concerns of the
Australian community about the rapid and destructive expansion of the coal and
coal seam gas industries. For far too long governments have privileged resource
corporations over the well-being of local communities, and Australia's long
term future. The unbridled acceleration of these fossil fuel industries is
worsening climate change, risking valuable farmland, damaging our precious
water resources, and putting pressure on regional towns.
We welcome this bill, however note it is too late to save the many
Queensland communities now finding themselves surrounded by coal seam gas
developments. The current Environment Minister, on announcing this bill
recognised that "Australia's water resources are among our most vital
natural resources and it is important that we ensure they are protected".
Yet within the month prior to that statement, the Minister had approved three
coal mines (Boggabri, Maules Creek and Tarrawonga) and the large coal seam gas
mining project at Gloucester. Within only two months of becoming national
Environment Minister, Minister Burke approved the first two huge coal seam gas
mining projects in Queensland, despite significant scientific uncertainties
about the impacts of coal seam gas on our groundwater.
In 2011 the Australian Greens introduced a bill that would protect our
national water resources. Our bill, the Environment Protection and
Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Protecting Australia's Water Resources)
Bill 2011, would require that mining operations require Commonwealth
approval if they will have, or are likely to have, significant impact on the
quality, structural integrity or hydraulic balance of a water resource; and
impose penalties. The Government refused to support this bill, and now 18
months of additional assessments and approvals have been allowed to pass
without national protection for our water.
The Government had a clear opportunity to act to nationally protect
water when they introduced the bill to establish the Independent Expert
Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development in
2012. During consideration of that bill the Greens called on the Government to
step up and put in place proper national protection for our water resources.
They did not.
Clearly this national protection for our nation's water resources is
The Greens particularly welcome the amendment adopted by the House of
Representatives that will ensure that this new national protection for water
must remain the responsibility of the national Environment Minister. This will
ensure that this new federal protection for Australia's water resources cannot
be handed straight back to the states, who have mismanaged these fossil fuel
industries and ignored the potentially devastating water impacts for years. The
states cannot be trusted to act in the national interest - which is why this
amendment needs to be extended to all nationally protected places and species, to
ensure the Commonwealth continues to have the final say on Australia's most
environmentally damaging developments.
The huge, potentially irreversible risks of handing responsibility for
protecting our most precious species and wild places to the states (under
arrangements called 'approvals bilateral agreements') to state governments were
extensively explored in the Senate's recent inquiry into a private members bill
proposed by the Greens: the Environment Protection and Biodiversity
Conservation Amendment (Retaining Federal Approval Powers) Bill 2012. The
inquiry into this bill heard from the community, environment experts,
economists and lawyers alike - all called for federal environment
responsibilities to remain with the federal Environment Minister.
The committee inquiring into that bill found that:
- Most submitters expressed grave concern about the risks to the
environment associated with granting approval powers to the states and
territories. [para 2.1]
- The committee was presented with no compelling evidence to show
how an approval agreement would improve business efficiency [para 2.12]
- The committee is concerned that if the Commonwealth were to lose
its oversight and approval power in relation to matters for national
environmental significance, this may encourage competitive federalism [para
And most importantly:
- The committee's view is that it is not appropriate for the states
and territories to exercise decision making powers for approvals in relation to
matters of national environmental significance. [para 2.47]
In supporting the House of Representatives amendment to ensure this new
national protection for Australia's water resources cannot be handed straight
back to the states, the Government confirmed the crucial importance of ongoing
national responsibility for protecting our most precious environmental
Protection of our most precious species and wild places is no different
to protection of Australia's water resources - these responsibilities must
remain with the federal Environment Minister.
The Coalition, however, has a stated commitment, that should it win
government among the first order of business will be handing this crucial
responsibility of assessing and approving Australia's most environmentally
damaging projects to state governments. This policy commitment, reiterated
regularly, is set out clearly in the Coalition's recently released Our Plan:
Real solutions for all Australians.
In light of the Coalition's clear commitment to abandon our environment
to the states, failing to act now makes the Labor Government complicit in any
such handover should Mr Abbott win government later this year.
The Australian Greens have circulated an amendment that, if adopted,
would ensure that responsibility for all nationally protected species and wild
places remains with our national Environment Minister.
For consistent treatment of all nationally protected environment
matters, and critically, for the protection of these species and wild places
for generations to come, the Greens implore all Senators to support this
The Australian Greens have a number of other concerns which we will be
seeking to address through amendments.
