Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP calls for environmental protection in offshore gas projects

25 March 2024


It is great to finally see some backbenchers and members of the government in the House to listen to the debate in relation to this important bill. It is of importance that not a single backbencher of government is speaking to defend this bill. All these members of parliament that go to their communities with a staunch commitment to Indigenous voices being heard and action on climate change are silent when their own government is introducing bad legislation. At a time when the world is reaching record temperatures and unprecedented levels of risk from climate-fuelled disasters, Australia's most polluting industries cannot be permitted to carve out from climate or environmental legislation and make things worse.

I wonder just how many members of the government are aware of the terms of this legislation, the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment (Safety and Other Measures) Bill 2024. It's those 'other measures' that are the sneaky little inputs that have come in from the Minister for Resources. This bill provides an unacceptable carve out for the offshore gas industry. It shows that the government, like the coalition, is completely captured by the gas industry.

Australia is currently the world's largest exporter of LNG, exporting a record 80.9 million tonnes of LNG just in 2021. Gas is fast-tracking global warming, with methane 80 times more potent over its first 20 years in capturing heat. We do not need more gas. The very thing we should be doing is holding the gas industry to higher scrutiny—to more environmental controls, not fewer. And we certainly should not allow a carve out from the Minister for Resources essentially being a minister for gas.

The Climate of the Nation 2023 poll found a clear majority of Australians, 55 per cent, support no approval of any new gas, coal or oil projects. Approving new gas projects is entirely at odds with our commitment to the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, and it's against the International Energy Association, which states that we can have no more new oil and gas projects if we wish to achieve that goal. How many members of government have gone to their communities with a commitment around global warming, a commitment to action? Yet today on the speaker's list for this legislation there is not a peep. Not a single person is willing to stand up to defend this terrible legislation.

Since 2014 the offshore gas industry has circumvented the direct requirements of the EPBC Act due to changes that allow approvals to be managed by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, NOPSEMA, with a proposal to streamline offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas activity environmental approvals in Australia. This green-light approach to the industry was specifically flagged for reform by Graeme Samuel in the Samuel review of the EPBC Act and has been the subject of two recent Federal Court cases. The Federal Court cases confirm that consultation with First Nations people with a connection with the land is a requirement for NOPSEMA to accept environmental reports for offshore gas projects. But now, in the wake of those decisions, the government is presenting this current bill to, essentially, circumvent that.

Today we see a bill that seeks to further water down the EPBC Act and the First Nation communities consultation requirements of the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act. I'm sure many members in this place didn't listen particularly closely, but, as we in the crossbench listened to the second reading speech of the minister and in our face-to-face briefing, you would think there was nothing to see here—'Move along. This legislation is all fine.' But the bill does so much more than what was first obvious.

It contains part 2, schedule 2, which appears to be in response to the Federal Court decision that the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act requires First Nations people with a connection to land to be consulted with. So the bill before us now is a deliberate attempt to placate gas companies by amending the law that requires First Nations communities to be consulted.

It is quite incredible that the same party of government that brought forward a referendum for First Nations voices to be heard is now the party that has introduced legislation to circumvent those voices for communities. It's quite outrageous. It's quite incredible that we stand in this place knowing that so many members campaigned to their communities for First Nations people to be recognised in our Constitution and, through a Voice to parliament, to be heard and to be able to engage in legislation in a meaningful way.

In Warringah, hundreds of volunteers doorknocked, campaigned and stood at a booth on the day for the referendum. I'm proud that my electorate, like the electorates of many of my colleagues on the crossbench, voted yes. But when the referendum failed, we, together with many other Australians, put the government on notice. It must continue with its commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and it must especially listen to and consult with First Nations people, recognising that listening to First Nations people is not only through a legislated voice but—in practice, every day—through every piece of legislation and decision that matters.

It's quite outrageous now that when something doesn't suit the government's agenda it is seeking to circumvent that requirement, and it's doing it by stealth. It's hiding this dirty little section of this legislation to improve workers' rights. No-one disputes workers' rights. That has broad support. But we've seen too often from this government these sneaky little bits of additional legislation that come into play and undermine any kind of goodwill or good work.

The agenda of gas companies is clear. The government, in delivering the agenda of gas companies, is hiding grossly inadequate petroleum resource rent tax reform in a tax integrity bill. Now we're seeing this sneaky little amendment. This approach lacks integrity. It's playing politics, and I share the views of Senator David Pocock and so many here on the crossbench that it is really unbefitting of this government. So I call on members of the government to speak up in this place, represent your communities, represent First Nations Australians and make sure those communities have a voice when it comes to these projects.

There are many environmental concerns around this bill and around the current state of play. It's not only consultation with First Nations communities that the government and polluting gas industries are seeking to circumvent; it's also critical environmental laws. There are serious risks in regard to the application of new environmental laws once the government's Nature Positive Plan, which is currently under consultation, is enacted. Again, it seems incomprehensible. These are significant reforms that, in the government's own words, are outcomes focused decisions that are nature positive, involving better partnerships with First Nations people and conservation planning that targets resources to areas where they have the greatest impact.

While the government says all those things that sound so good, while it promises environmental reform that is well overdue, through this bill it is seeking to give carve-outs to the very industry that puts the environment at risk. It is giving a carve-out to the gas industry. It's effectively giving a get-out-of-jail-free card to the gas industry and its polluting projects—the very industry that needs the most scrutiny.

It's really important that we understand why part 2, schedule 2 is so important. We know we are facing a climate and environmental crisis. This month we've had announcements around bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef, the hottest water temperatures off the New South Wales coastline and, globally, the hottest year on record. The last 12 months have seen record ice deficits in Antarctica, fires ripping through Europe, weeks of non-existent snow and record glacier melting.

In Australia we know we are on the front line of impacts. Climate change will impact all of our communities. Fifty per cent of the Australian population lives within seven kilometres of our coastline. What do you think will happen when all of this, all those predictions of what will happen, comes to pass? So many of our communities will be exposed to flooding, to coastal erosion and to extreme weather events. How is anyone going to afford insurance in Australia? What is going to happen to the safety of so many communities? You cannot, on one hand, be concerned about that and then give a get-out-of-jail-free card to the gas industry by providing only the resources minister with the right to approve activity, without having to go via the environment minister and the EPBC Act.

We know that there is so much risk ahead, so it's incredibly important that we have proper scrutiny around offshore gas projects. These are putting everybody's endeavours at risk—all of the emissions reductions that people make personally through their rooftop solar and through their actions. It all becomes for nothing if we keep on approving offshore gas projects. These projects must be put under the highest scrutiny under the EPBC Act.

Unfortunately, we're seeing none of that. Instead, we're seeing a carve-out at a time when there is great risk that our emissions profile is even greater than we think it is. It is highly likely that satellite data will reveal that Australia's emissions may be up to 60 per cent higher than we currently think they are, because of methane. Just stop and think about what that means. In the meantime, even with that clear warning bell for the resources minister and for the minister for climate change, we have before us legislation that seeks to carve-out an industry that is a major emissions producer with projects that risk our environment. It is a massive carve-out to ensure they do not have that highest level of scrutiny. It is just incredible.

At the consideration-in-detail stage, I will be moving an amendment, with the support of the member for Goldstein and many here on the crossbench, to try and improve this bill. It is an absolutely shameful day for the Albanese government.