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Speech: Coal Seam Gas

Lee Rhiannon 19 Mar 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:25): The contributions that we have heard from the two previous senators, representing Labor and the coalition, show how enormously out of touch they are with what is happening in Australia today. There is an enormous shift in public understanding and public opinion about how we should look after our farming land, how we should protect our environment, how we should deliver our energy and where we can create jobs. The depth of misunderstanding and misrepresentation that we have heard from the two previous speakers is really breathtaking and once again underlines why this motion is so important. Yet again we are going to see Labor, Liberal and the Nationals voting together in a very backward way on such an important issue.

Senator O'Sullivan: It's called a democratic majority.

Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge yet again Senator O'Sullivan from Queensland is here making his interjections in a way that really reinforces how out of touch he is.

Much of this motion is about the situation in New South Wales, which, along with Queensland, is to the forefront of this coal rush that is potentially set to destroy so many areas. It is worth remembering why people are so angry with the Baird Liberal-National government. This is a government which is coming forward with some shocking coal projects. While it was the former Labor government that weakened the planning process, with support from the then coalition opposition, and approved many of the exploration licences for the mines and coal seam gas projects I will deal with, it is now the Baird government that is allowing these mines to go ahead.

It is the Baird government that approved the Shenhua Watermark mine on the Liverpool Plains and the Maules Creek coalmines. Then there is the Wallarah 2 coalmine, where they broke a very clear election promise from 2011, when then Premier Barry O'Farrell had his photo taken, along with a whole number of colleagues, illustrating his opposition to the Wallarah 2 coalmine. But then they broke that promise and gave that mine approval. That one is to proceed. Then there is the Warkworth coalmine, a real monster. This is where Rio Tinto is in action. If it is allowed to go ahead, it will destroy the township of Bulga, but the government have come up with their crazy plan of wanting to move that township.

Everything you look at when it comes to coalmine approvals from the Baird government shows what a damaging track they are on. On top of that, we have the Narrabri Gas Project and fracking just 700 metres from homes in the beautiful Gloucester region. The government are moving so fast because they are under pressure from coal seam gas companies and coalmining companies that want approval very quickly. They can see the world is turning its back on these dangerous fossil fuels. They want to get in quickly before the price of these fossil fuels drops even further.

I said in my opening remarks how out of touch Labor, Liberal and Nationals MPs are. This has been shown in communities that have been impacted by these forms of mining, particularly around the Tamworth-Liverpool Plains area. A poll taken by Lock the Gate Alliance earlier this year showed that 87 per cent of respondents were concerned about the risks of coal seam gas mining, 83 per cent said landholders should have the right to say no to mining and 66 per cent were opposed any coalmines on the Liverpool Plains. Strong opposition is growing around the country. People are understanding what is going on here.

I was fortunate to have the mining portfolio for the Greens when I was in the New South Wales parliament. It was hard going on this issue in the early 2000s. Understandably, people were only just starting to be informed. Awareness was only just starting to build that there were other ways to deliver our energy and other ways to ensure we could have manufacturing based on clean methods. Continuing concern was demonstrated about a week ago, again in the Liverpool Plains area-and it is very relevant to this debate-where more than 700 people came together from 87 communities in the north-west to declare a 'gasfield-free' area. These 87 communities stretched across north-west New South Wales, covering three million hectares-from Tamworth up to Gunnedah, right up to the Queensland border and then west of Walgett. It is very impressive that so many people came together: Indigenous people, farmers, people from Queensland and people from far-flung areas are coming together to demonstrate their deep concern. Why was it done so close to Liverpool Plains? The real worry now is that this China Shenhua mine could go ahead, posing a risk to incredibly rich farming land. If you have not been there, you really should go. I have spent a lot of time in western New South Wales, but the richness of this soil was such a pleasure to see. The productivity of this land is really exceptional, with, in some areas, 40 per cent higher productivity than the average across the country.

