Coal Mining and Coal Seam Gas Impacts

Coal Mining and Coal Seam Gas Impacts

(Private Members Statement, 24 August 2016, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

The impacts of mining in this state on air, water, food, biodiversity and climate change make it an issue of great concern to my constituents, particularly with regard to coal and coal seam gas which are expanding at unprecedented levels.

Mines require massive clearing of native vegetation and habitat; they erode air quality and pollute and damage rivers, streams and aquifers through dust, chemicals and cracks in water source beds. Mining is a risk to endangered species and ecosystems. Mines create visual blights on otherwise beautiful landscapes, especially when they are situated in forests and close to towns.

Over tens of millions of hectares of New South Wales land is subject to an exploration licence or mining lease, and more than half of the state’s forest and nearly two thirds of its conservation areas are covered by a coal or gas exploration licence.

Rehabilitation after past mining operations has had little success and provides little community confidence. Waterways have been left polluted, native bushland left degraded and voids left open.

Research organisation Energy and Resource Insights June report “The Hole Truth: the mess coal companies plan to leave in NSW” identifies massive voids left after open-cut mining. Voids can be hundreds of metres deep and kilometres long yet laws don’t require them to be backfilled. Little is known on how open voids will behave in the future including in terms of hydrology, effects on surface and groundwater, and wall stability, and little post mine assessment is done of voids. Polluted lakes often form in the voids and flooding can have detrimental impacts on surrounding locations. The report identified 6,050 hectares of voids planned or approved for New South Wales.

Environment Justice Australia identified a number of measures used by mining companies to avoid rehabilitating sites.

Companies can declare that a mine is under ‘care and maintenance’ so that it is not officially closed even when operations have ceased. They can continue to run a mine at a loss if it is cheaper than rehabilitation and if they become bankrupt, they won’t have to rehabilitate the mine at all. Companies argue to the government that it would be too expensive to backfill a void. Continually expanding a mine can postpone any need to rehabilitate and selling it to another company for cheap can help a company avoid its obligations. Of course, a company can always apply to the government for a discount on rehabilitation requirements. 

Concern about the impacts of mining is growing in this state with a March ReachTEL survey indicating more than half of people think coal mining is having a negative impact on communities and 84 per cent think farmland, water and the natural environment should be protected from coal and CSG.

Mining companies are known to exaggerate the job and economic benefits of their proposals, and governments often accept their forecasts. I acknowledge the government released new Guidelines for the Economic Assessment of Coal and CSG Proposals in December, but the mining industry’s workforce has been shrinking and mining jobs are significantly under threat from emerging workforce changes that will see a massive portion of jobs replaced by automation.

Coal is an archaic form of power supply: it is inefficient with over 66 per cent of energy lost through heat and more during transmission. As a fossil fuel it is responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, indeed 400 million tonnes of carbon pollution is released each year as a result of coal that is mined in New South Wales and burned around the world.

While coal fired power continues to dominate energy supply in Australia, it is also on the decline with the contribution from renewables rising. Globally coal is rapidly declining, now responsible for just over 40 per cent of the world’s supply with renewable energy recently overtaking gas as the second largest source. Renewable energy already contributes over 30 per cent of power in South Australia where targets have been increased to achieve 50 per cent by 2025.

While mining has a future in New South Wales, its rapid expansion is unsustainable and significantly putting our food, water, biodiversity and health at risk. We need exclusion zones in law to ban mining on or adjacent to productive agricultural land, water catchments and the waterways that feed into them, high conservation value land and towns.

The recent buyback of an exploration licence that would have led to a mine below the Liverpool Plains following the Planning and Assessment Commission’s recommendation to ban mining on this fertile land for around $220 million highlights the need for exclusion zones. 

We need better laws that impose stronger conditions on mining companies that prevent pollution and that ensure robust rehabilitation of sites.

Mines create risks that must be prevented and I call for stronger regulation of the mining industry that puts public benefits, environmental protection and safety first.  

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