Legislative amendments by the previous QLD government that have impacted on the Channel Country's Stakeholders
This is a summary of the major legislative changes made by the previous Queensland Government that have impacted on the management of natural resources in Queensland’s iconic “Channel Country”.
The Regional Planning Interests Act 2014
After ignoring the WRAP’s Report and the CCPG/AFA ‘s Submissions on the Regional Planning Interests Bill, the Queensland Government introduced a new planning framework that replaces the protection offered to the Channel Country by the Wild Rivers laws with another set of laws that are not supported by the majority of the local stakeholders.
This new planning framework is much weaker than the Wild Rivers Act and Declarations it replaced, in that there is no certainty or permanency about development controls and there is a degree of discretion with decisions under these new arrangements. The outstanding natural and cultural values of the Channel Country face significant risks and threats.
During the 2012 Queensland Election campaign, the Liberal National Party gave a commitment that they would move to repeal the Wild River Declarations for the Cape York Peninsula and “to work with locals and other stakeholders about appropriate environmental protections for the Western Rivers of their Region”.
With the election of the Newman LNP government, the Honourable Andrew Cripps MP – Minister for Natural Resources and Mines was given the responsibility of progressing the government’s election commitment on the Western Rivers in the Lake Eyre Basin.
With the election of the Newman government, the Honourable Andrew Cripps MP – Minister for Natural Resources and Mines was given the responsibility of progressing the government’s election commitment on the Western Rivers in the Lake Eyre Basin.
Minister Cripps subsequently established a Western Rivers Advisory Panel (WRAP) to seek community input into the development of “alternative strategies” for the protection of the Western Rivers. At the inaugural meeting of the WRAP, Minister Cripps also asked it to be open minded to the possibility of “small scale” irrigation in its advice. His Department of Natural Resources & Mines convened four (4) meetings of this Panel in the development of these “alternative strategies”.
In providing advice to Minister Cripps, the WRAP’s Report (Recommendation 7.0): stated “In regard to “small scale irrigation”, the WRAP recognises the diversity of views held by stakeholders and producers within the Basin.
However in recognition of fragility and unique natural assets of the Basin, the WRAP takes the view that:
- There should be no further irrigation development in the Cooper Creek catchment;
- There should be no new irrigation licences in the Lake Eyre Basin;
- There should be no increase in the reserves of unallocated water for irrigation in the existing Water Resource Plans for the Basin;
- Any future water trading regime in the Basin should consider robust modelling of the location and quantity of water that can potentially be taken by existing licences; and,
- If water licences in the Basin were to be transferred upstream, the volumes of extraction must be reduced and the extraction thresholds must be increased.
In considering the WRAP’s recommendation, Minister Cripps announced to the Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum (6th November, 2013) the following core principles of the Queensland Government’s alternative strategies for the Western Rivers:
- there will be no cotton grown on Cooper Creek and no further water released for irrigation purposes from these systems;
- open cut mining will not be allowed in the Channel Country;
- oil and gas development will be strictly controlled under strengthened conditions under the Environmental Protection Act; and,
- a special Channel Country Protection Area will be created which will protect a greater area of riverine channels and floodplains than the existing wild river declarations.
On 29th November, 2013, a public notice issued by Queensland’s Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, announced the Queensland Government’s intention to revoke the Cooper Creek and Georgina and Diamantina Basins Wild River Declarations. The notice specifically outlined that any regulation in existence, such as those applying to mining and petroleum and gas operations, will no longer apply on the revocation of these Wild River Declarations. The notice called for submissions from the public and any interested bodies to the government’s intentions.
In response to this notice, the Australian Floodplain Association (AFA) and the Coopers Creek Protection Group (CCPG) lodged a joint submission on the Queensland Government’s intention to repeal the Wild Rivers legislation. Their submission outlined that any “alternative strategies” for the protection of Queensland’s Western Rivers required a strong legislative protection for the river flows, floodplains and wetlands of these river systems.
This protection needed to ensure that the quantity and quality of river flows is permanently protected and that watercourses, floodplains and wetlands are permanently protected from large-scale destructive activities. Such a framework would require “on ground” protective mechanisms which:
- continued to provide water for domestic and livestock use;
- allowed for the continuation of necessary works such as roads, fences and other activities that have little or no impact on the rivers and overland flows;
- precluded new irrigation development; and,
- protected floodplains from activities such as mining and associated works which have the potential to divert or obstruct natural flows or threaten pollution of the surface waters or contamination of the ecosystems.
While the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection acknowledged the AFA/CCPG’s submission, the sentiments of the submission were clearly ignored by the Queensland Government.
The total lack of respect for the views of the local stakeholders disengaged them from the direction the previous Queensland Government took in resource management in the Queensland part of the Lake Eyre Basin.
In November, 2013, Queensland’s Deputy Premier tabled the Regional Planning Interests Bill (2013) in the Parliament and tasked the Parliamentary Committee for State Development, Infrastructure and Industry to call for public consideration and submissions on the provisions of the Bill. While the Bill and accompanying Explanatory Notes contained no details on the Newman Government’s intentions for the “Channel Country Protection Area”, it was surmised by stakeholders that an accompanying Regulation to the Regional Planning Interests Bill may contain these details, when it was proclaimed as law.
