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Issue #1586      March 20, 2013

Coal seam gas restrictions welcome, but much too late

The Gillard government says it will introduce legislation to enable it to review coal seam gas (CSG) proposals and if necessary countermand state government approvals of any proposals that might adversely affect water resources or the environment. The Gillard government has clashed with state governments, particularly in NSW, over their approval of CSG projects.

Federal opposition energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane has declared that the government’s move could provoke a Constitutional challenge.

The federal Corporations Act enables the federal government to take action against corporations, in order to protect the environment. This applies, for example, to threatened species or species covered by international covenants to which Australia is a party, where the protection of that species is a requirement of the federal Environment and Biodiversity Act.

However, the Constitution gives the states control over mining, not the Commonwealth. The federal opposition, conservative state governments and mining industry would undoubtedly argue in court that federal intervention to restrict CSG mining would violate the Constitution.

Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia warned that the new process would duplicate state and territory processes and involve “new layers of unnecessary uncertainty, complexity and cost”, would reduce jobs and damage the economy, and provide “no tangible benefit for the environment.” She failed to mention the loss of profits for mining corporations.

A group of manufacturers, energy generators and oil and gas corporations has issued a statement condemning “knee-jerk policies” in reaction to community protests over CSG proposals.

The conservative state governments have supported the coal and gas industries against criticism and competition. The NSW government recently dismissed its scientific advisory body on water in favour of a committee of “business and community” representatives, and the Victorian government has placed severe restrictions on wind farms.

Stung by the Gillard government’s criticism of its high rate of CSG approvals and flinching at public protests, the NSW government recently foreshadowed legislation requiring a two kilometre buffer zone between residential areas and CSG mines, and CSG “no go” zones for wineries and stud farms.

Mining industry representatives say these requirements would cost jobs and drive up energy bills by more than $2 billion this decade. However, the industry would still have the right of access to the vast uninhabited areas beyond the urban centres, including farms. It’s not clear whether homesteads would be protected within a two kilometre boundary, because the O’Farrell government hasn’t yet provided a legislative definition of a “residential area”.

The legislation would provide very little protection for Australia’s national parks or agricultural land from subsidence, pollution or loss of groundwater, and it would have no effect on projects already approved, such as the Gloucester Valley mines.

In contrast, the Gillard government’s new water trigger intervention process has the potential to curb the coal and gas industry’s activities. However, realising that potential depends on the willingness of the federal government to pass the necessary legislation in the first place, and then to enforce it.

The wider picture

Last week the federal government’s Scientific Committee on CSG issued a scathing report on Arrow Energy’s proposal for a vast multi-billion dollar CSG project in Queensland’s Surat Basin.

The panel concluded that the company’s environmental impact statement (EIS) did not adequately address “matters of national environmental significance” arising from the cumulative impact of the proposed works, including potential contamination of groundwater and the disposal of millions of tonnes of salt from underground water.

The president of the community group, Lock the Gate, described the panel’s report on the Surat Basin proposal as “ … nothing short of a damning critique of the draft EIS, raising numerous concerns about impacts on groundwater, including potential drawdowns in the Condamine Alluvium aquifer that irrigates the central Darling Downs region.”

The Greens have commented that the Gillard government’s move is much too late, given that it recently granted conditional approval for the massive Gloucester mine, and for others earlier.

They have also pointed out that the Scientific Committee’s warnings about the Surat Basin proposal are essentially the same as their warnings about the reduction in volume and quality of underground water from the Gloucester Valley project because of coal seam depressurisation.

Moreover, the Greens and independents have reminded the Gillard government that action to rein in the coal companies was one of their conditions for entering into a coalition with the government.

The need for the government to preserve a united front with its coalition partners undoubtedly acted as a stimulus for its about-face on the issue of federal intervention.

Mind you, the NSW government has also been acting to protect its political future. The two-kilometre restrictions are intended to soothe mounting public anger over proposed CSG mining in Sydney’s outer western suburbs.

They may also have a soothing effect on one of CSG’s most vocal opponents, right-wing Sydney radio “shock-jock” Alan Jones. He wields tremendous influence over his vast following, and is treated with fawning deference by conservative politicians. And lo and behold, he just happens to own a horse stud, which would be protected from CSG mining under the new regulations!

The “two kilometre” legislation would also improve the conservatives’ national image, thereby assisting federal Liberal candidates in western Sydney’s key marginal seats during the September elections.

But it won’t reduce the threat to NSW agriculture. Independent MP Tony Windsor wants a rigorous independent scientific analysis of every CSG proposal, but he won’t get it from the O’Farrell regime.

And that’s not all. The struggle between the coal companies on the one hand and the farmers, environmentalists and concerned community groups on the other, is a reflection of the global struggle to mitigate climate change, which requires reductions in the use of coal and other fossil fuels in order to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. As a major coal exporter Australia has a major role to play in that struggle.

That certainly wouldn’t happen if a Liberal/National coalition was elected in September. Led by Tony Abbott, a new coalition government would undoubtedly seek to repeal any legislation that might impede the activities of the coal or gas corporations.

And that must be prevented at all costs.  

Next article – WA public servants rally

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