Legislative Council

GREENS BILL: Anti-Fracking Bill

June 19th, 2013

On the 19th June, Mark introduced the Petroleum and Geothermal Energy (Hydraulic Fracturing) Amendment Bill 2013  to ban fracking and coal seam gas extraction in farmland, settled areas and conservation areas in South Australia.

The Hon. M. PARNELL:  This bill deals with a matter that will be of concern to all those who care about the environment and the rights of South Australians and, in particular, the rights of farmers and regional communities to avoid the horrors of coal seam gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing or "fracking".

Fracking involves pumping large amounts of water and chemicals into the earth at high pressure to force open or fracture rock cracks, allowing gas to escape to the surface. This technique has been banned in France and in other countries. In the United States, it has created serious environmental issues after freshwater aquifers were polluted. Mr President, you may have seen the movie Gasland, which explores this problem.

The potential for long-term adverse impacts on the environment, on agriculture and on public health is worrying. The CSIRO and the National Water Commission have stated that the impacts on underground water levels, the amount of emissions and long-term impacts on local environments and farmland are still poorly understood, and the National Toxics Network has raised concerns about the environmental and health risks linked to the chemicals associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Preliminary research tells us that it will take up to 75 years for a gas site to recharge its previous groundwater volumes, but the impact of these practices on every site is different, and so a cloud really does hang over this industry and its impacts. Whether these impacts are permanent or temporary, it is a risk that we do not have to take, which is why the Greens have moved this bill today.

Despite this uncertainty, we have seen an enormous explosion of coal seam gas wells in recent years. In fact, there is currently a total of 3,508, so I am advised, active coal seam gas wells in Australia, with 3,249 of those being in Queensland and the remaining 259 in New South Wales. Those figures include both exploration and production wells. In South Australia, it is my understanding that there is one well, up in the Cooper Basin.

This massive expansion of coal seam gas is occurring at a time when the jury is still out on many of its long-term impacts. Of course, one aspect of this industry on which the jury returned a verdict long ago is the impact on the world's climate of the burning of fossil fuels. This Greens private member's bill will permanently protect South Australian farmers, urban South Australians and our natural environment from being subjected to this risky and unnecessary practice.

The bill provides for a permanent ban on fracking in the following areas. Firstly, it provides for a ban on any land used wholly or in part for the business of primary production—in effect, farmland, for short. Secondly, it protects the following zones of land from fracking. Those zones include coastal conservation zones, coastal open-space zones, conservation zones, watershed protection zones, any form of residential zone and also any other zone of a prescribed kind. In relation to the rest of the state, the bill proposes a two-year moratorium on fracking, during which time the minister must prepare a report on the impact of fracking on water quality, soil health, climate change and local economies. That, in essence, is the substance of the bill.

Whilst fracking is an issue that has not yet attracted much attention here in South Australia, we know that it is coming. The state government's 'Roadmap for Unconventional Gas Projects in South Australia' shows that this dangerous and destructive technology is coming to a place near you soon. As I said, fracking involves the high-pressure injection of millions of litres of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the coal seam to release the gas. This fracking mixture is then pumped out, along with a far greater volume of polluted water that occurs naturally in the coal seam. This process lowers the pressure, so that the gas leaves the coal bed and comes to the surface. The small fissures created by the water pressure allow small bubbles of methane to escape and rise to the surface. As members would know, methane, if released into the atmosphere or escaping through fugitive emissions, has 23 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

The process of fracking can also mobilise naturally occurring carcinogens—benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene, collectively known as BTEX—which are then carried to the surface in the produced water. The water pumped out is contaminated with salt, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and the added chemicals, and then it needs to be treated. It needs to be quarantined in storage ponds or returned into low quality seam beds. If any of this water finds its way back into surface or groundwater systems, it will contaminate the local water supply, including irrigation water.

Coal seam gas extraction requires pumping water from coal seams potentially connected to underground aquifers, which lowers the watertable and puts soils and water supplies at risk of contamination. Because the amount of gas extracted at wells drops off by 60 to 90 per cent after the first year of production, a proliferation of wells is required to ensure the long-term profitability of the industry.

This insatiable appetite for more land for more wells is what is riling farmers in Queensland and New South Wales and fuelling the Lock the Gate movement that sees farmers attempting to deny access to coal seam gas companies, and I think we can expect exactly the same response in South Australia's farming sector.

