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Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 18 Jun 2013

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (11:59): I rise to add to comments on this legislation. Senator Waters has carried this debate for the Australian Greens, as this is an area of great interest and expertise for her. So I am going to confine my responses to those that directly impact on Western Australia.

This is one good example of how crossbench collaboration can bring an unwilling government to the table for a result that acts in the public interest and improves environmental protection. I acknowledge Mr Windsor for bringing it forward in the other place and for negotiating with the Greens on the proposal that these powers remain with the Commonwealth government. The right place for them is Commonwealth environmental legislation, specifically the EPBC Act, rather than deferring and delegating these powers away to state governments that have shown themselves hopelessly captive to the very fossil-fuel industries they would seek to regulate.

Within those broad parameters, I will speak briefly about a serious loophole, and I do not for a moment believe that this has been introduced into the bill intentionally. I think it is a genuine mistake, and results much more from geology than from politic. But now it is upon us to remedy that problem. Shale and tight gas are different forms of unconventional gas from coal seam gas. They are just as damaging to the water and the environment as the types that this bill is dealing with today and they require the same highly damaging and risky extractive techniques of hydraulic fracking, including the use of injected chemicals to get these materials out of the ground.

Western Australia has the fifth largest reserve of shale gas in the world. The way that this amendment we are debating is drafted excludes shale gas from consideration and deals with coal seam gas only. Simply because unconventional gas resources onshore come from different forms of geological strata in different formations should not mean that a third of the Australian continent should be free from this kind of protection measure. If the Australian government believes that this amendment is worth passing, that Commonwealth environmental law will be improved. With the inclusion of a water trigger for coal seam gas, there is then no reason at all why you would not extend its ambit to include shale gas and other forms of unconventional onshore gas, which Western Australia has a large and extremely unfortunate endowment.

The WA Department of Mines and Petroleum-with WA holding the fifth largest reserve of shale gas in the world, these things are always somewhat uncertain, given that the resources are underground and not necessarily very easy to prove up-expresses huge enthusiasm for unconventional gas mining. The Western Australian government's so-called Strategic Energy Initiative was neither strategic nor showed any particular initiative. It rests for Western Australia's domestic electricity supply-as we are busy shipping our North-West Shelf LNG trade to the lowest bidder and exporting it as rapidly as we can get it out of the ground. The WA Strategic Energy Initiative proposes that Western Australia should become almost entirely dependent for our electricity generation on a mix of coal and unconventional gas. This is an area of enormous interest for Western Australians. The WA government has no plans in place for renewable energy to take up any substantial fraction of the electricity mix in WA. Instead, it proposes that unconventional onshore gas should take up the slack, which presupposes a drilling campaign across particular geological regions of WA-unprecedented in Western Australian history.

The Western Australian government has had no due diligence for ensuring that unconventional gas mining-shale and tight gas fracking-do not cause unacceptable damage to the WA environment and public health. There have been no environmental assessments or attempts to consider landscape-scale impacts, which would have been the appropriate level of assessment for an industry of this type. In WA, which is a couple of years behind, we are seeing the extraordinary confrontations that were seen in New South Wales and Queensland and which brought this legislation to the foreground. WA is proposing to repeat exactly those mistakes. If we get there through the kind of head-long rush to support the gas industry and its ambitions we will find that this amendment, which proposes a water trigger to the EPBC, will not protect Western Australian landholders, Aboriginal stakeholders or advocates for the environment. It will not protect those issues, because of a loophole in the bill which effectively draws the geological definition of unconventional gas too tightly and constraining it to coal seam gas.

In WA there has been very little attempt to engage local communities in a discussion about whether they want a tight gas and shale gas industry for their state. In the mid-west there was community consultation that consisted of little more than government sponsored industry circuses for the gas industry, and the Kimberley has seen, if anything, less consultation. There are an estimated 297 or 300 trillion cubic feet, TCF, of shale and tight gas in WA. It is an extraordinary resource and it dwarfs some of the reserves on the East Coast. If a new shale gas industry goes ahead on the scale imagined in WA, the costs of mitigating the carbon pollution will be borne elsewhere in the economy. The CSIRO recently released a report that confirmed what many of us have been saying for years: the long-term impacts of chemicals used in and released by fracking are unknown and risky. This is in the driest continent on the planet and the western third of that continent would be unprotected by the measure that we are debating here today.

