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Protecting landholders' rights in South Australia

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 6 Mar 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (10:27):  I rise to speak in support of the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2013, which has been introduced into this place by my colleague Senator Larissa Waters. This important bill supports the rights of landholders across Australia in the face of significant and increasing mining activity. The unconventional gas industry, in particular, is on its way to a massive exploration in Australia, including in the south-east of South Australia—the state that I am proud to represent. I am proud to speak in favour of this bill because I think it is actually a very, very important bill, and it acknowledges the realities of the challenges that we are facing in Australia this century, of which the scientists are almost unanimous in warning us about what is coming. It is absolutely important that we do everything we can in these early decades of this century to safeguard the very aspects that we rely on for life on this planet.

In South Australia the language is about unconventional gas, and this includes coal seam gas, tight gas and shale gas-all of which require hydraulic fracturing, or what is often known as 'fracking', to extract the gas, which is predominantly methane. You could also add underground coal gasification to that list of processes. Fracking involves pumping large volumes of water and chemicals into the earth at high pressure to force open, or fracture, cracks in the rock, allowing gas to escape to the surface. This is an extraction technique that has been banned in France. It has created environmental issues in Queensland, New South Wales and in the United States after freshwater aquifers have become polluted. Many of us, indeed, were horrified to see the US documentary Gasland a few years ago, where we were able to see water that could physically be set alight because of its methane content and find out about the impacts of this activity on agricultural land in the United States. Indeed, only last year the ABC Four Corners program GAS LEAK! revealed not only a hasty and incompetent process in the approval of thousands of coal seam gas wells in Queensland in 2010 but also a potentially illegal process. Some of the approvals that featured in the Four Corners program were forwarded to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission.

The referral was made by Drew Hutton, National President of the Lock the Gate Alliance-who has been a shining light in the movement to oppose what is really the life-defying, incessant forward movement of this sort of mining-and Simone Marsh, the government whistleblower who featured in the program.

Both the CSIRO and the National Water Commission, the federal government's own independent expert adviser on water, have stated that fracking's impacts on underground water levels, the amount of emissions and the long-term impacts on local environments and farmland are still poorly understood, and yet there is this relentless push to set out on this path across Australia. The National Water Commission in particular said that CSG development is a substantial risk to sustainable water management. Preliminary research tells us that it will take up to 75 years for a gas site to recharge its previous groundwater levels.

Let us pause to think about the implications of the warnings that we are hearing from these bodies: threats to underground water, local environment and food-producing land-these are unacceptable risks. What this Australian Greens bill would do is give people who are living and working on the land a right to participate in the decision-making process around the use of that land, and indeed the bill would give landholders the right to refuse gas mining and coalmining activities on food-producing land.

Australia is a big continent, but the proportion of Australia that is quality agricultural land is actually severely limited. We must protect it from land uses which would threaten that, particularly now, with what we know in this 21st century. The pressures on our food supplies and our water supplies are immense. We now have a world population of seven billion people, approaching 10 billion by 2050. Add to this the sobering fact that report after report is warning us of the threats to food production in this century, especially from climate change. Whether from the London School of Economics, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or our own CSIRO, we know that the negative impacts of global climate change on agriculture are only expected to worsen. There is increasing concern among respected international bodies that climate change could so destabilise the world's food system that it would lead to rising hunger, even mass starvation, and of course the conflicts that would be associated with that on a world scale. There are similar threats and warnings about our water supplies, with predictions about resource wars this century centred on water and food. So it is understandable that there is increasing community concern about mining's impacts on Australia's food security.

With unconventional mining spreading its tentacles across Australia, it has been extremely heartening to see civil society come into action, with strong and diverse alliances across sectors and the community to protect what we know we must protect and to oppose the health, social, cultural and environmental threats that coalmining and unconventional gas mining pose. We are seeing farmers, traditional owners, tourism operators and conservationists coming together to stand against these threats. In fact, the campaign is deriving support from very unlikely sources. We even have Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones-definitely not a card-carrying member of the Australian Greens-as a vocal critic of coal seam gas, particularly because of its impact on farmland.

