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Speech: Coal Seam Gas Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 22 Sep 2011

Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011, Thursday 22 September 2011

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:32): I am very pleased to speak to the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011 and I warmly congratulate Senator Larissa Waters on her initiative. The Greens bill will achieve a goal for which the Greens have campaigned for many years, and that has been clearly set out by Senator Waters. We are working with many farmers, environmentalists and the wider public to ensure that coal seam gas companies gain consent from farmers prior to entering their properties to carry out exploration activities for coal seam gas and to get a number of protections in place. We clearly need balance in how the mining industry operates in this country.

As I think all senators would be aware, more and more communities are becoming deeply troubled about the activities of the coal seam gas industry. In New South Wales, the industry's hunger for new coal seam gas exploration areas has seen a push into both prime agricultural land and even Sydney suburbs. Landholders must have the right to say no and must be able to make informed choices about whether or not they want to risk the exploration of their land. For decades, Labor and the coalition parties when in government have failed to bring balance to how the mining industry operates. The Greens position, as we have already heard in this debate, is often distorted by others. In no way are we talking about shutting down the mining industry. It is about bringing balance, and that is what Senator Waters' bill will achieve if it is passed.

I will deal with some of the misinformation that has already been put forward in this debate. We have had speakers from Labor and the coalition parties and already we see a whole series of arguments trotted out, put forward so that these parties can avoid doing the right thing by farming communities and the wider environment. One of the popular arguments—and I saw this when I was in the New South Wales parliament—is buck-passing between the federal and state governments. Here we have federal senators saying we should leave this up to the states.

The states are doing a bad job—I will come to that in detail—and that is very clear to see. Groundwater and food security clearly need to be national issues. This legislation provides the means for us to achieve the important protection that is needed. This bill is not a replacement for state regulation. It provides an additional tier of protection, and that is the essence of this argument that the senators from Labor and the coalition need to recognise before they come forward with their dishonest arguments.

Another area that needs to be addressed concerns climate change. We need independent Australian coal seam studies to determine the climate change implications. The government should not take the industry's word for it because at the moment the studies that have been trotted out are from industry. Another point where we see distortion in the arguments from the other parties is that this bill does not alter the ownership of the minerals and gas, which remain vested in the states. The bill does not affect the ability of the federal and state governments to compulsorily acquire the land with appropriate compensation. So I ask senators who are coming in on this debate to be accurate about the information that they put forward and not throw up smokescreens to try to justify why their party is not going to support this important legislation.

As I mentioned, this is a huge issue in New South Wales. Communities have become more informed and, as their awareness increases, their concerns certainly are growing. In New South Wales, the public opposition to coal seam gas mining, and particularly to the controversial method of fracking with its associated toxicity, has built to such a strong point that we are seeing wide collaboration between farming communities, environmentalists and urban communities. There is a recognition that the economic and health impacts are just not worth the risk. I understand that many people who are actively working in this campaign do support a total ban on coal seam gas mining in New South Wales. Local government is not embracing coal seam gas proposals. Motions supporting a moratorium have been passed by many affected councils. They have been left with little choice but to oppose this activity because they are not properly informed about the immediate risks of long-term impacts either by the government or the industry. Just yesterday the first day of a New South Wales state parliamentary inquiry was held at Alstonville. The Sydney Morning Herald describes the passionate opposition that was displayed there:

Passionate opposition to the industry's growth in the region united doctors, cattle farmers, activists, town residents and organic produce growers.

That is an interesting description from the Sydney Morning Herald and it certainly sums up my own experience working in rural New South Wales as the awareness about this problem has grown.

What we are seeing here too, and it was again reflected at yesterday's hearing, is this point I just mentioned about the growing concern amongst local councils. Richmond Valley, Kyogle, Liverpool City and Tweed Shire councils all gave evidence at the inquiry. It was only the Richmond Valley which has seen any benefit in the coal seam gas production. All those other councils are standing with the majority of people in their communities and representing them effectively, raising their concerns. Let us remember the area that they cover. They cover an area where I know many of my colleagues in this place come from. It is a beautiful, rich area where we see beef and dairy cattle, sugarcane, nuts and coffee. It is such a rich area with those beautiful, fertile soils, which is all at risk if the hundreds, indeed thousands, of proposed well-heads go ahead. I congratulate those councils for the stand they have taken.

