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AGAINST – Bills — Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment (Safety and Other Measures) Bill 2024; Second Reading

Sophie Scamps

I rise today to speak against this bill in the strongest possible terms. One of the main reasons the people of Mackellar sent me to this place was that they wanted greater integrity and transparency from our politicians and in our political system. The way the Minister for Resources has tried to sneak through an amendment to the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment (Safety and Other Measures) Bill 2024, an amendment which would weaken the consultation obligations of offshore oil and gas proponents, is a masterclass in lack of transparency and lack of consultation.

For nearly a decade people across Australia, including in my electorate of Mackellar, have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of integrity in our political system. For nearly a decade they've watched on as former governments failed to put in place measures to combat corruption within their own ranks; pork-barrelling flourished, as did the jobs-for-mates culture; the influence of vested interests flourished; and there was a lack of transparency around political lobbying and donations. It seems that here the fossil fuel interests are once again pulling the strings.

The Australian people sent a very clear message to this place at the last election: they had had enough of the lack of transparency and they expected better. However, the manner in which the resources minister has attempted to slip through an amendment to this bill lacks transparency and integrity. The minister is trying to slip in an amendment which would weaken obligations for offshore oil and gas proponents to consult with communities and First Nations peoples, thus circumventing our national environmental laws, and get it through unnoticed. It is couched as being among amendments to improve safety for workers on offshore mining projects, something that we of course support. But the way this has been couched—in amongst many other different amendments, in a 'nothing to see here' mentality—lacks transparency.

This is another example of the vital importance of the crossbench in holding the government to account and calling them out when they don't live up to their own ambitions of being more transparent and collaborative. I was optimistic that that message had got through at the last election. I was hopeful that the new government would act with integrity and transparency. Unfortunately, on this occasion I have been disappointed. In fact, when it comes to laws to protect our environment, the Labor government have repeatedly failed Australians. The Labor government have greenwashed us over and over again. They are, quite simply, speaking out of both sides of their mouth when it comes to the environment and climate change.

The resources minister and the Minister for the Environment and Water are acting in direct opposition to one another, as in the case of this amendment. Just as the environment minister is holding in-depth consultations about how to strengthen our national environment laws, the resources minister is creating a pathway around them—a back door, if you like—for the fossil fuel companies. Despite all the rhetoric that followed the dire state of the environment report that was made public in 2022, the Labor government have done very little to actually protect our environment or halt the devastating effects of climate change. Of course they will claim otherwise, quite naturally. They are very good at tinkering around the edges and making the Australian public think they are taking action. They use phrases like 'signature climate policy', 'nature positive plan'. They're very good at spin. But once they've unveiled their signature climate policy or Nature Positive Plan they will very quickly and quietly introduce tricky pieces of legislation which subvert or negate the effects of what they claim they have set out to do.

Let's go through some examples, Mr Deputy Speaker, first of all the safeguard mechanism. This is the government's signature climate policy. It's a policy which deals only with scope 1 emissions and only those from Australia's 219 largest emitters. To put that in perspective: scope 1 emissions are direct greenhouse gas emissions from sources that are controlled or owned by those 219 largest emitters. If we take the example of fossil fuel companies, that means the safeguard mechanism seeks to regulate only the emissions created from taking fossil fuels out of the ground, when they are being mined. It does nothing to cover emissions created from what happens next: the burning of those fossil fuels, which, as everyone knows, is where the devastation really occurs.

Further, the safeguard mechanism does nothing to deal with emissions from transport or households. On transport, we are nearly two years into this term of parliament, and this government has still not legislated the vehicle efficiency standards. Yes, a proposal is on the table, but as of today Australia remains partnered with Russia as one of the only OECD countries without vehicle efficiency standards. Two years into the government's term, manufacturers are still able to treat this country as a dumping ground for heavy-polluting vehicles.

But back to the safeguard mechanism: it was introduced with much fanfare, and I supported that piece of legislation. Like everything related to the climate or the environment that this government is doing, it wasn't adequate, but it was progress. I negotiated with the government on it and helped achieve a concession in relation to the new gas facilities, which as a result are required to be net-zero emissions from their commencement.

Shortly afterwards, however, the Minister for the Environment and Water introduced the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill 2023. Documents released under the freedom of information laws revealed that this bill was introduced so the government could help gas companies like Santos subvert the requirements of the safeguard mechanism. This bill allowed the import and export of carbon dioxide for injection into the seabed. That's right: Santos demanded an exemption from this provision in the safeguard mechanism, and they got it—inject carbon into our oceans or ship it to East Timor and inject it into their ocean bed. The safeguard mechanism, in this way, has been thwarted. Carbon capture and storage, an unproven technology at best, can now be used as a way for fossil fuel companies to expand their gas projects massively. And don't forget: our safeguard mechanism does nothing to address what happens when gas is actually burnt for energy.

The next big reform the government boasts about is the changes to our country's environment laws, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. For this, the government has a Nature Positive Plan, but we have not seen the government's proposed amendments to the EPBC Act, despite having been promised that we would see them well ahead of now. There are even suggestions that some of the necessary reforms to the EPBC legislation will not be introduced in this term of government.

