Senator Barnaby Joyce.
Senator Barnaby Joyce. Allan Reinikka

Canberra debates CSG dilemma

THE issue of coal seam gas extraction continues to achieve something that has been extremely rare in the nation's capital over the past two years - consensus.

And so it continued in the Senate yesterday as a bill to establish a scientific committee to assess future large coal and CSG projects was debated.

The bill, which passed the lower house in May, was debated for more than half the day and was due to resume last night.

While the bill is expected to pass the Senate unopposed, there is no agreement on all aspects of it.

Attempts by the Greens to amend the bill, including placing a five-year moratorium on CSG extraction, were defeated.

Senator Larissa Waters spent more than an hour grilling the government about certain parts of the bill.

While she supported the bill, she said it did not go far enough to ensure the Environment Minister must act on the committee's advice and the minister did not have the power to enforce recommendations anyway.

Senator Waters was helped in her prosecution by maverick Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, whose concerns about the potential impact of CSG on underground water systems and prime agricultural land are well known.

He described the panel as a "toothless tiger" in that the state ministers charged with approving CSG applications would not be required to consider the panel's advice.

During a lengthy debate, Nationals Senators Fiona Nash and Barnaby Joyce said more work was needed to determine the risks associated with CSG extraction.

Senator Nash, while not opposed to mining, said no CSG developments should go ahead where there was a risk to aquifers and agricultural land.

"We all agree that mining where it is appropriate does have some benefit for regional communities," Senator Nash said.

"It is where the impact is going to be negative that we have to be absolutely sure that we have the policy framework to make sure that regional communities are not harmed in any way, shape or form.

"The potential impact on the aquifer is not something that you can change down the track by throwing money at it.
"That is why it is so key that we get it absolutely right."

On top of their concerns about the potential environmental impacts, senators Nash and Joyce each argued regional areas deserved to share in the largesse created by CSG.

They said where it was deemed safe to extract CSG, those areas should receive a financial return.

Senator Joyce said Australia could learn from the oil-rich state of Texas in the United States, where he recently visited.

He said the government there was "investing where they make their money", adding landowners in regional Australian were getting "ripped off" by mining companies.

Senator Joyce told the Senate CSG dominated discussions on Friday when mayors from 10 councils and state and federal MPs met for a regional leaders summit in Toowoomba.

"It was issue one, two, three, four and five and then other issues," Senator Joyce said.

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