You can’t eat coal and you can’t drink gas

Senator Larissa Waters (Greens) yesterday used her maiden speech in parliament to warn about the risks of coal and gas mining in Queensland. I’ve included a (longish) excerpt of her speech below.

The extraction of coal and coal seam gas is also threatening that other great Queensland industry—agriculture. Just 2.2 per cent of Queensland is good quality agricultural land, yet the coal and coal seam gas miners want to go into our best food-producing land sitting on top of the Great Artesian Basin and turn our food bowl into an industrial wasteland. You cannot eat coal and you cannot drink gas. It beggars belief that neither the state government nor the federal government is taking a long-term view of how we are going to feed ourselves if the groundwater table drops or if those aquifers are contaminated. The coal seam gas industry is still trying to work out what to do with the billions of litres of water it extracts from coal beds. It does not need a water licence, and it considers water a waste product. In this driest continent on the planet, who could ever conceive of water as a waste product?

Food security should be beyond politics and it should not be sold out for short-term royalties and offshore private profits. We simply do not know enough about our underground water resources to understand what new connections gas well drilling and hydraulic fracturing might create. We need a moratorium on new approvals until we fully understand the risks—the precautionary principle demands it and the community demands it.

Similar issues are clearly on Tony Windsor’s mind (Independent). Last week he issued a media release outlining his intention to introduce legislation which would provide greater protection for water resources. The proposed legislation would amend the EPBC Act to “require companies to seek a licence before undertaking any mining activity in a region that has water resouces”. If passed, this legislation would put the onus on mining companies to prove that their activities would not impact on water quality or availability.

I’m not sure how popular this proposed legislation will be in parliament, but I think it’s a pretty good idea. Establishment of the Great Artesian Basin as an issue (resource) of national importance would allow the federal government to take control of the issue and provide a nationally consistent standard. If the Great Artesian Basin were managed at a federal level, there might be greater recognition of the value and fragility of this important resource. Hopefully this would result in more thorough risk assessments of all practices which had the potential to impact the basin.

[caveat: I’m no expert on legislative matters, so please correct me if you know better!]

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2 responses

  1. It would have to be quite an amendment to the EPBC Act which is about significant impacts to matters of national environmental significance, mostly around flora and fauna. The current tests about whether the Act applies are:
    – Is the proposed action likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance?
    – Is the proposed action likely to have a significant impact on the environment in general (for actions by Commonwealth agencies or actions on Commonwealth land) or the environment on Commonwealth land (for actions outside Commonwealth land)?
    Most of the legislative power rests with the States.
    There is lots of extravagent fear mongering language around this issue of which Senator Waters is just one entertaining example. It doesn’t lead to much understanding. I would suspect that there isn’t much for conventional agriculture to fear. Groundwater used in agriculture is mostly from less than 100 metres and the technology for sealing off aquifers as deeper bores pass through is well understood and practiced. The treatment and disposal of poor quality groundwater from great depth is an issue but more one of cost and impacts on the Great Artesian Basin are possible and our understanding less clear but perhaps not quite as dire as some would have us believe. For a bit of perspective agriculture in Australia uses 80% of the water that is used and occupies about 60% of the landmass. Mining occupies less than 0.5% of the landmass. Talk of turning agricultural land into an industrial wasteland is nonsense. Keep up the good work Carrie. Cheers Alex

  2. Pingback: Groundwater details | What's so bad about gas?

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