But, to be fair, there was one necessary reform to the EPBC Act which the government did introduce late last year. That was to extend the water trigger in the EPBC Act to cover all forms of unconventional gas. In other words, as a result of that reform, where mining for any type of gas occurs onshore, it must be referred to the environment minister for approval if it is likely to have a significant impact on water resources.

But—and there's always a 'but'—there are two current proposals for new gas projects in the Beetaloo basin which we know have not been referred to the minister under this expanded water trigger. The minister has written to the proponent, Tamboran Resources, informing the company of its obligations under the new laws but has not yet used her call-in powers to require the project to be referred to her for assessment. I asked a question about this in question time last week, and there was no indication that the call-in powers would be used.

So the question arises: What happens if the proponent fails to refer projects to the minister under the new water trigger? Is there a consequence? The answer is that the water trigger is a law which essentially leaves the decision about whether a project needs federal approval up to the profit driven fossil fuel company, the proponent. Any penalty in relation to a failure to refer can only be imposed after the relevant fossil fuel project commences. The fossil fuel company may, of course, already have destroyed the water aquifer by that point. Once that's done, a maximum penalty of around $15 million can be imposed. This would be a drop in the ocean for a fossil fuel company that might make billions of dollars in profit from already having destroyed our water resources. They will consider such a penalty a cost of doing business.

Another example of industries receiving exemptions from environmental laws is the logging industry. Where a regional forestry agreement is in place in a particular state, logging operations covered under that agreement are exempt from the EPBC Act. Again, as a result of a question I asked in parliament last year, the minister confirmed that the reforms to the EPBC Act would remove that exemption. But in subsequent dealings with the environment minister's office they have often sidestepped the question of precisely when the regional forestry agreements would lose their exemption. Some of those regional forestry agreements, after all, have up to 20 years still to run. Will it only be new regional forestry agreements that are caught up by these environment laws? Will others still have 20 years to log our native forests free from the restriction imposed by our national environment laws?

With this bill and with the amendments to this bill, as we have seen but not yet been briefed on or even officially told about, we see yet another example of the government speaking out of both sides of its mouth. This bill is called the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment (Safety and Other Measures) Bill 2024, and it is the 'other measures' bit where we immediately are concerned. In amongst the detail of new safety measures for offshore gas industry workers the government had hidden an amendment which basically allows the resources minister to sidestep the requirements of the EPBC Act when approving projects. The bill facilitates the weakening of current obligations for offshore oil and gas proponents to consult with interested communities and First Nations representatives about their projects. It empowers the resources minister to introduce lower standards than those that would be required under the EPBC Act. This is an incredible example of the government doing its level best to subvert its own environmental legislation. When it comes to projects as environmentally destructive and catastrophic for the climate as offshore oil and gas production, why on earth would the government weaken its own existing environmental standards? Not only that, why would it hide that it is weakening it in a bill which was otherwise about a very different issue entirely?

Then we get to the procedural problems in the government's handling of this bill. This bill was referred to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee for a truncated, some might say quick-and-dirty, review of the legislation. Lo and behold, that inquiry recommended no changes to the bill. The inquiry report noted:

The committee notes that many witnesses have submitted that—

the changes at issue—

… may be applied in such a way which could potentially weaken environmental standards or consultation requirements.

The report did not quote or analyse those submissions but went straight on in the next sentence to highlight evidence from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources:

… that the bill under consideration does not change approval or consultation processes.

It is only after the howls of protest from the crossbench and the entire environmental community that the government is seeking to introduce amendments to this bill.

What do those amendments do? They basically establish an optional consultation process between the resources minister and the environment minister. The effect of the amendments is that when the resources minister wants to make a regulation bypassing the EPBC Act, she must be satisfied that those regulations are not inconsistent with that act. She must consult with the environment minister, and the environment minister must send the resources minister a notice declaring whether the regulations are consistent or inconsistent with the EPBC Act. But at the end of all that the resources minister may ignore everything and put through the regulations anyway, to use the language of the amendment, even if the environment minister thinks the regulations she wants to make are inconsistent with the environment laws. Even if the environment minister issues a notice to the resources minister declaring exactly the same thing, the resources minister may go ahead and make the regulations anyway.

So at the end of it all, this bill and the government's amendments to it do nothing to resolve the reality of accelerated offshore gas approvals. Unfortunately, this Labor government has proven itself just as willing to approve coal and gas developments as the coalition government was. In seeking to pass this bill the government is making a complete mockery of our national environment laws. (Time expired)

(Quorum formed)

Long debate text truncated.

Summary

Date and time: 6:06 PM on 2024-03-25
Allegra Spender's vote: No
Total number of "aye" votes: 57
Total number of "no" votes: 14
Total number of abstentions: 79
Related bill: Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment (Safety and Other Measures) Bill 2024

Adapted from information made available by theyvoteforyou.org.au

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