It is incredible that the New South Wales government, and indeed the government speakers in this debate, defend the right of mining companies to exploit our natural resources yet they will not defend border security for farmers who are trying to protect the long-term viability of their groundwater from mining damage. Groundwater cannot be separated from food security. In May this year the New South Wales Greens MP and mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham introduced a coal seam gas moratorium bill into the New South Wales parliament that will place a 12-month moratorium on the coal seam gas industry in the state and prohibit coal seam gas mining in its entirety in the Sydney metropolitan area. The moratorium would provide adequate time for an independent inquiry into the economic, social and environmental impacts. The call for a moratorium is justified because the industry has not demonstrated that it can operate safely. That is where I put it to my colleagues from the coalition parties and Labor that what they should be getting behind is a moratorium. That is a responsible position when there is so much concern in the community and the safety impacts are so serious.

Senator Waters' legislation before the Senate will be a test for the coalition and the federal government on where they stand on food security and the longevity of our rural communities. I want to repeat that: this is a test for these parties. I have seen this play out in New South Wales, and I will go through that in some detail because it was informative how the other parties responded. Despite what Senator Humphries said about the Greens rushing into this and offering simplistic solutions, I and my colleagues have been working with rural communities for many years. It was on the back of our work with farmers in Liverpool Plains, in the area of Gloucester and in the upper Hunter that I introduced a bill into the New South Wales parliament to stop mining on prime agricultural land and to ensure that the water resources are protected.

How the campaign was built up to ensure the legislation was passed is most informative. First off we did not get any support from the coalition or the Labor Party. The farmers rallied. They campaigned hard and then the National Party said that they would support the legislation. The Liberals came on board. The New South Wales Farmers Association spoke at a rally attended by about 300 farmers from many parts of New South Wales who bused in for the day. They brought their produce. It was one of the most moving days I had in state parliament with the produce all lined up at the parliamentary gates and the farmers protesting and then they came into the gallery. So we got the coalition on board. For the first time they broke ranks with the mining industry. Some of the comments of the farmers were interesting, and I understand this is why the Nationals changed their position. They said, 'How come the Greens are moving this bill? Why didn't the Nationals, who have been in the parliament much longer, put forward this legislation?' Unfortunately the bill was defeated by one vote, on the combined vote of the Labor government with the Shooters Party and Reverend Fred Nile from the Christian Democrats. But it was informative in terms of the attitude from the other parties and the public pressure which pushed the Nationals to vote the right way.

In 2008 Senator Bob Brown, together with Tony Windsor, the member for New England, built on this campaign when they called on the federal National Party to amend the Water Act to protect the farmers of the Liverpool Plains from mining threats. At the time the Greens in New South Wales also called for our bill to be reintroduced by the Nationals and to include a moratorium on coal seam gas mining and exploration on prime agricultural land. This work with communities from Gloucester, from the upper Hunter and from the Liverpool Plains has been rolling out for many years in the community and the Greens have taken this work into parliament. I am pleased that my colleague in the New South Wales parliament Jeremy Buckingham has taken up this important work for the Greens with such gusto.

I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to some of the communities that I worked with in the early days of this campaign. I recently met Rosemary Nankivell again at the coal seam gas inquiry committee hearing in Narrabri, where she gave expert testimony on the impacts of coal seam gas in her region. Rosemary is one of the people who have put this issue on the map. She was instrumental in getting one of the first stories into the Sydney Morning Herald. It was when it was very hard to get coverage of this issue. Rosemary was a strong voice for the community. She invited me to a packed community meeting she organised to object to the coal seam gas exploration works being carried out by Santos. This was quite a few years ago. Rosemary was part of the Caroona Coal Action Group, which has done so much excellent community based work in that region to oppose coal exploration by BHP Billiton and China's Shenhua, as well as coal seam gas mining by Santos.

