Should the Australian Government regulate approvals for coal seam gas (CSG) facilities?

For this section the Institute invites comments from two differing policy viewpoints. In this May edition of farm institute insights, The Hon. John Cobb MP and Senator Christine Milne ponder the role of the Australian Government in regulatory approvals for Coal Seam Gas (CSG) production facilities. Also, how should regulatory responsibility balance the economic potential of CSG production and the potential risks posed to future agricultural production?

Readers can continue the discussion on the Institute’s blog.

 

The Hon. John Cobb MP

Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Food Security

Coal seam gas development requires a comprehensive policy approach that addresses the environmental, community and economic impacts of the industry.

Managed properly, coal seam gas has the potential to revitalise parts of regional Australia, delivering new drivers for economic expansion. Poorly managed, it could become an environmental and social disaster.

With that in mind, The Nationals’ approach to the development of Australia’s coal seam gas resources is based on five core principles:

No coal seam gas development should proceed where it poses a significant impact to the water quality of groundwater or surface water systems. It must be absolutely clear that no coal seam gas development should occur unless it is proven safe for the environment.

Agricultural land is an increasingly important natural asset. It must be protected from activities that destroy its capacity to deliver food security – not only for our nation, but for a hungrier world, for generations to come.

Coal seam gas development should not occur close to existing residential areas. People who have bought a home, with a reasonable expectation of being away from mining operations, must not be thrown into turmoil with mines springing up on their doorstep.

Farmers are entitled to an income from the use of their land that is not limited to compensation.

The regions that deliver much of the wealth from coal seam gas developments deserve a fair share of generated revenues reinvested in their communities. This is an opportunity to grow our nation and encourage a lasting legacy from coal seam gas developments.

The changes announced by the Environment Minister to alter the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act to make water a trigger for his powers when assessing coal seam gas and coal projects is another example of politics overriding sensible policy-making from this government.

This is another layer of red tape, especially given water protection already exists under the expert panel committee process, which the Coalition supported last year, and under state jurisdiction. It should not be forgotten that many farmers find the opportunity to have an extra income stream attractive, especially in the face of children’s education costs, the impact of the carbon tax, debt levels and the ups and downs of markets.

There were many problems when this industry first started with poor consultation and a mining profile that significantly impacted on farming activities, especially from exploration companies that simply wanted to have something to sell to the big boys. These companies didn’t plan to be around in the long term and so did not do the right thing in terms of farm entry, activities and drilling standards. The community has sent a clear message that anything but the most professional operators are not welcome.

For me there are a few simple rules, we can’t irreparably damage freshwater aquifers, the farmer needs to earn more than just compensation and CSG operations should complement farming operations and the mining industry should respect the farmer’s reasonable requirements. What is clear is that the Gillard Government has imposed new Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) rules simply for political reasons – and once again the story is the same – there has been virtually no industry consultation.

This latest layer of red tape will simply duplicate state requirements with no meaningful environmental outcome or added transparency. NSW is catching up to Queensland where coal seam gas projects are already complying with 1500 state conditions, a further 300 federal conditions and 8000 regulations. However Queensland farmers have been benefitting from
extra income much more than NSW, up till now.

Already some projects are submitting environmental assessment applications 16 000 pages long. I would much rather this extra cost to industry be delivered to farmers in greater returns instead of wasting it on government bureaucracy that does no more to improve mining operations.

The Labor Government’s blundering in at the eleventh hour is symptomatic of this government’s hopeless policy-making. Ill-conceived policies like the carbon tax have undercut the competitiveness of Australian agriculture and the carbon tax coupled with the mining tax have been undermining the resources sector, who now have to compete with international competitors who don’t face this tax burden.

There is more work to be done on coal seam gas to make sure we get it right, and the expert panel process provides for the Commonwealth to ensure appropriate state standards and the Federal Coalition is committed to engaging in that process in a constructive way, not being blatantly political in a way that trashes the policy-making process, disregards input from industry and focuses on political games and survival.

John Cobb has held the seat of Calare following its 2006 redistribution in 2007, having previously been the sitting member for Parkes since 2001.

