Department for Resources and Energy
Monday 28 May 2012 - Budget Estimates - Economics Committee
Department for Resources and Energy
Senator LUDLAM: I would like to put a couple of questions to the officers who are dealing with the proposed national radioactive waste dump. Do you have the right folk here?
Ms Constable : We can take those questions, Senator.
Senator LUDLAM: Great. I asked ANSTO this morning and they proposed that I take it to you. Are you aware of whether or not your minister or the Commonwealth government has sought to renegotiate the contracts for the return of long-lived intermediate level waste from France, from where it has been reprocessed, to maybe push the timeline for its repatriation back a couple of years?
Ms Constable : My understanding is that you asked that question today of ANSTO, Senator.
Senator LUDLAM: They kind of shrugged at me and sent me here.
Ms Constable : The department has not been involved in any renegotiations with France or the UK in relation to the waste returning to Australia. ANSTO has responsibility for contractual arrangements with France and the UK on the reprocessing of spent fuel and returning waste. So it is a matter for them.
Senator LUDLAM: It is kind of a no from your perspective?
Ms Constable : No from our perspective.
Senator LUDLAM: Your advice was not sought about the wisdom or otherwise?
Ms Constable : Absolutely not.
Senator LUDLAM: Minister, could I put this through to you. This is maybe a whole of government question. I am having trouble pinning down who is responsible. This is one you would be fairly familiar with, after many hours of debate in the Senate.
Senator Chris Evans: Yes. I will never forgive you for that, Senator.
Senator LUDLAM: Strong language. Are you aware of whether the government has sought to renegotiate the contracts for return of the spent fuel from France to delay its return until we get our house in order?
Senator Chris Evans: No. Senator, I am not. But I will take it on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: And which minister is going to hold portfolio responsibility for that? If you take it back to the minister you are representing here and it is nothing to do with him, are you able to undertake to work out who that is?
Senator Chris Evans: Yes. Obviously I am the minister responsible for ANSTO and Mr Ferguson is responsible for resources and energy. The suggestion is that we might have renegotiated the agreements?
Senator LUDLAM: It is entirely possible, legitimate and legal for the Australian government to pay for an extension of the period of time-buy ourselves another two or three years.
Senator Chris Evans: What was your advice as to who is responsible for that?
Ms Constable : ANSTO is responsible, Minister.
Senator Chris Evans: In a technical sense, but they are not responsible for negotiations on behalf of the government.
Ms Constable : That is my understanding, Minister.
Senator LUDLAM: Could I ask you to take on notice whether those options are exercised. If not, why not?
Senator Chris Evans: Yes.
Senator LUDLAM: Thank you. Has anybody from DRET met with Muckaty traditional owners or the Northern Land Council to discuss the proposed nuclear waste dump at Muckaty? This is the first estimates session, I guess, where you have your own act. We are not operating under the Howard act any more. We are operating under yours. So what has happened since then, particularly with regard to consultation with the TOs up there?
Ms Constable : It has been 54 days since the act has come into place.
Senator LUDLAM: I have been counting too.
Ms Constable : There was a meeting held on 4 May 2012. That meeting was held at Tennant Creek. At that meeting were senior NLC officials. RET was present at that meeting.
Senator LUDLAM: RET was?
Ms Constable : RET was. That meeting was to resume communications with the NLC following a period of inactivity and in light of the passage of the act.
Senator LUDLAM: We are a bit short of time. Can you provide us with the attendance for that meeting?
Ms Constable : I am unable to provide you with the attendance at that meeting, Senator. The NLC have fiduciary responsibilities to traditional owners and they understood that meeting to be of a confidential nature. So we are unable to share the contents of the meeting or, indeed, who was actually at that meeting. You could ask the NLC about the attendance at that meeting.
Senator LUDLAM: I have a pretty good idea how they would treat that question, but I will leave that for the moment. Are you aware whether anybody opposed to the dump was invited to that meeting or was it only supportive people?
Ms Constable : Could you repeat that question?
Senator LUDLAM: I am keen to know whether only supporters of the dump were invited to that consultation or whether people who have made their opposition pretty well known nationally would have been invited?
Ms Constable : I cannot give you an answer on who was actually at the meeting. That would need to be taken up with the NLC.
Senator LUDLAM: Did the NLC request DRET's attendance at that meeting?
Ms Constable : It was a meeting that was instigated in normal discussions between RET and the NLC. Given that the act had gone through, it was very timely to begin discussions.
Senator LUDLAM: That is for sure. I will leave that there. This is the last one on Muckaty from me. Since it has been 54 days, have there been any alternative sites either on the Muckaty land trust or elsewhere in the region covered and represented by the Northern Land Council either formally proposed or informally discussed with the department as potential alternative nominations?
Ms Constable : Nothing has changed regarding site nomination, no.
Senator LUDLAM: Is that a way of saying that is a no to my question?
Ms Constable : No, Senator.
Senator LUDLAM: Can you tell me what your forward program of work is from here? We heard this morning that the waste, if it returns, if we are not renegotiating the shipments, will be parked temporarily in Sydney. What does that do for your work plan from here?
Ms Constable : It is a very strong work plan. We have been working on a number of issues at the moment-the Federal Court matter; preliminary stakeholders updates on the passage of legislation; the review of international best practice for radioactive waste management facilities and waste management practices; and ongoing management in relation to Maralinga. There is a whole range of areas. We are also participating in international working groups. Last week there was a meeting of the joint convention on the safety of spent fuel management and on the safety of radioactive waste management. That was held in Vienna. I am pleased to say that the approach that Australia is taking on regulation is indeed in line with international best practice. That was confirmed in that meeting.
