An independent expert scientific panel to analyse likely impacts to water from proposed coal and coal seam gas projects is set to commence on July 1, after a senate committee gave the draft legislation the thumbs up yesterday.
The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee has been reviewing the proposed legislation since late March and yesterday gave its recommendation that the bill be passed.
The decision to establish an expert panel was announced in November last year after rural independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott secured commitments from Prime Minister Julia Gillard to strengthen scientific assessment processes surrounding potential mining impacts on water, in reurn for their support for the Government's $11b mining tax.
The prime minister announced $150 million in funding to establish an Independent Expert Scientific Committee. The framework included $50m in incentive payments to encourage State Governments to sign a national partnership agreement with the Commonwealth requiring them to take into account the advice of the IESC in their assessment and approval decisions.
The governments of Queensland, NSW, South Australia and the Northern Territory signed the agreement in February. The senate committee report noted that WA, Tasmania and the ACT do not have coal mining so have not been part of the national partnership negotiations, and Victoria has not yet signed.
The legislation says the primary function of the IESC will be to provide scientific advice on whether proposed coal seam gas or large coal mining developments are likely to have a significant impact on water resources.
It will require the Federal environment minister to request and consider the advice of the IESC where a proposed development is likely to have “a significant impact” on water resources, and may have an adverse impact on a matter of national environmental significance.
The bill does not define what "significant impact' entails, with the definition likely to be “developed over time”, the senate committee noted.
The IESC’s role would be advisory only and will have no responsbility for approvals, or recommending whether a project should or should not be approved.
Instead the legislation will require the Federal environment minister to take into account all relevant advice provided by the IESC before deciding whether to approve or not approve an action that impacts on a matter of national environmental significance.
The Committee will consist of between five and eight members, appointed by the minister on a part-time basis. Each member would be required to possess appropriate scientific qualifitications in geology, hydrology, hydrogeology or ecology.
The bill states that the minister would also have to ensure that each member’s appointment is not made to represent any particular body, group or community, to protect the IESC’s independence. (Many submitters to the public consultation process argued that it is all but impossible for experts to have expertise without having previously worked in some capacity in the mining industry)
The legislation also states that when the minister requests advice from the IESC in relation to a proposed development, that the "clock be stopped" for two months on the prescribed time in which the minister has to make a decision on that project. Community and environmental groups have argued this does not allow enough time to conduct thorough assessments, while mining representatives say the measure will cause considerable delays and should only occur early in the approval process.
In Australia mining operations are regulated under state or territory legislation. The Federal Government becomes involved only when projects could have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance which include threatened species, wetlands of international importance or national or world heritage places.
The Greens have argued that while the bill represents a significant reform in recognising serious gaps in the science about potential threats from mining, the legislation still “lacks teeth”.
This is because it only requires states to “consider” advice provided by the expert panel, and provides no recourse for the Federal Government if a State chooses to ignore or brush-aside the advice of the panel.
Under existing legislation the Federal environment minister could only make decisions on mining projects in narrow circumstances, such as where threatened species were involved, and therefore would not be able to stop projects where the science indicates broader risks to water or the environment, because these responsibilities remained with state governments.
The Greens have introduced their own bill which, if passed, would add the impacts of mining on water to the list environmental impacts that the Federal Minister would have the power to rule on when making decisions on project approvals.
Despite those concerns the IESC concept has been largely supported by environmental and community groups, which have argued that not enough is known about CSG and its potential impact on people, the environment and communities.
The concept has been opposed by mining companies and peak mining bodies which argue it will create additional regulatory burdens in environmental processes and delay significant projects.
Submissions from mining companies said the proposed legislation would duplicate regulation in the environmental approval process, which they argued was already extensive.
The Minerals Council of Australia said that removing duplication instead of adding it would allow greater resources to be directed at better environmental decision making. “…there is always an opportunity for continuous improvement in the way in which regulation is applied and that there are real opportunities to remove some of the duplication and inefficiency. If that were to occur, that would potentially free resources to be used to improve the scientific information base on which decisions are made.”
Submissions from supporters of the IESC concept highlighted a desire for better scientific knowledge in environmental decision-making processes.
The Friends of Felton group from Southern Queensland said: “CSG is often touted as cleaner than coal and an ideal pathway for transitioning from coal to renewable; this is accepted as a "given" by virtually everyone. In truth we don't yet know enough about the life cycle of CSG to say anything definitive about its relative cleanliness.”
Australian Pork raised concerns about unknown impacts of CSG mining on agriculture and water resources.
“…the approach of State and Federal Governments to implement adaptive management regimes for CSG projects in the absence of sufficient science may have irreversible environmental, economic and social impacts on rural communities. It may be decades before the current and cumulative impacts of CSG activity on our water resources is fully understood. By this time it will be too late to reverse these impacts through 'make good' or other legislative provisions.”
The Basin Sustainability Alliance said it supported the IESC because “of the urgent need for independent scientific investigation into the numerous serious environmental concerns held by rural and regional communities about the long term cumulative impact of the massive scale of the CSG industry."
Submitters also expressed a view that the current regulatory approach was not working because the system was heavily weighted towards approval and overrode legitimate environmental concerns in favour of “the power, money and influence of mining companies”.