John joined the NSW Farmers’ Association in the 1980s, and began a 15-year agri-political career with a three-year term as the Association’s president. His agricultural campaign focuses have included increasing the number of doctors in regional areas, better telecommunications services for country communities, and property rights for landholders. John lives on his family property in the Central West of NSW. 

 

 

Senator Christine Milne

Australian Greens Leader

Standing in the paddock on Penny and Rob Blatchford’s farm at Moree and discussing just how incompatible coal seam gas (CSG) and farming on their fertile black soil would be, has made it even more apparent that the Australian Government should have a regulatory role with regards to CSG exploration. If the Federal Government took that regulatory responsibility seriously then environmental impact assessment would guarantee no more CSG.

In an age of food security in which land and water are the new gold, it makes no sense to compromise future agricultural production, increase greenhouse gas emissions, and destroy the livelihood of farmers and the cohesion of rural communities.

CSG has been lauded as less polluting than coal, and therefore as a way to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but this contention is not based on science. There has been no life-cycle analysis done on any CSG project in Australia. The Federal Department of Climate Change has admitted that it has done no in-field measurement of fugitive methane emissions, and so has no idea of the damage to our atmosphere given that methane has 23 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide, hence its impact is more destructive in the short-term.

CSG is a water hungry industry, and fracking to extract it involves the high pressure injection of millions of litres of water mixed with sand and chemicals. Dr John Williams from the Wentworth Group gave evidence to a recent Senate Inquiry saying that we do not have a sufficient knowledge base on the linkage between surface water and groundwater.

While company public relations spokespeople gloss over the risks and the state and federal governments turn a blind eye as they are all too eager to drive the industry’s expansion, farmers, residents and independent scientists are finding alarming results – water that can be ignited, fish dying in the rivers, and high readings of fugitive emissions leaking through the ground.

It has been truly appalling that the Federal Government has required such minimal environmental assessment from these companies. Only now, after so many CSG facilities have been approved, is the Federal Government discussing having oversight of water affected by CSG.

What is shocking, as Four Corners revealed recently – and farming communities have known for a long time, despite the minimum requirements – companies are getting away with rushed and dodgy assessments. We cannot trust these big companies to be truthful about these impacts, and put the interests of the community and environment ahead of their own profit margins.

It is unacceptable for the state and federal governments in the lead-up to the federal election to now decide that it is not safe to explore for CSG in Western Sydney or in towns above a certain population but continue to impose this industry on farmers.

It was wonderful to spend time with local rural communities on a recent trip to the Moree Plains and Lismore regions. It gave me an opportunity to discover that not only farmers, but machinery distributors, bankers and service providers are all standing shoulder-to-shoulder against CSG because they know their land and the cohesion of rural communities is under threat.

The Greens have moved in the Senate to impose a moratorium on CSG, but because Labor and the Coalition are in the pocket of the mining companies they have voted against this.

We should not be driving another fossil fuel industry at the end of the fossil fuel age. What we do know is that we can move to a 100% renewable energy future within a couple of decades – all that is lacking is the political will from the old parties. Australia is blessed with an abundance of renewable energy sources, from solar, to wind, wave and geothermal. We need to get on board a clean energy future, and leave our dirty fossil fuel past behind.

The Greens care about both economic development and environmental sustainability. It is not a trade-off. We not only want our farm lands to be able to keep producing food well into the future, we also want farmers to be able to hand their farms on to the next generation, to protect our precious water resources and fragile natural environment, and generate renewable energy – and unlike the Liberals, Labor and Nationals, we are prepared to vote for it. 

Christine Milne grew up on a dairy farm in north-western Tasmania and pursued a career as a teacher. After leading a successful community campaign with an alliance of farmers, fishers, scientists and environmentalists against the construction of a polluting pulp mill, she was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament in 1989. She became the first woman to lead a political party in Tasmania in 1993, and was later elected to the Federal Senate in 2004. She was elected Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens in 2008, and Leader in 2012.

Christine’s global reputation was recognised when she was appointed a United Nations Global 500 Laureate and elected Global Vice-President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Back to May 2013 Insights contents page.  

Images: Jeremy Buckingham MLC, Lock the Gate Alliance, Moira McDade