Water trigger fails to live up to hype

The Federal Government has announced that coal seam gas (CSG) projects that could affect water resources will now trigger Federal approval.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke stated that he will soon have the capacity to make decisions on CSG that take into account the full impacts on water resources. The bill – detailing the proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) – was tabled this week.

Are we seriously expected to believe that CSG companies will declare significant impacts, acting against their financial interest?

However, all the trigger does is bring a CSG project in for possible consideration. That’s all. There is no guarantee that it will then be assessed and there is no guarantee that the changes will stop projects or prevent damage to water resources.

Federal protection of water is clearly needed, but these changes fall far short in the detail – providing no objective, quantifiable protection.

The bill fails to define trigger points beyond an abstract definition of significant – defined as as an impact which is “important, notable, or of consequence, having regard to its context or intensity”. The Federal Government needs to tell the public what they consider significant, and what they do not. For example, how much groundwater draw down will be allowable before a project will be stopped?

The proposal makes the Environment Minister the sole decision maker. The Minister will take advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on the impacts on water resources, but purely as information ‘to be considered’. Ministerial discretion was one of the huge problems with the infamous Part 3A changes to the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act that gave control of major projects to the Planning Minister leading to abuse of our planning laws and the exclusion of communities.

The referral to the Minister will require CSG companies to self-report – to declare if a project may have a significant impact on water. Are we seriously expected to believe that CSG companies will declare significant impacts, acting against their financial interest?

Lastly, the bill does not even mention drinking water catchments, when CSG – and the industrial development and toxic risks it brings – should simply be banned in these areas.

This week’s announcements tell us that responsibility for protecting water resources can be taken by the Federal Government, but that this is not yet a job they are remotely serious about.

CSG and our drinking water catchments

Take a closer look at the licenses, approved exploration wells and production plans for CSG projects that cover Sydney’s drinking water catchments… the source of drinking water for 60% of NSW.

Download the map now (3mb PDF).

CSG and water catchments map

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