According to the Lock the Gate Alliance, titles for gas and coal exploration cover more than 54 per cent of Australia's land mass right now-more than half of Australia's land mass-437 million hectares. In South Australia, my home state, a map outlining the potential for unconventional gas exploration was released by the state government and was reported in the Stock Journal as showing many of the sites earmarked for rapid unconventional gas exploration being smack in the middle of our most prized agricultural land. Prized arable land is precious in Australia but never more so than in South Australia. There is very little land left in South Australia for our clean green food bowl-the food bowl that will help feed the population of Australia and the population of the world in future decades. Only 4.6 per cent of prime agricultural and cropping land is left outside of pastoral areas in South Australia. Water supplies are also becoming scarce. In Australia we cannot afford to be profligate with our water resources, and again never more so than in South Australia, the driest state on the driest continent.

I would like to give you an example of the folly of this untrammelled expansion-a case study in the south-east region of South Australia. It is the Limestone Coast area and it is a region surrounding the city of Mount Gambier. In this area many people have been working together to actively highlight the risks of the expansion coming down the line. The Greens are proud to be supporting them. I would particularly like to commend the work of the Leader of the Greens in South Australia, Mark Parnell, a member of the Legislative Council, who has been speaking on this issue and working with the community to highlight the threats of unconventional gas mining.

The south-east is a beautiful part of South Australia; it is characterised by vineyards, dairy industry, cropping, stock production, timber, aquaculture and seed production. These are all dependent on reliable water supplies. The number of workers in the south-east region employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing is above the state average. The whole of the lower south-east region is mapped out for unconventional gas exploration, with a number of exploration licences proposed for mineral mining and coal. All of these proposed projects will impact the aquifers upon which the region relies. These aquifers underpin the productivity of the region. Indeed, they provide the sustainability for human life in this region.

Much of the lower south-east region is dependent on two aquifers for these industries. The Mount Gambier water supply and 80 per cent of the region's irrigation comes from the unconfined aquifer. The Dilwyn aquifer contains 30 per cent of my state's potable water-that is, 30 per cent of the potable water in the driest state in the driest continent. Much of this water is at least 2,500 years old and there is a minimal recharge available. The risk is that once this water is gone it is gone for all time, certainly within the foreseeable future. At this point, I would like to give a shout out to some particularly active people from South Australia: Anne Daw, Doug Balnaves and many other people who have been working with the Lock the Gate Alliance and other local organisations to make sure that the Australian community is very clear about the threats of these proposals.

The Greens are working at every level of government-federal, state and local-to support our food growers against the threats posed by this industry, because fundamentally we believe that farmers are the custodians of our future when it comes to our food supply.

Simply, then, farmers and landholders should have the legal right to decide whether to keep farming on their land and whether to allow these threats to occur. Merely being able to negotiate the price of entry with a coal or gas company is not good enough. It does not change the fundamental power imbalance.

This Greens bill gives landholders the right to decide whether coal or gas mining activities will take place on their land. It would mean that gas and coal corporations would have to secure a landholder's written authorisation before entering their land. That written authorisation would have to contain an independent assessment of the current and future risks associated with the proposed mining activities and any associated groundwater systems. It would ensure informed consent, and a landholder would be advised to seek independent advice and could refuse to give written authorisation if they were to so choose.

The Greens are standing strong with those in the community who want the benefits of long-term food production and potable water supplies over the risks of fracking. I pose the question: why would we risk our future merely to prolong the life of industries which belong in the past? I finish by referring to an oft-quoted edict. It is attributed commonly to the Cree Indians. But wherever this idea came from, wherever this notion came from, I think we would all be hard pressed to argue with just how sensible it is: 'When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.' We rely on our environment for our very future and our survival. We must not risk it.




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