Coal and coal seam gas projects which pose a significant threat to water resources will soon have to pass a new Commonwealth assessment process in addition to State approval processes, under changes being introduced to national environmental law by Federal environment minister Tony Burke.
The move has triggered an angry response from the resources sector and the Queensland Government, while it has been welcomed by farming groups.
The amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 will require federal assessment and approval of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments which have a significant impact on a water resource.
Mr Burke said that under current legislation, the Federal Government can only take account of water-related impacts when mining or gas proposals present a possible impact threatened species or wetlands.
However, the community expected that the federal government should also be able to consider the impact of developments on vital natural resources, Mr Burke said.
“Realistically whenever I have made a decision on coal seam gas, the Australian public would expect that we are taking into account all the impacts on our precious water resources.
“This change gives me as Australia’s Environment Minister the capacity to do just that.”
He also dismissed suggestions that the changes will result in needless delays for project applications.
In many cases the additional information required by the Federal Government will already have been collected in the state approval process, he said.
He said companies at the start of their approval process could incorporate the additional information required for the Commonwealth environmental assessment from the start.
Companies further advanced in the assessment proposal would not be required to restart their environmental impact assessment from the beginning.
“Rather my department is writing to every company affected advising them as to what the additional information is, so that they can get to work on that straight away,” Mr Burke said
Mr Burke said the Independent Expert Scientific Committee established by the Gillard Government last year will continue to provide advice for coal seam gas and large coal mining projects which may require federal assessment, including assessments of impacts on water resources.
The IECS has already made its presence felt after heavily criticising Arrow Energy’s draft Environmental Impact Statement for its large Southern Queensland based CSG project. The independent committee said the EIS did not adequately account for potential environmental impacts of national significance, and modelling used was likely to be inaccurate. Arrow is reviewing its EIS as a result of the advice.
The additional level of scrutiny that will now be applied to coal and coal seam gas projects close to water resources has been welcomed by the NSW Farmers Association.
President Fiona Simson welcomed said farmers had consistently called for strong regulatory frameworks that place “sensible limits” on mining and coal seam gas activities.
She added that it was “not surprising” the federal environment minister had seen a need to step in, after state regulations had stopped short of providing adequate protections to important natural resources.
“Improvements are still needed at a state level to give farmers and rural communities confidence that the risks to their land and water from CSG and large coal mining developments will be managed,” Ms Simson said.
“NSW Farmers is hopeful the NSW Government will make the necessary improvements to its Strategic Regional Land Use Policy to avoid the need for this federal intervention.”
Ms Simson said NSW Farmers was not opposed to mining and coal seam gas, but was calling for enforceable thresholds on water impacts and for the state’s best agricultural land to be ruled off-limits to mining and gas developments.
The Queensland Government reacted strongly to the Federal Government’s announcement, describing it as a “desperate act from a failing government”.
Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney said the Prime Minister and Environment Minister had sought to trade off the economic future of Queensland for cheap political gain.
“Unfortunately the CSG industry has always been susceptible to scare campaigns and this is yet another example of desperate people in Canberra looking to create controversy around sensitive issues to try to detract from their own poor performance,” Mr Seeney said.
“Minister Burke has always sought to make it difficult for our government to boost Queensland’s economy and this is yet another one of his attempts to override the sovereign state for his political agenda.
“The Prime Minister and her failing Labor government got the fright of their lives last weekend from the election results in Western Australia and they are looking for diversions to steer attention away from failure after failure.”
Mr Seeney said since coming to government, the LNP had established the Gasfields Commission to allow communities and industry to better coexist.
“The government has also released the DNRM Coal Seam Gas Engagement and Compliance Plan 2013, a key part of our overall strategy for the responsible oversight and regulation of the CSG industry,” he said.
“The CSG industry in Queensland has rapidly been getting runs on the board and there are enough facts and data to make it difficult for the doomsayers and scaremongers’ claims to have any credibility.”
The Queensland Resources Council said the Federal Government’s move was unwelcome, unnecessary and “incapable of satisfying environmental activists who were focused on destroying Queensland’s leading industries”.
Queensland Resources Council Chief Executive Michael Roche said the announcement was another example of policy on the run from a government that appeared more interested in picking fights than delivering outcomes.
“Another layer of bureaucracy is simply adding to Australia’s global reputation as a prohibitively expensive place to do business,” Mr Roche said.
“And at the end of the day, it’s not going to make a scrap of difference appeasing activist groups whose end game is the closure of mining and petroleum industries in this country.”
Mr Roche said Australia has been largely insulated from the double-digit unemployment common throughout Europe because of new investment in minerals and energy projects.
“Today’s policy initiative from the federal government is to lay down another obstacle to those valuable projects getting off the drawing board.”
He said the coal mining and CSG industries in Queensland were already subject to hundreds of laws and thousands of regulations that more than adequately cover off on issues the federal government suggest are lacking from current assessment processes.
“There is no more heavily regulated or closely monitored industry sector in the country, yet it appears that for the sake of marginal political interests in NSW, too much is never enough,” Mr Roche said.