COAL seam gas (CSG) or large mining projects which could significantly impact on water resources would need federal approval, under changes proposed by the government.
Environment Minister Tony Burke will have the power to consider the cumulative impacts on water of new CSG wells and mines under the legislation, to be introduced to Parliament this week or next.
Water would now act as a trigger in Australia’s national environment law, so any potentially harmful projects would need the assessment of an independent expert scientific committee before being approved.
Mr Burke said the community had always thought that the government took water into consideration when making decisions about CSG activity, and the changes would bring these expectations into line.
“Realistically, whenever I have made a decision on coal seam gas, the Australian public would expect that we are taking into account all the impacts on our precious water resources,” he said.
Until now, the government’s only been able to act on water when it comes to threatened species or a RAMSAR wetland.
The Coalition warned the move might not be allowable under the constitution, but will wait until the relevant legislation is available before making a final decision on whether to support it.
Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt said all stakeholders needed to be properly consulted.
“Just as it did with the mining tax, the government has blindsided the energy and resources sector and imposed retrospective rules ... which will have a direct impact on investments,” Mr Hunt said in a statement yesterday.
But Labor’s plan was welcomed by independent MP Tony Windsor, who had called for independent scientific oversight of CSG and coal projects when he made an agreement to support the minority government after the 2010 election.
Mr Windsor said there was significant community anxiety over CSG mining and the risk it could pose to major groundwater systems.
“We need to get the science right,” Mr Windsor said.
Fellow independent MP Rob Oakeshott said the federal oversight would hopefully replace “immature” planning laws in NSW with a “transparent and defendable planning process”.
His electorate of Lyne on the Mid-North Coast has been a hotbed of anti-CSG protests, with 120 gas wells approved in Gloucester, just one kilometre from the world-heritage-listed Barrington Tops.
Australian Greens leader Christine Milne said the changes should apply to all CSG projects approved by the environment minister, including the Gloucester development, which was given the go-ahead last month.
The anti-CSG Lock the Gate Alliance said all that was needed now was the political courage to reject projects.
But the Minerals Council of Australia opposed the planned changes, saying they would delay large coal projects and create uncertainty without delivering environmental gain.
Mr Burke said the government did not intend to add to project time-frames and yesterday contacted affected companies to advice them of the changes.
“There’s many of those, but a lot of them are at such a preliminary stage you’d have to say the impact on them is negligible,” he said.