Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview: Adam Spencer - coal seam gas
22 November 2011
ADAM SPENCER: ...as is always the case - often the case with yesterday's landmark legislation; the mining tax, as it's known. There were a few codicils attached to them. One of them was the creation of a new independent scientific committee costing one-hundred-and-fifty million dollars to take advice on the impact of exploration and mining on underground water in the search for coal seam gas.
Tony Burke is the Federal Environment Minister and he joins us now. Mr Burke, thanks for your time. Can you explain to us this committee?
TONY BURKE: What we've done is we're setting up under law an independent scientific committee that will be in charge of providing the best possible information on underground water.
Now, we're expecting the states to also change their environmental law so that there's a guarantee that the work of this committee has to be taken into account on any future environmental approval.
ADAM SPENCER: Will the work of this committee make any genuine difference in the mining and extraction of coal seam gas? Some people are saying it's just a sop to the independent MPs, Windsor and Oakeshott.
TONY BURKE: Oh no. Look, there really are significant issues with underground water on coal seam gas. And this - and there's always scientific reports and things that are attached to environmental approvals, but there's been a lot of public concern that, often, those scientific reports are paid for by the companies and you're not getting independent advice.
We set up something similar for the - there's very few coal seam gas projects that have required federal approval, but we had something similar there. The ones that have gone through the states haven’t had the same level of independent scientific rigour.
So what we're doing here is making sure that the best possible quality scientific information is made available, that environmental approvals at every level will have to take it into account, and we're also paying for it. And one-hundred-and-fifty million dollars for a scientific committee actually goes a long way to making sure there's a lot of rigour behind any of the work.
ADAM SPENCER: But it's fair to say that Tony Windsor in particular and Rob Oakeshott have done most of the running here. This has only come about to secure their support for the mining tax.
TONY BURKE: We've been calling - in terms of the specific structure of it, you're right. In terms of the concept itself, of wanting the states to come up to our standard of approvals, we've been concerned about this. Both myself and Martin Ferguson have been publicly calling for them to raise the standards of their approvals.
What it gets to in terms of the underground water - whenever you get coal seam gas out you have to remove a whole lot of water - massive amounts of water for the aquifer. Now, if those aquifers are not connected to the rest of the underground water system - which sometimes is the case, that they're not - then there's not a problem.
If they are connected you can potentially get a drawback of your water resources where your water table, generally, can start to flow backwards into the aquifer because you've pulled out that water. Now, if that happens you can have significant environmental outcomes, you can have significant outcomes for agriculture as well. And the independent scientific work that we put into our approvals - that we've been wanting the states to put into theirs - will now be funded by us.
ADAM SPENCER: This has started to become a very hot area. The New South Wales Labor Party - that used to support coal seam gas mining - has called on the State Government to suspend all exploration licences. But some people are concerned, Tony Burke, that we have given away vast tracts of land to these exploration licences and only now have acknowledged that we're unaware of the full scientific consequences of this.
You talk about independent scientific rigour - and no-one would complain about that - but aren't we a long way behind the game? Has coal seam gas exploration got a jump on public opinion; got a jump on independent scientific rigour in this case?
TONY BURKE: Well, in terms of science it depends how the approvals have been set up. For the ones that I've done, as the scientific information comes through, the conditions themselves change; because it's not the impact of removing water from a single aquifer that's the problem. It's the potential cumulative impact, where you can have a significant effect on underground water when you start doing a very large number of wells.
So we've factored it in, into our approvals. As I say, that hasn't been the case with everything that's gone through a State Government, and it really needs to be. So it's one thing for us to say well, you need to raise the standards and have all this independent environmental assessment. The states have been, you know, obviously noticing the fact well, who's going to pay for it. We've now answered that question. We'll pay for the research; we'll pay for the independent scientific committee. We expect the states to change their environmental law so that they have to take it into account.
ADAM SPENCER: Because people have suddenly heard of individual coal seam gas licences - petroleum exploration licences that run from the Sydney Basin - from Gosford on the central coast to Coalcliff, south of Sydney. Something like one third of New South Wales is now covered by coal seam gas exploration licences.
I get the impression a lot of farmers - and I know that it's not the land on top, it's the land underneath that's affected - but did not know that their land was affected, recently, until they found these things out.
TONY BURKE: Yep, not arguing with you there. There's significant issue with land use. I'm not going to pretend, at a federal level, that we're in charge of that. We're not. But we do have a role in trying to lead on what the best possible science for environmental approvals, and that's what we're doing.
ADAM SPENCER: Do you think coal seam gas is the future?
TONY BURKE: I think it's part of the energy mix into the future. You've got a series of different energy sources into the future. Coal seam gas will be one of them, but it needs to be done in a way that - the particular problem that is often referred to is not actually the use of the gas itself. It's the impact you can have on underground water. And that's where you don't just have environmental impacts; you can have significant impacts on agriculture as well.
ADAM SPENCER: What do you say to the Victorian Minister for Energy and Resources - Michael O'Brien - who says, quote, of the Victoria Government, “the Coalition Government will not be compromising its approvals process to suit the dysfunctional Gillard Government”?
TONY BURKE: Well, we're not asking them to compromise their approvals process for a start. They keep the full jurisdiction. We're not saying, with this committee, that it's a takeover. What we want them to do though is to say, very simply - and it would be a strange thing if they weren’t willing to - to say we've got here the best possible scientific research; we've got here the best possible scientific information. You need to explain why you would rather ignore it than take it into account.
That's a fairly blunt message to any State Government that thinks that you can have this quality information - well funded, well resourced - and say you're not going to take it into account.
ADAM SPENCER: When the major gas producer, Santos, says it's unimpressed with the proposed scientific committee and says that these sort of things are just further regulation on an industry that's already over-regulated, what do you say to them, minister?
TONY BURKE: I don't think they understand; because, very simply, what's being proposed is not a change in the rules. It's a change in the information that is made available to them; the information that needs to be taken into account.
And if the coal seam gas companies are right and they are able to make sure that there's not an underlying negative impact on underground water; if they are able to make sure that they're not taking unnecessary risks with the water table and the Great Artesian Basin and the various forms of underground water that we have, then there is not a problem. There's only a problem if the public arguments they've been running are, in fact, not true.
ADAM SPENCER: Thank you very much for your time, Minister.
TONY BURKE: Good to talk to you.
ADAM SPENCER: Tony Burke there, the Federal Environment Minister for - on the topic of the scientific committee; the new independent expert scientific committee that will assess the impact on underground water of exploration and mining of coal seam gas. Twenty-two past seven.