Senate Report recommends tighter controls on Coal Seam Gas

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Senator Bill Heffernan, the Chairman of the Senate Standing References Committee on Rural Affairs & Transport yesterday released the Committee's report on the Impact of Coal Seam Gas Extraction on the Murray-Darling Basin. The report considers the potential impact of the industry on Basin groundwater resources, agricultural land and regional communities.

The Committee, as part of that general inquiry has been examining the economic, social and environmental impacts of mining coal seam gas on:

  • the sustainability of water aquifers and future water licensing arrangements;

  • the property rights and values of landholders;

  • the sustainability of prime agricultural land and Australia’s food task;

  • the social and economic benefits or otherwise for regional towns and the effective management of

  • relationships between mining and other interests; and other related matters including health impacts.

  • This report concentrates on CSG developments within the Murray-Darling Basin which are the focus of the industry and of public concern, in particular, the security of the gas wells. The main regions of concern to this Committee, where the industry is expanding very rapidly, are in south-west Queensland and north-west New South Wales.

    Some of the recommendations include Commonwealth and State governments conducting a thorough review of the appropriateness of 'adaptive management in the context of regulating the industry. A consistent, national regulatory framework for all aspects of the coal seam gas industry should be promoted.

    The Committee recommends that further approvals of CSG production should not be considered until studies of the Basin water resources being conducted by the CSIRO & Geoscience Australia, the Queensland Government and the Namoi Catchment Study are completed and their findings reviewed. The Committee also recommends that the Water Act be amended to include the Great Artesian Basin in the definition of the Murray-Darling Basin water resources. Similarly it recommends that the sustainable use of the Great Artesian Basin be recognised as a matter of national environmental significance under the Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

    The Committee recommends that it be a requirement of all exploration or production approvals that the fluids extracted from wells after fracking are kept isolated in secure separate storages and prior to disposal are treated to the highest standards.

    The Committee is deeply concerned with brine and salt residues – more than 700,000 tonnes of salt will be produced every year. It recommends that salt and brine be removed from agricultural regions and water catchments. If salt and brine residues cannot be disposed within the short term, then it should be removed from agricultural areas and water catchments and no controlled landfills for the disposal of salt should be permitted in the Murray-Darling Basin.

    The Commonwealth and the States should establish an independently managed trust funded by the gas companies to make financial provision for long-term rectification of problems such as leaks in sealed wells or subsidence and erosion caused by collapsing pipelines.

    Senator Bill Heffernan, the Chairman of the Senate Standing References Committee on Rural Affairs & Transport (image courtesy Mr Heffernan)

    The gas industry has the potential to have a severe impact on agricultural productivity in the Basin. The Committee recommends that gas production be excluded from highly productive agricultural land and, where the industry and agriculture do coexist, that the maintenance of agricultural productivity take priority over the needs of the gas industry in any dispute between landholders and the industry.

    "The challenge for the global food task is to produce more food with less water, less fertiliser and less agricultural land against the background of the science which says by 2050, the world's population will be 9 billion, 50% of the world's population will be poor for water, one billion people will be unable to feed themselves, 30% of the productive land of Asia will have gone out of production due to urbanisation and climate change, two-thirds of the world's population will live in Asia, the food task would have doubled and more importantly 1.6 billion people could be displaced on this planet." said Senator Heffernan.

    The Committee recommends that draft access agreements between landholders and gas companies include a requirement that company employees must have a landholder's approval whenever they wish to enter a property and that companies must maintain logs of staff entering private property.

    The Committee, recognising that many of the issues relating to this industry are the constitutional responsibility of the States recommends that the Commonwealth, in forums such as the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the Standing Council for Energy and Resources take the initiative in working towards a coordinated national approach to the regulation of this industry.

    The Committee will continue to monitor developments in the CSG industry in 2012. For more information about the report, please visit www.aph.gov.au/senate/Committee/rat_ctte/mdb/index.htm.

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