The Liverpool Plains is just 1.5 per cent of the land area of New South Wales, yet it produces 37 per cent of Australia's cereal crops. Queensland produces more than a third of our nation's fruit and vegetables through its prime fruit and vegetable growing country like the Lockyer Valley and the Darling Downs. Yet, despite the value of these assets and their importance to our food security, these areas are also sites for coal seam gas.

Farmers who are concerned about this are powerless in the face of large corporations. Currently under state and federal law, landholders cannot refuse coal seam gas companies access to their land. Given the implications for their livelihood, farmers have been outspoken and, as I said, the Lock the Gate movement is the result. But this is not just an issue of concern for farming communities. In fact, according to a Nielsen poll in April 2013, 75 per cent of voters in New South Wales opposed coal seam gas exploration on agricultural land, and in 2011 a national poll found that 68 per cent of all Australians want to stop coal seam gas mining until we know whether or not it is safe.

Just this week, a report of the Climate Commission found that 80 per cent of the world's large coal and coal seam gas reserves would need to be left in the ground if we are to keep global warming to less than 2°. We know in the context of an impending climate crisis that the last thing we should be doing is finding new ways to dig up and burn more fossil fuels. So coal seam gas is not just damaging local farming communities: it is also jeopardising the longer term health of our planet and our efforts to tackle climate change. Yet, governments still press ahead.

At the national level and interstate, the Greens have been standing with farmers arguing that their rights should not be trumped by large corporations and we have been standing with other Australians who are concerned about the impact of these practices on their environment, on their health and on their communities. The Greens' national spokesperson on this issue is Senator Larissa Waters who has been leading the charge in Canberra.

As a result of the strong Greens campaign, just this week, the federal environment minister will be given new powers to take into account the impacts on groundwater and surface water when considering the approval of new coal and coal seam gas mining. That is a good start but there is no assurance, of course, that the federal minister will do the right thing, and what the next federal environment minister might do is just as frightening.

I also acknowledge that this an issue that not just the Greens are campaigning on. It is something that has unified people from across the political divide, from Bob Brown to Bob Katter, from the city to the bush, and it has even been championed by Alan Jones who, last time I checked, was not a card-carrying member of the Greens but someone who nevertheless recognises that it is wrong for large fossil fuel corporations to ride roughshod over local communities, as has occurred in New South Wales and Queensland.

Even the federal opposition leader, Tony Abbott, had a brief 24-hour 'road to Damascus' conversion on this issue back in 2011, only to reverse his position the following day. The views of the Australian community will not change so quickly. People are concerned about the implications of coal seam gas and other forms of unconventional gas, and they are looking to their parliaments to halt fracking either permanently in farming, urban and conservation areas or to impose a moratorium until questions can be answer.

There is of course much at stake for South Australians here. As I flagged earlier, the government's roadmap for unconventional gas released in December 2012 indicates that fracking is coming to an area near you. The roadmap earmarked potential locations for gas mining in the Lower, Mid, Upper and Far North regions, the South-East, Eyre and Yorke peninsulas, the West Coast and the Adelaide Hills—and I am not sure that there is much of the state left outside those areas.

Chris Russell, who is an enthusiastic spruiker of the industry, revealed in an Advertiser article last year that this may be only the tip of the iceberg. The Executive Director of the Energy Division of the Department of Resources and Energy, Barry Goldstein, well and truly belled the cat when he said of the government's roadmap:

                ...if we have the conversation (about coal seam gas) before the hair on the back of the neck has risen, then people are so much more receptive. We want people to have the time to be informed." 

So, what will come after this teaser campaign? Is this a curtain-raiser for something that is much bigger? We do not yet know but we, in the Greens, and I think many South Australians are vigilant and they are ready to tackle this looming menace. Why would we expose our wine, fruit and vegetable industries and our cropping and grazing lands to these kinds of risks? That certainly does raise the hair on the back of the neck.

The experience interstate has shown that once the genie is let out of the bottle it is difficult to put back in again. Through this private member's bill, there is an opportunity for this parliament to heed the warnings and ensure that South Australian primary industries, communities and the environment are protected from these kinds of risks. It is an important opportunity for all sides of politics to do what is best for our state, and it is an opportunity that members ignore at their peril. I commend the bill to the house.          

For more information see a copy of the bill

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