On Wednesday 20 May 2020 the Queensland Parliament debated the Mineral and Energy Resources and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020. Because of the undemocratic nature of the Queensland Parliament’s rules, and because the LNP Opposition controlled the speaking list, I was not able to make a contribution on the Bill.
Below is the speech I would have given on the Bill.
I rise to address the Mineral and Energy Resources and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020.
I will be supporting this Bill. It makes some very welcome changes - in particular by ending the somewhat outrageous loophole that saw the mining industry excluded from Queensland’s very strong industrial manslaughter laws introduced by this government in 2017.
I will make some comments about a few aspects of the Bill, including areas where it should go further to protect Queenslanders and the environment.
Industrial Manslaughter and worker safety
It’s a very welcome development that we will now have very strong laws, because in Queensland we have a pretty poor track record when it comes to actually keeping workers safe on mine sites.
Eight deaths in just eighteen months, and the resurgence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis or Black Lung - these facts show that when a profit making industry is left in charge of safety they don’t look out for workers.
Mr Speaker, many people in this House have criticised the Greens for our stance on fossil fuels - but this is the bottom line.
We don’t support burning coal because dangerous climate change is an existential risk to our survival as a society, but we do support coal workers.
We don’t support coal bosses, but we do support coal towns.
We won’t be the puppets of big mining companies, but we want a good future for every Queenslander, and we’re working every day to make that happen.
Mine safety, including industrial manslaughter laws and protections against black lung - these are vital protections that we very strongly support.
The Bill makes small but welcome changes to the government’s new mining rehabilitation regime which we legislated in this Chamber in November 2018.
The issue of creating jobs in mining rehabilitation is one of the clearest examples of an opportunity to pick a side. Here in this place we can stand with the mining billionaires or with everyday Queenslanders.
Queenslanders understand that if you make a mess, you should clean it up. They expect that all mines, including existing mines, will clean up their own mess rather than leaving it to the taxpayer and leaving a toxic, polluting scar on the landscape.
Unfortunately, even the new laws we passed here in 2018 won’t achieve that basic standard, even after the changes proposed by the government in this present Bill.
Briefly, the reforms to mining rehabilitation proposed in the present Bill would:
- Give the State government more oversight when a mine is sold to another owner, or when the company that owns a mine is sold to another owner. This is a very common practice, especially when commodity prices drop. Very often the new owners or the new parent company will be much smaller, have a poorer safety record, and can be based in tax haven or owned by a shelf company.
- The Bill would also create some more obligations on mining operators who put their sites into “care and maintenance” - including requiring them to submit “development plans”.
- It would also introduce some narrow criteria to make sure that companies or persons or their associates convicted of fraud, dishonesty offences, or who are insolvent cannot be granted a resource tenure.
These are useful reforms, each starting to address issues that have been well known for years, and on which the Greens have been calling for action.
Unfortunately, the massive loopholes in the mining rehab system will as a whole remain even after this Bill. These loopholes are:
First, the enormous unconventional gas industry, including fracking for CSG, shale and tight gas, which covers thousands of square kilometers of Queensland, and which feeds our absolutely massive carbon-intensive LNG export plants, is totally exempt from the scheme. CSG and fracking are just as dangerous for farmland, water and local communities as coal and minerals mining, and the techniques for rehabilitating industrial gas fields are poorly understood. For some reason, one I am sure is completely unrelated to their large donations to both Labor and the LNP, that industry gets a free pass.
Second, for coal and minerals which are covered by the current laws, there are a range of loopholes which allow existing mines to leave behind toxic, polluting final voids. Any mine which had a specific approval for a final void under the old, flawed, weak laws will get to keep that approval. At the time the last bill passed in 2018, the Environment Minister could not tell us how many mines would sneak through this loophole, and I’d invite her to please give us an update now after nearly 18 months. At that time, some independent groups found that 218 final voids would be left across Queensland.
