Adjournment speech, Thursday 3 November 2011
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:19): In 2008, New South Wales had to contend with two major environmental threats. Major mining projects are again on the state's agenda. Once again the Liverpool Plains community in northern New South Wales are blockading their farms against the threat of mining expansion, and once again the beautiful New South Wales coastline is under threat from offshore mining exploration activity.
Exploratory drilling for coal seam gas commenced off the Newcastle coast in December last year. When the proponent, Asset Energy, announced that they were not successful in locating a site for commercial drilling, they said they would be back. So, when a meeting of the Community Consultative Committee was called a few weeks back, on 19 October, it signified the company's intention to proceed with further test drilling. There is currently test drilling for coal seam gas at Fullerton Cove in Newcastle and Catherine Hill Bay in Lake Macquarie.
The petroleum exploration permit No. 11, located primarily in Commonwealth waters, covers over 8,200 square kilometres of the New South Wales coast between Newcastle and Wollongong. The wells drilled in December 2010 were the first to be drilled offshore in the Sydney Basin. Despite reports that the exploration permit may be covering a potential giant gas province, the exploratory drilling failed to find gas.
This is not the first time a company has planned to explore the coal seams. In 2008, three licences or applications for mining exploration off the New South Wales coast from the Illawarra to Port Stephens threatened the New South Wales coastal environment. Wildcat gas drilling operations were carried out under the existing petroleum exploration permit, PEP11, licence held by Bounty Oil and Gas and MEC Resources. Sandmining exploration off the coast of Gosford also occurred, and Energie Future Pty Ltd applied to explore the coal deposits in the seabed off the New South Wales coast with a view to mining that coal using the highly experimental mining method of offshore underground coal gasification. It is no wonder that the local community and environment groups in the Hunter are very concerned about Asset Energy's latest exploration plans. The 2009 Montara oil spill into the Timor Sea is a recent reminder of the inherent dangers in these offshore mining operations. The spill, one of Australia's worst, lasted 74 days and spilled 29,600 barrels of oil into the sea, forming a 90,000 square kilometre slick. We now know the company did not follow best practice. What assurance can the people of the Hunter have that a disaster will not occur at one of their local beaches? Throughout the approval process for these projects the New South Wales government has only paid lip-service to community consultation. Vital information about Asset Energy's current environmental plan was only released to the community consultative committee on the day the government announced that offshore drilling would take place. The local councils were given copies of the full environmental plan but told not to release them to the public.
I understand that Asset Energy plans to continue exploring for gas, this time further south near Catherine Hill Bay, a site rich in deepwater corals and rare fish species, or even as far as The Entrance on the Central Coast. So far the company has reportedly spent $20 million on exploration and is preparing to renew its exploration licence for another five years. The community needs to know what is going on here and what the risks are to their coast. Environmentalists and commercial fishers have raised concerns about the impact of seismic surveys. There have already been reports of beds of scallops being decimated, disruptions to the sea floor and a downturn of fish availability after seismic surveys.
With so much at stake there needs to be a much greater level of public awareness, sharing of information and consultation. There is growing public opposition to risking the health of our coastal waters for risky mining projects. The public has a right to get answers to questions such as: what are the contingency plans for containment, capping of the wellhead and the clean-up operation if a spill occurs and who is liable for the costs? I have no doubt the government does not want people to know that it is the public who bear the bulk of the costs for the clean-up of the ocean, marine life and beaches in many of the spills that cause such devastation to our marine environment.
I congratulate the farming community of the Liverpool Plains, who are blocking attempts by a multinational mining giant to move onto their prime agricultural land. Santos wants to drill a pilot well to explore for coal seam gas near Spring Ridge in the Liverpool Plains. Just as they did when BHP Billiton tried to muscle in to explore for coal on their land, the local farmers and people from the community are running a blockade. People are travelling in from other regions to support them. I admire the conviction and determination of these people in Gunnedah and the Liverpool Plains region who have stepped in to protect their farming lands in the face of government failure to act. The harvest season is approaching on the Liverpool Plains so time is at a premium, but the farmers believe that the blockade is worth the effort to protect their farms, their future livelihoods and the food security of Australia. In 2008 I made several visits to the farmers blockade of BHP Billiton at Caroona when I was a Greens MP in New South Wales. This blockade lasted for nearly two years. One hundred and fifty farmers and their families supported the blockade of BHP Billiton exploratory rigs entering a property at Caroona, which highlighted the failure of the New South Wales government to protect agricultural land and stand up for the rights of farmers.
Those same farmers travelled in buses to the New South Wales parliament in Sydney to support Greens legislation to protect their prime agricultural land from the threat of mining exploration. It was a tremendous occasion of broad based cooperation between farmers and Greens for future food and water security, placing the public interest ahead of mining interests. It was about getting the balance right. It is a fond memory and I remain deeply committed to building on this cooperation to help win protection of farming land and the water resources that feed this land. Now, as was the case then, there is no scientific evidence to show that coal seam gas mining exploration will not cause unacceptable harm to farming land, water resources or the environment. The work simply has not been done. In 2008, BHP Billiton's coal exploration activities at Caroona were not supported by any hydrological studies or associated water studies. There is no way of predicting the potential damage to the aquifers. The farmers blockade was set up to protect farming land as both the federal and state governments continually failed to put any meaningful limits on the destructive practices of the mining industry. Their actions resulted in the Namoi Catchment Water Study that is currently underway in the region. Today the coal seam gas industry is being given free rein to expand its operations in New South Wales without proper scientific analysis or understanding of its short- and long-term environmental impacts. We must apply the precautionary principle here.
I congratulate my Queensland colleague, Senator Larissa Waters, on her coal seam gas bill that will allow the federal government to consider the potentially irreversible impacts of coal seam gas and other mining activities on water resources when assessing and approving mining projects. The farmers of the Liverpool Plains are interrupting their harvest preparations to blockade Santos. They say the companies involved should wait until the New South Wales government completes a land use review and a proper water study is completed of the Namoi catchment area. The Greens certainly support those demands.
An overwhelming majority of Australians are concerned about coal seam gas and support a moratorium on the industry, yet this week the energy and resources minister, Martin Ferguson, labelled the farmers blockade as unacceptable, saying the people should abide by the science. How deceptive! There have been no studies demonstrating that coal seam gas will not damage the aquifers, the water resources and the farming land. Minister Ferguson's arguments that Liverpool Plains farmers will benefit from the coal seam gas rush do not wash. Selling out Australia's food security for short-term so-called economic gain is bankrupt politics. I say so-called because the real economic impact of coal seam gas mining in this region would be destructive, not productive. I look forward to visiting the blockade and congratulate the farmers, the Caroona Coal Action Group, Tim Duddy and Tony Windsor for their fantastic work in this area. (Time expired)