The Greens opposed the Barnett government's reckless promotion of the fledgling shale and tight gas industry. We call on the Commonwealth government-and I hope we will get government support for this amendment when we put it in the committee stage-to recognise shale gas in this bill. I will not address that in too much detail now, but we do have an amendment to that effect. If we believe that landholders on the East Coast should be protected from the violations of groundwater and environmental integrity and agricultural productivity posed by this industry, then I would like to know why Western Australians should not be similarly protected.

The department, as I said, estimates that about 10 per cent of Western Australia is prospective for shale gas. We have three major basins that are either known or highly prospective to contain unconventional gas. The Canning Superbasin, which underlies a large part of the Kimberley, is estimated to hold at least 200 TCF of that gas. If you want to compare that with some of the known reservoirs on the East Coast, you will get an understanding of the magnitude of the resource, if you want to call it that, in WA. The Perth Basin, which lies along the coastline from Busselton to Carnarvon and beyond, is the most advanced in terms of proving the resource up and moving it towards production.

With the onshore Carnarvon Basin, which lies between Shark Bay and Exmouth and inland, and the Officer Basin in which exploration is only fairly recent, WA is highly prospective. Right now we are expecting the next three fracking wells to take place in the north of the Perth Basin, near Eneabba. In the Canning Basin-that colossal reserve-BURU is confident that its discoveries in the Valhalla-Paradise region will be backed up with more gas shows out of the Laurel Formation. So there is a lot of activity at the moment. We have not seen the pitched battles and lock-the-gate campaigns that we have seen on the East Coast. Some of these sites are very remote and they are more a concern to Aboriginal landholders than, for example, pastoralists or settled agriculture and irrigated agriculture, as we see on the East Coast, but it does not make this technology any less damaging. The onshore Carnarvon Basin is still in the very early stages of exploration but, given the success of the offshore gas field, we would not be surprised to see petroleum onshore as well.

So we have an extraordinary land rush and scramble to Western Australia. We are extremely concerned about water use, because fracking is a process that uses a lot of water that will have to be sourced locally in WA. The US EPA estimates that about 19 million litres is required to drill and frack a well. Where is that proposed to come from in WA The WA minister for mining estimates that roughly 300 wells are needed to drain a small gas field. That is 5.7 gigalitres of water. Given the location of the known fields in and around Eneabba and throughout the mid-west and the competition for that water that already exists with mid-west mining companies, we need to seriously consider the licensing and extraction of this much water for the purposes of gas fracking.

A huge part of the controversy over this industry has centred on the chemicals that are used to try and open up the fractures in the geology to release the gas. The chemicals are used for engineering reasons and, for the most part, they are treated as commercial-in-confidence. The idea that in this country, as they have done in the United States, we would let the fossil fuel industry inject poisonous chemicals into groundwater reserves-and they will not even tell the public which chemicals they are because it might breach some commercial-in-confidence considerations-just shows you how far gone this industry really is.

To frack a single well can take as much as 19 million litres of fluid. A megalitre is a cubic metre of fluid. Nineteen million litres of fluid to crack a single well. That works out between 85,000 and 380,000 litres of unknown chemicals, poisonous chemicals, per well. The public do not know what the chemicals are and the department will not tell us. I suspect that is the sort of thing that, as has happened in the United States, eventually comes out by way of leaks and whistleblowing, putting the industry on the defensive. Why not simply disclose it at the outset, particularly if we are being told that these chemicals are entirely harmless?

In response to public pressure, industry is starting to put out a little bit of information regarding these chemicals online, and they say, 'Household chemicals, walnut husks, wells that emit nothing but butterflies-there's no danger at all'. Now, I say thousands of litres of household chemicals are not nothing at all-that these are things we should be extremely concerned about. There is a reason that these things have little skulls and crossbones on the labels and that we do not let kids anywhere near them. So, the information that the industry has released so far is entirely inadequate.

Apart from contamination through these unknown chemical additives in the thousands and hundreds of thousands of tonnes, there is also a huge concern about methane in groundwater. Methane is the cause of the flaming tap water that people would have seen in some of the advocacy videos and materials coming from the United States. Water that ignites-what a wonderful idea! Methane is not considered a contaminant in and of itself. It is, however, entirely flammable and is a potent greenhouse gas. The US EPA has just come down with some new rules around well completions that mean new completions must not vent or flare but must trap and sequester the gas produced in testing. We do not have anything like those rules in Western Australia, because we are operating under a state government administration that could not care less about the greenhouse gas emissions. It has sucked up, without any kind of critique, the statements of the gas industry that say that because they are better than old forms of coal fired power they are therefore good for the environment. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Shale gas exploration all along the Perth basin in WA will also have a serious impact on agricultural land. If the Commonwealth and the state government want to prevent the kinds of collisions and contests that are occurring on the Liverpool Plains and across Queensland, one thing they could do is take very good care in relation to the collision between this industry and farmers and pastoralists in WA. With each pad requiring roughly three hectares of land plus all the roading and pipeline infrastructure, we can see the sort of damage that is likely to be done. And when announcing the halving of royalty rates for the unconventional gas industry, the minister noted that approximately 10 times the number of wells would need to be drilled to extract the same amount of gas. So, what it has looked like in other jurisdictions-a well every couple of hundred metres and a spaghetti of road and pipeline connections holding it all together-could be coming soon to Western Australia. And as for the protections we legislate today-because of the good work of the crossbenchers in the other place and here in the Senate-WA will be left out.