In July 2009 there was a meeting at Mullaley on the Liverpool Plains to call for an end to coal seam gas exploration and extraction on the best food-producing land in the Gunnedah Basin. Mining for coal seam gas, as we know, should have no place in the fertile food-producing lands in this area. Back then we gave an opportunity to the government to quarantine the area from both exploration and drilling. We were arguing that, in the context of climate change and ongoing drought, the profits of the big gas companies should not be allowed to take precedence over the protection of critical water supplies that feed our prime agricultural lands.

My colleague Senator Christine Milne has laid out very clearly the climate change impacts of this industry and how serious they are. There are also many local environmental impacts in various areas. This is particularly so in the Pilliga area in western New South Wales, where Eastern Star Gas has started extracting gas in an area known as the Pilliga Scrub in what is called a pilot project. The company Santos has taken over from Easter Star Gas.

I congratulate the locals there, particularly Tony Pickard and his many colleagues, other local farmers and the various environment groups: the Northern Inland Council for the Environment, the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales. They produced a report titled Under the radar, which I commend strongly. They have identified that the activities being undertaken by Eastern Star Gas in the Pilliga Forest are being done without seeking federal assessment on matters of national environmental significance. The report has found that coal seam gas operations in this area have cleared more than 150 hectares and fragmented 1,700 hectares of bushland. They have drilled 92 coal seam gas wells, constructed more than 56 kilometres of pipeline and operated 35 production wells without seeking approval under the federal EPBC Act. These activities have occurred in habitat for federally listed threatened species, such as the south-eastern long-eared bat. Pepe Clarke, the CEO of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, has said:

Under Commonwealth legislation, any potential impacts on nationally-threatened species must be referred to the environment department for approval. Eastern Star Gas has been flying under the radar to avoid this process in the Pilliga.

I have visited this area with local farmer Tony Pickard and many of his colleagues. I was alarmed at what is called a pilot project, at how extensive the damage occurring in this area is. The measures put in place by Eastern Star Gas to avoid or mitigate impacts are totally inadequate for preventing such impacts, and their effectiveness is uncertain and not scientifically established. A visit to this area quickly establishes that. You see leaking pipes, unprotected areas where gas is coming out and an industry that looks very dodgy from all angles.

Farmers deserve the right to refuse entry to their land where they are concerned about the long-term risks posed to their land and water resources. I am aware that some farmers have been very badly treated by mining companies, and it is vital that this problem be addressed. It is another reminder of the failure of the National Party to stand up for their constituency. Urban communities also deserve the right to say no to coal seam gas operations that are moving into the suburbs.

The movement against the unbridled expansion of the coal seam gas industry in New South Wales is very broad based; it is extremely diverse and includes farmers, environmentalists, inner city people and retirees on the coast. People are coming together from very diverse sections of the public. From the comments made by speakers from the Labor and coalition parties there is every indication they will join forces to prevent this bill from becoming law. But we can assure you that the movement will bring some sanity to this to protect farming land, to bring in environmental protections and to ensure that another fossil fuel industry that will add to greenhouse gas emissions will not open up. Just last Sunday more than 1,000 people walked down the centre of King Street, Newtown, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Sydney, to express their opposition to this industry. It is quite unique for people in Sydney to develop that understanding about the mining industry. Again, it shows the fantastic work the farming community has done to alert people across this state and across this country.

In New South Wales alone there are currently 100 wells, with proposals to move to 1,500. That is what is on the books. The opposition is considerable and it will build. People feel deeply concerned about it. I call on senators to look into their own hearts for what they will allow to happen to the communities they come from if they do not take a stance. It is not about being against the mining industry; it is about being in balance with how our society works: where we take our energy from, how we ensure we have food security for future generations and how we protect the water resources that are so essential to food security.

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