Greater protection needed for our precious water assets

Environment Protection and Biodiversity  Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and

Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012


May 28, 2012

Historically, Australia was an agricultural based economy, became a manufacturing based economy and then a service based economy.

The latest shift, however, perhaps most notable in my home state of Western Australia, sees the mining sector underpinning the growth of the nation.

The boom in iron ore, coal and gas in particular has fundamentally altered the economy of the mining states and has had a significant impact across the nation. The government should recognise the importance of this investment.

After all, without this sector the nation would be in recession.

The latest economic shift brings with it great opportunity but also carries great risk and great responsibility.

We have to manage the impacts of the growth of the mining industry if we are to deliver a sustainable triple bottom line. Community, states and national economies all want and need the financial rewards that mining brings.

In fact we have seen this government putting its hands deeper and deeper into miners’ pockets in its mining and carbon tax grabs.

We all recognise the social advantage delivered by mining and its support of families and communities around the nation, even though we acknowledge some of the negative impacts other industries face in trying to compete with mining for workers and capacity.

It is common in Western Australia, specifically in my electorate, for local business operators, especially in the transport and machine operator industries, to consistently lose trained staff to the higher-paying mining sector.

Apprentices trained in the south-west frequently get their ticket and immediately leave the local business that trained them but cannot afford to match the high wages available up north.

Whilst nobody would seek to deny those workers the rewards of working in mining, the impacts on other industries needs to be addressed.

The third part of the triple bottom line is environmental and it is this tranche which the bill today addresses. The bill is a direct response to the concerns about the impacts of mining on the hydrogeology of a region. Our aquifers are not inexhaustible.

They are not bottomless pits and neither are they independent systems. Isolated from the surroundings or the greater environment, water assets are our most precious assets on which our society depends.

Our farmers cannot grow food for us and for the growing international population without water—that is something that is overlooked. I also think it is something that is underestimated and undervalued.

The city of Perth could not survive without tapping into the Gnangara Mound, a superficial aquifer that supplies two-thirds of Perth’s water needs.

The impacts of this extraction are consistently studied and many have expressed their concerns. The south-west of Western Australia, including the seat of Forrest, also has significant groundwater resources.

There are superficial aquifers, the vital Leedervilleaquifer and the enormous Yarragadeeaquifer. All three levels of aquifer are vital to the environmental, social and economic health of our region. The superficial Leederville aquifers provide domestic, industrial and agricultural water.

The Yarragadee aquifer supplies larger farming, industrial and mining enterprises as well as providing domestic water supplies for the cities of Bunbury and Busselton.

There is a high degree of connectivity amongst the south-west aquifers, so none can be considered in isolation and all three are vital for the health and environment of the south-west. Australia has only two internationally recognised biodiversity hot spots, and my south-west is one of those.

This ecosystem is vital to the environmental health of the state and is under threat from a drying climate, salinity and acidification as well as Phytophthora dieback. Adding additional water stress by dropping groundwater tables or contaminating aquifers will further damage a system that is already under pressure.

The bill before the House specifically addresses the impact of the mining industry on high-value, at-risk ecosystems, and the south-west of WA is a prime example.

It is also the only region of Western Australia that has an active coalmining industry. The Collie coalmines have been mined for nearly a century and they still provide the fuel for the state’s largest power stations. Mining in Collie requires significant dewatering of the Collie Basin aquifer.

Whilst the removed water is largely reused by industry, including in the nearby power stations, there has been an impact on the level of the water table in the basin itself, and that in turn has had an impact on the vegetation and the iconic Collie River, both of which are supported by groundwater capacity.

The bushland around Collie, known alternately as the Eastern or Northern Jarrah Forest, has suffered from declining rainfall and is under severe stress, and this may be reflected in the next forest management plan by reduced harvest levels.

The Collie River is the heart and soul of the Collie community and it feeds the Wellington Dam, which is a major water asset of the community and the broader irrigation system. But the Collie River is also under threat, with declining flows and salinity issues adding to the eternal problem of weed infestation.

Local resident Ed Riley has been actively studying these impacts for many years and has written a submission for the Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts’ inquiry into Australia’s biodiversity in a changing climate.

In addition to the coal resources in Collie, the south-west also has coal and coal gas assets along the Vasse Shelf between Busselton and Augusta, in what are known as the Sue Coal Measures.

This resource should be of particular interest to the independent expert scientific committee described by this bill, given the potential impact on key groundwater assets of the region.

Members should be aware that the state government of Western Australia has recently rejected an application to mine coal in the Vasse seam.

The rejection was based on the need to protect the vital groundwater resources of the region. Any risk to the Leederville aquifer in particular, which lies close to the coal measures, is a threat to the very environmental, agricultural and tourism lifeblood of the region.

As I said earlier, the Leederville aquifer is used in so many ways. It is integral to the south-west. It grows crops, it waters stocks and it is intrinsically linked to the superficial aquifers on which our whole region depends.

Our knowledge of groundwater systems, and of the potential impacts of mining on those systems, needs to be expanded. We need more information.

The Vasse region also contains coal gas deposits. There have been previous attempts to tap into these gas deposits but they were not commercially viable. It is the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which causes the most concern in the community.

This is the process of introducing water and chemicals into a geological strata.

The bill before the House today establishes an independent committee which will provide greater scientific advice to governments on relevant coal seam gas and large coalmining projects, specifically for the protection of water resources.

The committee will need to independently assess and provide information and evidence to the community that the process is safe and under what circumstances it will be safe.

It will publish options on improving the consistency of research and it will qualify and quantify the risk in plain terms. This is what the community is asking for. The committee needs to deliver the outcomes proposed in this legislation. I strongly support the coalition’s amendment that, to deliver that independent result:

… each member of the Committee, except the Chair, is to be appointed on the basis that they possess scientific qualifications that the Minister considers relevant to the performance of the Committee’s functions, including but not limited to ecology, geology, hydrology, hydro-geology, natural resource management and health.

This covers the spectrum that we need on this type of committee. This is the sort of information that we need to be able to give the appropriate level of independent assessment that we and the community all need.

The committee will also commission and fund water resource assessments for priority regions. The south-west of Western Australia is a priority region.

There is another process that the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development that this bill seeks to establish should examine as well. Although not in its current remit, the committee should examine the potential environmental and broader impacts of geosequestration.

The government is funding work to examine the potential for geosequestration in my electorate of Forrest. The proposed South West CO2 Geosequestration Hub would be based in and around the Harvey, Myalup, Binningup and Cookernup areas along the coastline as well as slightly inland. The first exploratory bore has been drilled in Cookernup.

I understand that this process will take some time to evaluate, with some years required to examine the results of the test bore before any further significant action will be taken.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the project is the reality that the carbon tax will be short term, because the costly geosequestration process requires significant government subsidisation, and is uneconomic under current circumstances. The International Energy Agency has put the cost of geosequestration at over $70 a tonne.

Given that the world has walked away from economy-wide carbon taxes, except Australia under a Green-Labor government, the chances are that the price of carbon will fall, not rise—as we have seen around the world—in a truly free market.

The independent scientific assessment is essential to any potential geosequestration in the South West Hub in the Harvey, Myalup, Binningup and Cookernup areas. To this end, more information is required and the process must be required to meet that same triple bottom line.

The people—not only those that currently live in that area but for the future of the Harvey, Myalup and Binningup communities—deserve that level of certainty as well.