One of the farmers who spoke at this gathering was Andrew Pursehouse. His farm would be surrounded by the Chinese owned Shenhua coalmine if were to go ahead. He spoke in ways that everybody should hear. He spelt it out, saying that had been a member of the National Party and that he had voted for the National Party, for Mr Anderson, in the 2011 state election. He said that this time he would be voting for the Independent candidate, Peter Draper. These are his words:

The Nationals are asleep at the wheel and not prepared to stand up against their Liberal colleagues to represent their constituents.
Those words ring loud around this chamber, because that is what we see all the time. Australia would be such a healthier democracy if the Nationals had the courage to break ranks with their Liberal colleagues and to stand up in this place for what they try and make out to farmers and their constituents in rural areas. The inconsistency is massive. There is another wonderful quote here from Mr Andrew Pursehouse, when he says:

As a farmer, we're not against mining, it's just in the wrong spot. You just don't put a toilet in the middle of your best farming country.
So what is happening on the Liverpool Plains? The pressure is really on. BHP Billiton is looking to mine just 10 kilometres from the Shenhua mine. If it goes ahead, they would look to take out 500 million tonnes of coal. Santos has gas exploration across the whole of the Liverpool Plains flood plain. That is such a massive area. China Shenhua has its exploration across 190 square kilometres of this prime agricultural land and the ridges where the valuable water sources feed into.

Just last week I was at Tambar Springs, also on the Liverpool Plains. I have been there many times, listening to the farmers and hearing about their concerns, which are extensive. The pressure that these people are under, when they just want to get on and do their job in this wonderful area-really, you should just not sacrifice productive farming land. Farming land, under no circumstances, should be mined or developed on. Where the world is now, we cannot afford that. It was a very informative trip. When I talked to people during my days there, the issue of ICAC came up again. My colleague Senator Christine Milne spoke in great detail in a very important contribution on this issue. I would again like to share with senators a very important finding of the ICAC report Reducing the opportunities and incentives for corruption in the state's management of coal resources. While this is referring to what happened under the former Labor government, it should be seen as a warning bell for what is happening now. The report stated:

In preparing this report, the question facing the Commission was not simply how the state's policy and regulatory framework could allow coal Els-
exploration licences-

of great value to be corruptly provided to favoured recipients, but how it could have been so easy to do so. It is inconceivable that in any other portfolio area of government such value could be corruptly transferred from the state to favoured individuals with such relative ease.
There it is-'how it could have been so easy to do so'. We are talking about corruption on a grand scale here. How was it so easy? My concern, shared by many of the people that I meet when I work in western New South Wales, is that that continues.

Because it is so hard to find out what is going on now, some of the recent history in relation to the Liverpool Plains is very relevant. It was back in the mid-2000s when the now disgraced, and found to be corrupt, former mining minister Ian Macdonald was riding high in the then Labor government. How he pulled this off, we still do not know. He comes up with this: getting huge payouts for exploration licences from coal companies. Remember, we are just talking about exploration here. Accordingly, I remember Ian Macdonald so often answering my questions that I would ask in the New South Wales upper house: 'It's just exploration; there's no guarantee that they will be granted full rights to mine; we've got a robust process.' He would always be making those grand statements. But what he did was get huge amounts of money, hundreds of millions of dollars out of BHP Billiton and out of China Shenhua just for exploring. My office found at the time that the highest fee for an exploration licence prior to what Mr Macdonald pulled off had been $10 million. But here we had BHP Billiton paying $125 million for an exploration licence at Caroona on the Liverpool Plains, and China Shenhua paying $300 million. That certainly suggested why Mr Macdonald got away with so much-because he found this way to pull in big money for the then New South Wales Labor government.

But what was the deal done to achieve that? These companies did not give so much money-and we found out that China Shenhua actually handed over more money-without there being some arrangements. What we found was that China Shenhua also guaranteed they would invest $170 million for transport infrastructure and an additional $200 million if the mining lease was eventually granted. That is a huge amount of money when supposedly China Shenhua was not guaranteed that it was going to get a coalmine.

