Great Barrier Reef Groundwater – Miners take as much as you want!
Great Barrier Reef threatened by Queensland plan to let miners take billions of litres of groundwater, says Marine Park Authority
Queensland is set to enact water legislation that the body responsible for protecting the Great Barrier Reef has warned will pose environmental risks to the reef and coastal waterways.
A package of measures, expected to be voted through this week, will deregulate the use of local water by resources companies, including coal miners, expanding on a model already enjoyed by coal seam gas operators in Queensland.
Critics say the reforms will allow mining companies to take billions of litres of water without the need for a licence and could have an impact on water supplies to regional towns.
The proposals have drawn criticism from the state’s local government association, landholders and scientists.
Even the state’s coal industry described the legislation as rushed and said there had been insufficient consultation.
But the ruling LNP’s huge majority in Queensland means the reforms are almost certain to become law, just a week after they were considered by a parliamentary committee.
Minister says ecological sustainability principle being ditched
Natural Resources and Mines Minister Andrew Cripps acknowledged that the environmental principle underpinning the existing Water Act would be removed.
“We won’t be using the principle of ecologically sustainable development as the purpose of the water act in the future,” he said.
“But what we will be doing is using the purpose of the water act for the productive and responsible use of water resources which balances the competing interests across the use of water resources in Queensland.”
State Opposition MP Jackie Trad, who represents Labor on the committee, said the LNP government was reneging on assurances it had given to UNESCO that all development approvals would be made on the basis of ecological sustainability.
The UN body has repeatedly warned the Queensland government to improve its management of the reef, and could still list it as endangered.
“What this bill will do is allow for an over-allocation of water out of Great Barrier Reef Catchment systems,” Ms Trad said.
“If you have less water going into the reef that means the concentrated level of run-off will be quite severe.”
A government source told the ABC that 82 new clauses would be added to the 427-page bill. The Opposition received an oral briefing on the new amendments at lunchtime on Tuesday, but had yet to receive any new written material.
The bill could be voted on as early as Tuesday night.
The LNP government has previously been criticised for introducing late amendments to complex natural resources-related legislation.
In its submission to the committee last month, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority warned that allocating water to large users without proper assessment of the cumulative environmental impacts “may lead to unacceptable impacts to coastal waterways and Great Barrier Reef ecosystems”.
The Queensland Resources Council, which represents the coal industry, said it supported the LNP Government’s policy goal, but described the bill as an “ambitious, complex and substantial piece of legislation” and warned that “proceeding on the current accelerated timeline is to accept a second-best policy development process”.
“All water users have been accustomed to deep and on-going consultation at a catchment level, which has simply not been possible in the time allowed for the development of this bill,” the QRC wrote in the submission.
“Some otherwise laudable reforms risk being undermined by their hasty implementation.”
Mr Cripps disagreed with the QRC. There had been “extensive consultation” with peak bodies, he said.
Laws ‘aiding the big end of town’
Tom Crothers, head of the Queensland Government’s Water Allocation and Planning group until 2011, said the bill would benefit companies proposing to mine coal in the Galilee Basin in central Queensland.
“The four mines that have been approved already will take potentially up to 1,770 gigalitres of water, that is over three-and-a-half Sydney Harbours, during their life,” the former bureaucrat said.
“These are all bits of legislation aiding the big end of town – the mining industry. And what happens is the little guy suffers, the landholders suffers.”
Mr Crothers said the bill would affect the Great Artesian Basin.
“The minister is proposing to grant more water to miners up on the Cape out of the Great Artesian Basin, to grant more water to Toowoomba. But he’s also proposing to do a Cooper Basin plan which will potentially take more water out of the Great Artesian Basin as well.”
Water can be a valuable resource at coal mines, where even contaminated water can be used to wash coal.
By contrast, the coal seam gas industry is struggling to find a workable business model to deal with the saline water found underground alongside the gas.
Landholders complain that they are suffering because the water table is falling and some of the best quality bores have been irreparably depleted.
‘Make-good’ laws favour gas companies says farmer
Mr Cripps pointed to “make-good” provisions included in the bill, mirroring requirements applied to the coal seam gas industry. He said this would for the first time introduce statutory protections for landholders who lost water.
But landholder and hydrologist Max Winders, who shares his 1,400 hectare feedlot near Dalby with coal seam gas wells, said the existing make-good provisions favoured the gas companies and were not enforced properly.
“We don’t get a look-in at all. In fact the current system is [that] all these companies pay $5,000 a megalitre on pulling the salt out of the water and then passing on the recovered water to new irrigation farms, for which they can generate very little,” he said.
The whole reform process was short-sighted, Mr Winders said.
“Extractive industry is 20 or 30 years at the most and you’ve left a landscape where all that underground water is gone forever and there’s very little recharge. It’s not a very far-reaching policy, and certainly not the one this Government was elected on.”