There are risks associated with hydraulic fracking. France, Bulgaria, various townships in the United States and other jurisdictions have voted to ban this technique. The state of Vermont in the United States signed its fracking ban into law. These countries and other jurisdictions are seeing that the safest way for them to manage the environmental and health issues associated with fracking is to not do it at all. It is already occurring in WA without any environmental impact assessment and with no regulatory oversight by the government's environmental agencies, either the EPA or the Department of Environment and Conservation. This activity is regulated entirely under the petroleum act administered by the Department of Mines and Petroleum, which is the No. 1 promoter of the industry. So, it is not even that we have a captive regulator; we have no regulator at all. The Auditor-General has found that the DMP has been critically deficient in its compliance monitoring and its enforcement activities for environmental conditions across the whole suite of extractive activities that it regulates. That is why it is so important that the Greens were able to negotiate that these powers, such as they are, remain with the Commonwealth, because the WA authorities are entirely captive to-and see themselves as promotional arms of-the fossil fuel industries that they enable.

WA does not need a gas fracking industry at this time to secure energy for the future, as claimed by proponents of the industry. In fact-and the state government's strategic energy initiative shows in black and white exactly how this will operate-the insistence on squeezing the last fossil drop out of Western Australian geology when we should be by now well and truly into the age of renewables shows how pursuing an unconventional gas industry in WA and across the country can actually constrain development of renewable energy alternatives. The regulatory expertise and the interest within government-the promotional work, the workshops, the conferences-are all being brought to bear on maintaining and extending the fossil fuel incumbents and the expense of the renewable industries that we should be turning to. The state government, for example, is providing very significant subsidies to the fracking industry, including more than $100 million in unconventional gas exploration subsidies via royalties for regions. What an extraordinary waste of taxpayers' money in order to help the extractive fossil fuel industry squeeze the last drop of carbon out of the Western Australian landscape! There is a 50 per cent royalty reduction for the industry.

We have entirely untapped energy sources in WA. In Western Australia, with the help of a group of engineers and advocates known as Sustainable Energy Now, we have developed the WA Energy 2029 proposal which depicts what it would look like to get 100 per cent renewable energy. As dismissive as Senator Sinodinos was when he said that nobody has ever looked at the possibility of doing 100 per cent renewable energy in Australia, apart from his rather dismissive acknowledgement of Green Left Weekly, the Australian government's own energy market regulator has just undertaken a study that says it is possible. It is going to cost money and it is going to require political will and investment. In fact, what is going to cost us much more is to blindly plough on with business as usual.

I commend to the government the Energy 2029 proposal and I also commend it to you. When we get to the committee stage on this bill I will want to know if the government is supporting the Australian Greens' amendment that we will move to bring the entire continent into these measures. If the Liverpool Plains is worth protecting and if Queensland is worth protecting then so is the Perth Basin and so is the Fitzroy Valley. That is the job that we have been brought here to do today, to ensure that such regulations do exist to at least provide a minimum due diligence before we allow the gas industry to frack Australian water resources across the length and breadth of the continent. It should apply to all states and territories. I invite my coalition colleagues from Western Australia, and a number of them are in the chamber now, to explain whether they would support an amendment to bring Western Australia within the ambit of this legislation.

Senator Cormann interjecting-

Senator LUDLAM: No, Senator Cormann, I will happily take that acknowledgement. You stand condemned, Senator Cormann, for leaving Western Australia unprotected even as there is an acknowledgement, at least on this side of the chamber on the cross benches, that some protection is warranted, that some environmental oversight by the Commonwealth for protection of water resources is required. I will have to trust that Labor senators will join with the crossbenchers in passing an amendment that at least offers this minimal degree of protection for Western Australians as it does for the rest of the country.


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