Senator LUDLAM: Even the bit about informed consent?
Ms Constable : Informed consent?
Senator LUDLAM: Informed consent. Was that in line with what has been discussed in Vienna? Free prior and informed consent?
Ms Constable : Yes, it was.
Senator LUDLAM: You must be doing very well. I am not sure exactly how you phrased it-the stakeholder pack or some kind of stakeholder briefing. How did you put that?
Ms Constable : We have been having preliminary stakeholder updates on the passage of the legislation.
Senator LUDLAM: Got it. Could you provide us with one of those, if you could contemplate this committee as a stakeholder? Can you provide us with the materials that you are providing to other stakeholders?
Ms Constable : We are happy to do that.
Senator LUDLAM: Thank you very much. I would like to move on. Did DRET provide any advice in relation to Uncle Kevin Buzzacott's Federal Court case against federal approval of Olympic Dam? Was RET asked to provide any advice, legal or otherwise, in relation to that case?
Ms Constable : No. We did not provide any advice on that matter.
Senator LUDLAM: I refer to a letter that Minister Ferguson wrote to Mr Burke in his capacity as environment minister on 29 September 2011. It relates to a number of things, including Indigenous consultation under EPBC Act processes. Are you aware of the letter that I am referring to? I think he canvasses a number of issues in that correspondence.
Ms Constable : I am not aware of the letter. I cannot recall the letter right at this time.
Senator LUDLAM: I am pretty sure the chair is going to close me down in a minute, so I will just get a couple of questions in on notice once you have had a chance to review the correspondence. Minister Ferguson writes to Minister Burke. He effectively is recommending a couple of things. One is a limit on the range of relevant Indigenous persons covered by consultation provisions in the proposed approval conditions for the Olympic Dam expansion. He wants the words ‘or interests' to be removed from the statement ‘Indigenous persons with rights in the area'. The original comment is ‘or interests'. Minister Ferguson says in his explanation as to why he wants interests removed:
There is danger unverified opponents not so far involved in the negotiation process could disrupt discussions between the parties.
Could you provide us with the minister's definition of ‘unverified opponents' and what exactly that phrase should be taken to mean?
Ms Constable : I will take that on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: Is there a list of such people, unverified opponents, and whether only parties in agreement with a mine expansion such as this would be invited into negotiations? According to my reading of the minister's correspondence, opponents would be automatically excluded.
Ms Constable : We would have to examine that letter very carefully and speak to the minister about it. We will take that on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: I would greatly appreciate that. It appears that the intention really is to simply restrict the number of people who might be parties to a discussion. I believe documents that were released under FOI that were received on 15 May 2012, in response to an application dated 12 December 2011, reveal that on the same day that Minister Burke signed the EPBC Act approval to Olympic Dam, which was 10 October last year, a final key change was made to the conditions of approval in accordance with, again, correspondence from the minister that you report to. Could you confirm for us whether or not the recommended level of protection was downgraded so that the activities covered by the approval went from not resulting in 'any adverse impact' to 'any significant impact' on the abundance and distribution of the Australian giant cuttlefish? Mr Ferguson wrote that he believed this was critical in his correspondence to Minister Burke on 29 September 2011. Have you got anything at the table with you that could shed some light on the minister's views?
Ms Constable : We do not have the letter with us. The normal process on any sort of resource project is that the minister for environment would write to the Minister for Resources and Energy and ask if there are any issues that need to be taken into account before a decision is made on an EPBC matter. So that would be a normal course of correspondence that would be undertaken.
Senator LUDLAM: Maybe I have been out of this loop for a while. Is it normal, then, for the resources minister to write back seeking that environmental protections be downgraded for particular species?
Ms Constable : There are a range of issues that the minister may put back to the environment minister to make sure that he is fully informed on economic and social issues that are relevant to the particular project. So I cannot answer the question specifically about that matter, but the advice varies. It would be based on the information that we have at hand and the expertise that we have in the department that would add value to the process concerned.
Senator LUDLAM: I appreciate that. You do not have the letter in front of you. What it looks like-tell me if this is an incorrect evaluation of what has gone on-is Minister Ferguson has lobbied the environment minister and said, ‘It's critical that we downgrade protection for this particular cuttlefish species in the Spencer Gulf.' Then Minister Burke, upon receipt of that correspondence, overturns department of environment express advice in a brief to the minister and, accordingly, downgrades protection to that species. I am interested to know whether it was the minister's intention to downgrade environmental protection for a particular species, because it appears to have been successful.
Ms Constable : That is an interesting turn of phrase that you are using-downgrade.
Senator LUDLAM: Sure.
Ms Constable : I am very concerned about that use of language.
Senator LUDLAM: Did it upgrade the protection?
Ms Constable : It would be very unusual for the minister to specifically use those words in a letter back to Minister Burke. I am not saying that it was not-
Senator LUDLAM: I have used the word ‘downgrade'.
Ms Constable : You are paraphrasing.
Senator Chris Evans: I think you have characterised something in a way that is a bit conspiratorial. The officer does not have the letter in front of them, so I think the officer has to probably note your comments, I suspect.
Senator LUDLAM: Whether it was the minister's intention to downgrade or weaken-I can table the letter for you now if that would make life a little easier. Maybe we can come back to this question tomorrow if the same officers are at the table. If I am being conspiratorial, perhaps you could provide us with a correct evaluation of what Minister Ferguson was up to in that correspondence on this particular matter.
Ms Constable : I will take that on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: Whether he sought to increase the protection for that species or decrease it.