Mr COULTON (Parkes–The Nationals Chief Whip) (18:31): I rise this evening 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. This bill establishes the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. The committee’s role will be to provide scientific advice to governments on relevant coal seam gas and large scale coal seam mining projects and to fund water resource assessment for priority regions.
Coal seam gas exploration and coalmining are big issues in my electorate. Over the last couple of years we have seen development of coal mines in quite a few areas of my electorate and, in recent times, exploration for coal seam gas. One of the great problems that we have, particularly with coal seam gas, is a lack of independent information as to what actually lies beneath the surface, and as to what effect the gas extraction will have on those resources. While this bill does not actually propose a change to the environmental laws through the EPBC Act, it will set up the committee and, hopefully, start to garner some of the information that is desperately needed in this debate.
While this bill affects the whole of Australia-we are in a federal parliament-it is particularly relevant to my electorate because, while coal seam gas exploration and extraction has been undertaken in Queensland for some years, it is a relatively new industry to the Parkes electorate. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the debate has become quite heated and has polarised many of the communities in my electorate. One of the reasons that there is so much heat in this debate and that communities are so divided is, I think, largely due to a lack of information or, probably, the peddling of incorrect information.
I believe that the long-term role of the area that I represent will be in agricultural production. I believe that the farmers in my electorate will have the ability to be feeding the world in 1,000 or 2,000 years time, just as the farmers of the Ganges, of the Nile and of other ancient civilisations have done. That has got to be the underlying premise that underpins everything we do. The other great issue that we as a nation, and as a world, confront is our finite energy resources. The coal seam gas reserves under northern New South Wales are enormous. Ultimately, we cannot ignore that resource or what it would mean for the economy of this country, or what it could mean to the people in that area.
Unfortunately-and this committee, I hope, will overcome what I am to speak of next-the nature of the location of these gas reserves and the landscape above them is extremely variable. I went up into Central Queensland the week before last to see for myself. I went into the electorate of Maranoa to have a firsthand look at this industry and where it is developing in Queensland. I saw the full spectrum of what the positives and negatives are. In some places in western Queensland, I saw where there seems to be a co-existence between the two industries, between grazing and gas, and it seems to be working quite well.
On the other side, on the Darling Downs, there were laser levelled irrigation fields and much more intensive agriculture, which was set up there because of huge amounts of underground water. I had grave concerns about what was being proposed in that area. In one property I went to, the distance between the irrigation aquifer and the coal seam was only five metres. There were great concerns there-things like the fact that gas pipes have a weight limit over them, as it was told to me, of 10 tonnes. A lot of agricultural machinery now weighs more than that; a cotton-picker, for example, weighs 30 tonnes. There is a whole range of issues there. We need to be sure exactly what is under there and we need to be sure that it will not have a long-term impact. As previous speakers have said, a lot of these access issues are in the hands of the state government. I acknowledge that the New South Wales government is endeavouring to deal with this issue. They have put out a draft proposal, and it has been met with a lot of discussion and quite some criticism. But it is a starting point. They were starting from having no policy at all and having to deal with petroleum exploration licences that were handed out willy-nilly by the previous government. I am quite hopeful that, as they take on board the criticism of their draft and deal with stakeholders, they may come up with a policy that is suitable. Undoubtedly there are some areas where gas and agriculture cannot coexist. But I believe there are other areas where they can coexist, provided it can be guaranteed that it will not have a negative effect on aquifers.
It seems to me from my trip to Queensland that there are three basic issues in the cycle of dealing with coal seam gas. One is the exploration stage-and that is the issue we are dealing with now in Narrabri, Moree, Tooraweenah and Coonabarabran. One of the concerns is that the landholders realise that the exploration company is not the company that will ultimately do the drilling and extract the gas. There is a concern that there will not be a continuation of an arrangement between two parties and that the information will be sold on to another company that may extract gas. So I believe that there needs to be an agreement on the exploration side of it that does not lead to any expectation that the landholder needs to be involved in the next stage.
With the implementation stage, the construction stage, one of the things I have noticed is that it can be incredibly disruptive, particularly if the contractors that are doing this work do not understand the nature of the agriculture business and are not respectful of the rights of the landholder and his or her management practices on their property. I think there needs to be considerable compensation in the construction phase, which can take quite a few years. And the final stage is the extraction phase. Once the well is in place-and the wells are not on a huge area-presumably the compressor stations would be suitably located on areas that are not prime agricultural land.
But this bill is not to cover those issues. This bill is just to give information that will help sort this process out to either stop this industry in its tracks, where that needs to be done, or to help give greater understanding of how it might coexist, depending on what the case may be.
The other issue is that we are looking at environmental laws. A couple of years ago the member for New England was to introduce an amendment to the EPBC Act. One of my concerns is that the federal government is responsible for water-and that is obviously where that legislation would fit in with water-but, because of the variability of landscape and the variability of the resource underneath, it is going to be incredibly difficult to put in environmental laws that will protect what needs to be protected but allow enough flexibility to take into account the different circumstances in different locations.
Traditionally, environmental laws have not been a friend of farmers. My concern is that, in an effort to solve one problem, we may create another one. I do have an issue with excluding certain areas because, looking into the future, if the scientific evidence comes in that coal seam gas mining can go ahead in certain areas, if the process has been refined so it is not as intrusive and if there is a regular, reliable and suitable amount of compensation to the farmers, I do not think we would be thought highly of if we had excluded certain areas from taking part in an industry that may have been of some benefit to them.
But the real issue is that, regardless of what income may be garnered for farmers, for the country or for gas itself, if it is going to have a long-term negative environmental effect then it needs to be stopped and cannot go ahead. But if it is shown that it is not going to destroy the aquifers and it is not going to affect the productivity of the land, and if there is agreement with the farmer, there needs to be a suitable return.
One of the things I saw on my visits to Queensland the week before last was that there are a lot of people making a lot of money out of the resource industry and some of the deals that have been offered to farmers have been incredibly poor. I am speaking generally here. Some companies have a better record than others, and we saw that from speaking to individuals there, and some farmers who were quite prepared to be involved in the industry were also quite disappointed in some of the problems that arose during the process even though they were quite keen to be involved in it.
This is a red-hot issue across Australia and it is a red-hot issue in my electorate. I am pleased to support this bill. An amendment to be put in by the coalition does not substantially change this bill. We do need independent information, because one of the issues now is that a lot of information is in the hands of resource companies and-without casting any aspersions on that-that level of independence of information is very important. The lack of that information is also glaringly obvious.
It will be interesting to see the Namoi water study, which does cover part of my electorate and maybe part of the member for New England’s electorate. It is probably one of the first genuine attempts to get a clear picture of the interconnectedness of our underground aquifers. That report should be out very soon and there will be a lot of interest in what that report shows. But we do have a long way to go. We do need that information, we do need to protect our environment and we do need to protect our farmers’ rights. As a nation, we do have a responsibility to harness whatever resources we can in a sustainable fashion.