Intended protection laws will fail to prevent big gas companies putting Australia’s ground and surface water at risk, a leading environmental engineer warns.
An assessment known as the water trigger, in place for more than 10 years and expanded by federal parliament in December, is still “too vague” and gives too much “wriggle room” to developers, Professor Matthew Currell told AAP.
Federal oversight based on independent science is meant to protect farmland and ancient sites from damage and encourage mining companies to pursue projects with lower risk of contamination or being an unsustainable drain on local resources.
Instead, the scientists who provide advice to government – the independent expert committee on coal seam gas and large coal mining development – do not have the tools they need to make truly informed and independent recommendations, research has found.
Nor are the deep cultural connections Traditional Owners have with water sites being assessed properly, according to the report commissioned by grassroots organisation Lock the Gate from Prof Currell and environmental group Earth & Every.
Expanding the water trigger in December was expected to curtail proposed fracking projects in Queensland, Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin and the Kimberley region in Western Australia.
“It was seen as a big win,” Prof Currell said.
Gas producers said at the time the new laws, expanded to also cover future shale gas projects, would be another barrier to new “unconventional” gas supply and keeping prices down.
However, the laws continue to require the federal minister to merely “consider” proposed projects, often without enough information about what it means for water supplies, rather than take action to seek more data to prevent harm.
“My concern here is that people misunderstand and think that the water trigger is a really strong safeguard that is going to protect water resources,” Prof Currell said.
After a review by Professor Graeme Samuel found the federal environmental assessment process was broken, people want that strengthened and made more scientific rather than just more projects being assessed, the hydrologist said.
He said the trigger may operate differently under Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, in a way that is more robust and scientific, but that is not what the track record suggests at the federal level.
Guidelines tell resources companies what they should be including in their environmental impact statements and the types of scientific data that they need to submit.
But the proposals have big gaps, and therefore uncertainty, about how the water systems function and how the area and ecosystem depends on groundwater, he said.
Resources companies also use other legal processes such as native title to assess and sign off on cultural risks but not necessarily the connections associated with water running through and under the land.
“It’s all a bit too vague at the moment and doesn’t ensure those values are properly documented,” Prof Currell said.
Lock the Gate Alliance national co-ordinator Ellen Roberts said the extension of the water trigger was a “welcome move” but scientists still rely on gas company-supplied data.
“Australia’s water laws remain ill-equipped to properly assess big polluting unconventional gas proposals,” she said.
Ms Roberts said scientists should be able to twice review a company’s proposal – when it is first submitted and again after the company has responded to fill any gaps.
For example, the committee did not have the power and resources to get more information from Santos about risks to water and ecosystems from the Narrabri gas project, according to the research.
More data “would likely have had a material bearing on the approval outcome and subsequent management of the project’s impacts,” the researchers found.
(Australian Associated Press)