April 4, 2013

Cutting Corners

At risk – the Gloucester Basin in NSW
Monday's Four Corners created quite a stir, although the only surprise as far as many people were concerned was that their worst fears were being confirmed by someone directly involved in the Queensland Government's environmental assessment process.

Senior bureaucrat turned whistleblower Simone Marsh described the pressure put on her and her colleagues in 2010 by the then Labor government and, by inference, two of Australia's major coal seam gas developers, Santos and the Queensland Gas Company, to fast-track approval of two CSG projects worth billions of dollars.

One of the issues here is the adoption of an 'adaptive management framework'. Because the areas the companies are licensed to explore are so large, they defer from providing precise details of pipeline, well and infrastructure locations at the stage permissions are sought. Simone Marsh says it was therefore impossible to assess whether or not environmentally sensitive areas would be impacted. In addition to fundamental site information, she lacked baseline studies* of the potential impact of mining CSG on groundwater – perhaps the single most important issue for farming communities.

Furthermore, Ms Marsh was informed directly that there would be no groundwater baseline studies to come. And one of her colleagues reported being given four weeks to deal with 10,000 pages of material, which is not the first time public servants involved in environmental assessment have described the impossibility of their task. Not to mention the pressure of achieving a 'bankable outcome'.

The Greens have called for a moratorium on further CSG development until the potential risks to the environment and groundwater are fully investigated. The effects on water of increasing numbers of wells are cumulative and studies would of necessity be lengthy. Legislation currently before the Senate would make independent water assessment for future projects and Environment Minister Tony Burke's approval mandatory.

The Lock the Gate Alliance has called for a public inquiry into the allegations on the basis that Queensland Government employees were put under inappropriate political pressure.

We also learn that Premier Campbell Newman is in favour of investigation of the claims. This must be because it would present him with another opportunity to take a swipe at his predecessor, Anna Bligh, rather than the result of a genuine concern that approvals were rushed through and environmental regulation in particular severely compromised. That is surely what his removal-of-green-tape legislation is all about, no?

* the analysis of a situation or location to identify the starting points for a project or programme

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