We are proposing an amendment which makes aspects of this bill apply
retrospectively to a number of major coal seam gas projects and coal mines that
Minister Burke has already approved. This is important as only one month before
introducing this bill the Minister approved four big potentially very risky
projects in New South Wales-the Gloucester coal seam gas mine, and the Maules
Creek, Boggabri and Tarrawonga coal mines. Work has not yet commenced on these
projects, so it is not too late for the water impacts of these massive projects
to be properly assessed under our national environment laws. For the three big
Queensland coal seam gas projects approved by the minister more than two years
ago, work has already commenced. However what is needed is for the water
impacts of those projects to be properly assessed and publicly reported. The
Government and decision makers can then use that information about water
impacts to inform future decisions about any further coal seam gas
We are also proposing an amendment which would give landowners and
occupiers across Australia the right to say no to coal seam gas and large coal
mines on their land.
Using the corporations power under the Constitution, this amendment
would stop the federal Environment Minister from approving a coal or coal seam
gas project being assessed under our national environment laws unless the
Minister was satisfied that the landowner and any occupier of the land had:
- obtained independent advice in relation to the likely impacts of
the taking of the action;
- had obtained independent legal advice; and
- had freely given informed consent in relation to the coal or coal
seam gas project.
Importantly, this amendment would not change the principle that
ownership of minerals rest with the crown. The state will continue to own
minerals, however this amendment would give landholders the right to protect
their land from the uncertainty of long term impacts on water resources should
they decide the risks are simply too great. If governments want to extract the
resource, they can still use their acquisition powers to buy out the landholder,
so the amendment would not prevent development of these resources at all costs
- but it does lift the bar to better protect our agricultural communities.
As stated above, as all coal and coal seam gas projects can be expected
to be developed by constitutional corporations there is no Constitutional
obstacle to the Commonwealth using that head of power to put in place
nationally consistent protection for Australia landholders. We are sadly very
confident that if left to state governments our landholders will be without
this basic protection for decades to come.
It is also important to note that this landholder rights requirement is
additional to, rather a substitute for, the thorough impact assessments that
are needed to ensure that both on-farm and off farm impacts of coal seam gas
and coal projects (on our agricultural communities and the natural environment)
are properly considered by decision makers.
In addition to allowing landholders the right to deem the risk of coal
and coal seam gas as too high, this bill would also greatly strengthen the
negotiating position of Australian landholders who chose to negotiate with
multinational resource companies about resource development on their land. Far
too many of Queensland's farmers have been forced to negotiate without having
the choice to walk away.
There is community outrage across Australia about the grossly
inequitable situation far too many Australian farmers currently face when
multinational companies come knocking, seeking to develop coal and coal seam
gas projects on their land.
Amending this bill is a clear opportunity to deal with this issue, and
ensure farmers across Australia have the right to say no.
The bill currently limits the extent of this water protection to
significant impacts from coal and coal seam gas activities. The Greens are
proposing that this new water protection should extend to impacts from shale
and tight gas mining, and underground coal gasification. We are concerned that
these nascent fossil fuel industries also pose significant risks to our water
resources requiring proper national scrutiny. Western Australia for example, is
estimated to hold 288 trillion cubic feet of shale gas - approximately twice
the gas that is held in Western Australia's extensive offshore areas.
Rather than being on the back foot yet again, scrambling to patch
together protections after significant projects have already been waved through
without adequate scrutiny, the Government should act now to protect our water
from these industries. This amendment would see us take a precautionary
approach to new, potentially high risk industries. However the Gillard
Government's proclivity to embracing high risk approaches to regulating high
risk industries (such as the questionable use of 'adaptive management' and
their love of 'conditional approvals') suggests that national leadership on
this issue is sadly very unlikely.
The Australian Greens support this bill, however recommend that the
Senate adopt amendments proposed by the Greens which:
1. Ensure consistent treatment of all nationally protected species and wild
places, and ensure that responsibility for assessing and approving Australia's
most environmentally damaging projects must remain with the federal Environment
2. Give landholders the right to say no to coal and coal seam gas
developments proceeding on their land.
3. Require that the water impacts of recently approved coal and coal seam
gas projects which will significantly impact our water resources are subjected
to proper scrutiny under our national environment laws.
4. Extend this protection for our national water resources to include
significant impacts from shale and tight gas mining, and underground coal
Senator Larissa Waters
Australian Greens spokesperson for mining
Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page