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Coal Seam Gas Industry (Question No. 210)

Senator Siewert asked the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, upon notice, on 17 November 2010: With reference to the coal seam gas mine planned for Curtis Island, within the Murray-Darling Basin catchment area:

(1) Have any studies been conducted into the cumulative effects of the coal seam gas industry on the area.

(2) What measures are in place to assess and manage the cumulative effects of the multiple coal seam gas mines.

(3) What size buffer zones have been established between the project, and the:
(a) Ramsar protected wetlands;
(b) stream orders 2, 3 and 4; and
(c) stream orders 5, 6 and 7.

(4) (a) How will the expert panel, which will help assess the hydraulic connectivity of a proposed draw-down aquifer, be selected; and (b) how will its impartiality be guaranteed.

(5) Will there be any opportunity for non-government groups to comment on each of the stipulated management plans before they are approved.

Senator Conroy—The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities has provided the following answer to the honourable senator’s question:

(1) The facilities proposed on Curtis Island are liquid natural gas processing plants. Curtis Island is not in the Murray-Darling Basin. However, there are currently four coal seam gas projects relating to proposed developments on Curtis Island, north of Gladstone in Queensland. These include two projects I have approved, for Santos and Queensland Gas Company (QGC), and two projects for which decisions have not been made, proposed by Australia Pacific LNG (APLNG) and Shell (which may be supplied by coal seam gas fields proposed by Arrow Energy).

A number of studies have been undertaken which address the issue of cumulative impacts of the Santos, QGC and APLNG projects on groundwater and surface water resources in the Surat Basin, which lies partly within the Murray- Darling Basin. (The Arrow Energy proposal is at an early stage of environmental assessment.)

In relation to the Santos, QGC, and APLNG projects, reports and studies include:
* reports by the Queensland Coordinator-General on the Santos, QGC, and APLNG projects. These reports are available on the Coordinator-General’s website (http://www.dip.qld.gov.au/coordinator-general-projects/completed.html);
* independent expert advice provided to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (the department) by Geoscience Australia on 17 September 2010. This advice was tabled in the Senate on 16 November 2010;
* the “Assessment of impacts of the proposed coal seam gas operations on surface and groundwater systems in the Murray-Darling Basin”, which I released on 10 December 2011.

Under the conditions of my approval for the Santos and QGC coal seam gas projects, the proponents must provide a cumulative impact assessment report which addresses potential impacts on matters of national environmental significance. The proponents must also produce a cumulative impact assessment report under conditions of state approvals.
The Queensland Water Commission (QWC) is also responsible for the development and management of a regional cumulative groundwater model, including associated monitoring of the impacts of coal seam gas projects. Under the conditions of approval I imposed on the Santos and British Gas/Queensland Gas Company projects, the proponents are required develop a regional groundwater model, which may be undertaken through contributions to the QWC model.

(2) Strict approval conditions include requirements for:
* The development of a regional groundwater model, to be developed as an early warning system, so that any hydrological changes can be identified at an early stage and appropriate, effective remedial actions implemented to avoid impacts on matters of national environmental significance.
* The development of a cumulative impact report that must address cumulative impacts relating to all listed species and listed ecological communities within and outside the project area, and any surface or groundwater environmental values which, if altered, may have an impact on matters of national environmental significance within or outside the project area.
* The development and implementation of a water monitoring and management plan, for my approval on the advice of an expert panel. That plan must include programs for such things as aquifer connectivity studies, programs and schedules for piloting of aquifer reinjection, and early warning drawdown thresholds which, if exceeded, will trigger requirements to restore groundwater pressure. Consistent with an adaptive management approach, the proponents must review and update this plan to take into account the regional groundwater model, as well as the cumulative impact assessment reports required under the conditions.
* Strict disturbance limits, requirements to secure substantial offsets, and to invest in rehabilitation of substantial areas of land.

The conditions also provide that, if I consider it necessary or desirable for the better protection of matters of national environmental significance, I can impose additional requirements. Conditions to manage cumulative impacts, in relation to matters of state responsibility, have also been imposed by the State of Queensland on the Santos, QGC and APLNG coal seam gas projects. These include conditions for cumulative impact assessment reports, regional groundwater modelling, participation in the establishing and funding of a CSG industry monitoring group, and an assessment of cumulative impacts to environmental values which must be submitted before the issue of environmental authorities for a petroleum lease. The implementation of these conditions is the responsibility of the Queensland government.

(3) (a) Ramsar protected wetlands; (b) stream orders 2, 3 and 4; and (c) stream orders 5, 6 and 7. In relation to Ramsar protected wetlands, the approved Santos and Queensland Gas Company (QGC) projects are a long distance from the nearest Ramsar sites (being the Gwydir Wetlands and the Narran Lakes Wetlands). The assessment of these projects determined that water extraction in these projects’ gas fields is unlikely to have a significant impact on these wetlands. The conditions I imposed on the coal seam gas projects apply to streams and watercourses where matters of national environmental significance may be involved. Where this involves an ephemeral or perennial water course, strict conditions require the proponent to develop an aquatic values management plan to assess each watercourse for matters of national environmental significance, and to address any identified impacts on those matters, such as the Fitzroy River Turtle and the Murray Cod. Where reasonably possible, to avoid impacts on those matters, horizontal directional drilling must be used for major waterway crossings. Requirements for buffer zones for watercourses more generally is a matter for the state. I am advised that the Queensland Coordinator-General model conditions for an environmental authority include buffer zones of 200m from any natural significant wetland; 100m from any natural wetland, lakes or springs; and 100m from the high bank of any other watercourse.

(4)    The expert panel will be appointed by me on advice from my department. I will consider the necessary independence and expertise of the panel. Panel members will be required to declare any conflict of interest.

(5)    Consistent with standard practice, in making decisions on whether to approve plans that required as conditions of the coal seam gas approvals, I or my delegate will seek independent expert advice on draft plans as necessary. I expect the expert panel members to bring a diversity of views and experience to their task.

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