What you saw then was how China Shenhua conducts itself once the exploration starts. It really made a fuss of the planning process that we have in New South Wales for coal mining. Remember the planning process that we have was signed off by the joint vote of Liberal, Labor and Nationals solidly voting time and time again to weaken the laws around mining and planning in New South Wales.

Why I say it is a farce is because so quickly was China Shenhua out there taking action that to any casual observer, particularly the people of the Liverpool Plains-every time I am there, these are the stories they relate-China Shenhua was absolutely confident that they had it in the bag, that exploration was just the first stage of full-scale approval. China Shenhua was buying up huge amounts of prime agricultural land, buying up water licences. As we know, China Shenhua is well known for operating its own railways, ports and power plants. I am not sure where the money is coming from.

Again it was told to me, and I saw some of it when I was there recently, that so much of this upgrade of infrastructure around Gunnedah and those railway lines is proceeding. The Greens are great backers of public transport. But if money has already been put in by China Shenhua, it again raises real concerns: Why are they pushing ahead in putting in hundreds of million dollars when they have not got final approval for the mine?

We then need to look at Mr Macdonald's record. What was agreed to when all this money was handed over? He made five work related trips to China: one in 2005, one in 2007 and three between January 2008 and July 2009. There are very few details about what happened at that time. Local member Barnaby Joyce is regularly out there talking up his commitment to this area. But what was the agreement after making all those trips?

The local talk is that there were agreements around fast tracking the process, that they would be free to buy up farmland, free to buy water licences. If push comes to shove and they really get locked down, where they will be able to mine is on the ridges surrounding this beautiful flood plain of rich agricultural land. There are so many unanswered questions that we should get to the bottom of.

I do congratulate former lower House member, Tony Windsor, for the work that he has done in this area. What we see coming into this New South Wales state election is that clearly the Baird government have been under pressure because it looked like a decision could be made on China Shenhua literally on the eve of the election. What did the federal environment minister, Mr Hunt, do? He stepped in with the statement that he was going to stop the clock on the project and that they would use the water trigger there.

Tony Windsor set out some very clear questions that this government should answer on how it is conducting this water trigger. One of the big ones, something that the Greens call for regularly and that the community groups are calling for, is that when you start examining the impact of a mine in an area, you need to look at the cumulative impacts and clearly that is essential on the Liverpool Plains. In my opening remarks, I talked about the pressure this area is under from Santos, from BHP Billiton, from China Shenhua. You cannot just look at one mine. So is that part of how they are conducting themselves?

Mr Windsor also asked what exactly is Mr Hunt asking the independent expert scientific committee to review? Considering that under the water trigger, the significance of an action has to be considered with other developments past, present and the foreseeable future, will they be looking at the cumulative impacts? These things need to go hand-in-hand together. Another question Mr Windsor asked was: will the IESC carry out the bioregional assessment of the impact of the proposed mine on the Namoi catchment as originally discussed? Those questions are on the public record and this government should be answering them.

I also want to pay tribute to my colleague in the New South Wales state parliament, Jeremy Buckingham, who has revealed some interesting developments with Labor just recently where they did actually return $2,200 of money given to the Labor Party to Santos. But what has not been returned is $90,000 given to federal Labor. As Mr Buckingham has pointed out, what a contradiction. He has called on that money to be returned, and I know that some of the locals are saying that this is money that should be put to good use.

We are talking about massive donations here. Since 1998 the Labor Party has received about $4 million in donations from the resource and energy sector and the Liberal and National parties have received about $9.5 million from the resource sector. These figures are from the past 15 years. Santos alone has donated $1.3 million and AGL over half a million dollars. And in 2013-14, donations from mining companies to the federal coalition increased by 350 per cent on the previous year.

That was in an election year, but it is significant that such a huge jump occurred. It goes to the point that Senator Christine Milne made: what is the link here between the companies giving the money and the political party that gains office, and how do they weaken the laws to make it easier for these companies to make a profit? This motion should be supported; it goes to the very heart of the type of Australia that we need to build-free of corruption and with clean energy, plentiful jobs and clean manufacturing.


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