Coal and CSG sector criticism for environmental Act amendment

A Bill introduced into the House of Representatives in March could see the Federal Government take control of environmental impact assessments for CSG and coal mining projects, prompting concerned responses from parts of the resources sector and related industries.
The water trigger Bill, a proposed amendment to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, seeks to include water resources as a new matter of national environmental significance (MNES) in the context of CSG and large coal mining projects.
In its proposed form, the Bill would amend the Act by requiring CSG and coal mining developments likely to have significant impacts on water resources to be referred to the Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities minister.
Should the minister determine that a project was likely to have a significant impact on a water resource, the project would require assessment and approvalunder the EPBC Act.
Environment minister Tony Burke said there had been “significant concerns” raised by communities around Australia about the impact of coal seam gas on ground water and surface water resources.
“Australia’s water resources are among our most vital natural resources and it is important that we ensure they are protected,” Mr Burke said in a March statement.
“For projects which are already undergoing an assessment, they will 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.”
The Federal Government cited community concerns about the potential impacts of CSG and coal mining activities on water resources as its reason for recently taking a greater role in reviewing proposals and developments.
However, environment and planning lawyers working for large coal mining and CSG projects have warned that the water trigger Bill could potentially duplicate existing state environmental impact assessment processes, leading to increased costs and delays. Queensland Curtis LNG (QCLNG) project operator and BG Group company QGC publicly requested the Bill be withdrawn, citing concerns of “serious implications” for the development of its CSG-to-LNG project should the amendment proceed.
QGC stated that the amendment “seemed inconsistent” in that it targeted CSG and coal mining, but did not include coverage of agricultural activity.
Mining only accounts for 4 per cent of Australia’s water consumption, compared to agriculture’s 54 per cent.
“There is no rationale for impacts on water to be an MNES when they are caused by some activities, but not when the same impacts are caused by others,” QGC stated in a senate committee submission.
QGC stated that the new Bill was “introduced hurriedly”, without industry consultation or a regulatory impact statement, and that it would likely impose unnecessary costs, cause project delays and impede investment.
Speaking in Brisbane to the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia, BG Group Australia chairman Catherine Tanna warned that anti-development activism against natural gas projects could threaten thousands of jobs and billions of dollars worth of investment in Australia.
Ms Tanna said that proposals including the EPBC Act amendment Bill were not introduced to deal with an environmental problem, but to appease activists.
“We believe the proposals are fundamentally flawed because they deal with a fabricated perception and not with reality, and will effectively shift the regulatory goal posts for projects already approved by a regulatory regime that already works,” she said. Following a senate inquiry into the water trigger amendment on 17 April, NSW Irrigators Council chief executive Andrew Gregson said the council did not believe that ‘matters of significance’ could be applied as a concept to only particular water resources.
“We think it would apply to all sources… [and] the Parliament must give further attention to the term ‘matter of significance’,”
Mr Gregson said in a statement. “Whilst it remains entirely subjective, it [the term] will continue to cause uncertainty.”
The Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC) – set up by the Gillard government in November 2012 to provide advice on CSG and large coal mining development proposals – advised that there was a lack of information regarding potential impacts of projects on water resources.
In an analysis of developments reviewed by the IESC, published in The Conversation in April, ecological economist Colin Hunt found that of the 17 assessments the IESC had made, 14 were deficient in accounting for the cumulative impacts on surface and groundwater.
UWA Associate Professor of Law Alex Gardner said, in the context of Hunt’s analysis of the IESC’s assessments, it was unlikely the Federal Government would accredit current state assessment processes, and would rather seek greater control by passing the proposed amendments to the EPBC Act.
“The Commonwealth are likely to want to do their own environmental impact assessments,” Mr Gardner said.
At the time of going to print, the Bill had been referred to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, and a report on it was required by 15 May. The Bill would
then be referred back to Parliament and, according to wide-spread political commentary, was expected to be passed.

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