For people living next door to a mine, it doesn’t matter whether it’s new or it’s been there for years – the impact in the future is going to be the same – that’s why the transparency and assessment criteria should be the same”
There is nothing retrospective about saying to a company: times have changed. The community will no longer accept massive holes in the ground that leach toxic chemicals and pollute local rivers.
Third - the existing laws passed in 2018 include a sweeping loophole which almost totally excludes any public scrutiny under the Right to Information Act. That position was moderated somewhat by government amendments thanks to some critical comments from the Information Commissioner and pressure from the community, but this bill before us today does not help local communities facing an uncertain future get the information they need.
The theme of poor transparency was continued throughout the Bill, with key decisions about the future of massive mine sites kept very much under wraps. A perfect example was the Ensham coal mine which back in November last year was applying for a relaxation of their rehab plan without any consultation at all required with nearby residents.
In November 2018 I put a series of amendments (EN here) to try to strengthen the government’s rehabilitation laws, especially to stop the practice of leaving behind polluting final voids, and I am once again urging the GOvernment to attend to those issues.
Turning back to the amendments which the government has proposed, relating to transfers between one owner and a new owner, the best possible example of why these are vital is the story of Terracom and the Blair Athol metallurgical coal mine in the Bowen Basin.
Terracom, a small mining company without any extensive track record, bought the mine from Rio Tinto in 2017 for just $1. Terracom reopened the mine, and almost immediately started drawing down on the $80 million cash rehab bond held by the government.
As reporting from the ABC has revealed, almost half of that cash bond has now found its way back to Terracom, despite the total amount of land which has been rehabilitated actually shrinking.
That’s right - they’ve gone back and dug up previously rehabilitated land, the total area rehabilitated has gone down, but somehow managed to get a refund of $35 million in cash at the same time. That refund included an $8 million reduction in the government’s own estimated rehab costs, and a $27.5 million swap which substituted an insurance surety for cash.
Rick Humphries from Lock the Gate who is a former Rio Tinto employee was quoted by the ABC saying that even the original $80 million bond was "a long way short" of Rio Tinto's estimated rehabilitation cost of Blair Athol.
He said the Government had made "an extraordinary set of concessions … an accommodation above and beyond what you normally expect from the Government, with this particular company".
Lo and behold, Terracom turns out to be a political donor to the Labor party, donating $11,000 in 2018, it’s lobbying firm is run by former Queensland Labor state secretary Cameron Milner, and the company has two Labor figures as directors — former Labor Lord Mayor Jim Soorley and the former Bligh government natural resources minister Craig Wallace.
For this particular mining company all of this was just too good to be true!
Had the laws which the government is now proposing been in place in 2017 when the transfer took place, it’s at least possible that Terracom would not have been approved to take over the mine. In fact, RTI documents reported by the ABC show that Queensland Treasury Corporation found in 2016 that it was "highly unlikely that TerraCom has the financial capacity to meet its operational or environmental obligations to maintain the Blair Athol mining lease".
This story also shows that major flaws remain in the mining rehabilitation system, and builds the case for even stronger laws to protect Queensland workers, taxpayers and the environment.
Where is the Mining Rehab Commissioner?
At the time we debated the first set of reforms in 2018, the government made some very specific commitments which I’ll read now - Deputy Premier and Treasurer Jackie Trad, on 14 Nov 2018
“...we will explore options for the appointment of a mining rehabilitation commissioner within 12 months to set standards and keep them current and to ensure that the rehabilitation commitments made by mining companies are kept.”
Minister Enoch, in her speech on the same day:
“In response to community feedback the government will also establish a rehabilitation commissioner to ensure the standards for rehabilitation in all PRCPs meet environmental best practice and the expectations of the community. Appointment of this role will take place over the next 12 months.”
To my knowledge, no Commissioner has been appointed, almost 18 months later.
I am seeking a fresh commitment from the Minister that a commissioner will be appointed before the election, and that they’ll be funded adequately and with enough independence from government to hold big mining companies and the regulators accountable.