In response to the Parliamentary Committee for State Development, Infrastructure and Industry’s call for submissions, the AFA and CCPG lodged a joint submission calling on the Queensland Government to make some changes to the Bill and to undertake effective consultation with the local stakeholders in the Lake Eyre Basin before any progressing of the Bill. While the Parliamentary Committee acknowledged the AFA/CCPG submission, the sentiments of the submission were ignored by the Queensland Government.
The Regional Planning Interests Bill was progressed through its second reading and passage on 20th March, 2014. This new Act contained provisions for defining the channel river areas of western Queensland as a Strategic Environmental Area and an area of “regional interest”. This Act and its accompanying Regulation is the statutory power for the creation of the “special Channel Country Protection Area” to replace the Wild River “floodplain management areas” that Minister Cripps announced in July 2013 would be reflected as strengthened conditions in the Environmental Protection Act.
The accompanying Regulation to the Regional Planning Interests Act 2014, was progressed by the Deputy Premier – again without any consultation with the Lake Eyre Basin stakeholders. The Regulation received Governor in Council consent on 12th June, 2014 and commenced on 3rd October, 2014.
The State Development and Infrastructure Planning (Red Tape Reduction) Act 2014
On 5th August, 2014, the Queensland Parliament passed the State Development and Infrastructure Planning (Red Tape Reduction) Bill which repealed the Wild Rivers Act 2005 as well as all existing Wild River Declarations. This Bill was progressed through the Parliament by Deputy Premier Seeney.
The revocation of the Wild River Declarations for the Georgina/Diamantine Rivers and the Cooper’s Creek removed all protective measures against inappropriate resource development. It allows the Queensland Government to progress the shale gas aspirations of Santos, Beach Energy and Chevron in the Nappa Merrie Trough of the Cooper Basin.
Development by the Resources Sector which allows interference with natural water flows in the Channel Country, allows for water extraction from the Great Artesian Basin (GAB), allows fracking and potential chemical contamination of the Region’s surface and groundwater resources (including the Great Artesian Basin) and doesn’t consider the cumulative impacts of all development (particularly water usage), will threaten the integrity and local value of the existing beef industry, including “high value” organic beef exports in the Channel Country as well as its growing tourism industry.
The absence of appropriate development controls will also potentially compromise one of the world’s most unique and unspoiled, internationally renowned arid river systems that terminate into inland wetlands and Lake Eyre.
The Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Act 2014
The Queensland Parliament passed the Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Bill on 9th September, 2014 (the Common Provisions Act). Prior to its passage in the Parliament, a number of last minute changes were made to the Bill without widespread stakeholder consultation.
The previous Queensland Government stated that the Common Provisions Act was the first step in its "Modernising Queensland's Resources Act (MQRA) Program" to introduce standardised resources legislation in Queensland.
The key aspects of the Common Provisions Act that impacted on the Resources Sector included:
- changes to the land access regime for resource authorities, including the restricted land regime;
- changes to notification and objection procedures for mining leases and environmental authorities; and
- a new overlapping coal and coal seam gas tenure framework (Overlapping Tenement Regime).
The key components of the Common Provisions Act that impacted on landholders and the general community included:
- landowners of adjoining properties to the land included in a mining lease application have the right to receive a copy of the application and the right to object to the grant of the mining lease, on limited grounds;
- the Land Court may strike out an objection to a mining lease or environmental authority application in certain circumstances, including if it is frivolous or vexatious or outside of the Land Court's jurisdiction; and
- the last minute amendments to the Act confirmed that:
- submitter cannot request that any part of their submission to an EIS that relates to a Coordinator-General's condition pertaining to an Environmental Authority, be taken to be an objection to the application for an Environmental Authority; and
- the grounds for an objection to an Environmental Authority cannot relate to a Coordinator-General's condition.
In response to the Coordinator-General’s conditions and the prevention of objections to an Environmental Authority, the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act (1971) will be amended to provide the necessary powers to prevent a submitter to an environmental authority application, requesting that their submission is to be taken to be an objection to the environmental authority application, if the Coordinator-General's report for the project contains:
- conditions for the proposed Environmental Authority; and
- the Coordinator-General is satisfied the conditions adequately address the environmental effects of the mining activity.
This means that there cannot be any objection to the Land Court or Land Court hearing in relation to the Environmental Authority application, when the conditions have been set by the Coordinator-General.
Impacts of Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Act. 2014
This Act has removed the capacity for the general public, local government and environmental or other parties to object to the potential impacts of a Resources Sector project. It also prevents any objection or Land Court hearing in relation to the Environmental Authority application when the conditions have been set by the Coordinator-General. It removes people’s fundamental democratic rights of objection to a Resources Sector development proposal, irrespective of the impacts.
The Water Resources and Other Legislation Amendments (WROLA) Bill 2014
The WROLA Bill was passed by the Parliament on 26th November, 2014. While some provisions of this WROLA Bill commenced on its assent, the provisions relating to Part 2 – Water Planning, were to commence on a day to be fixed by proclamation. With the election of the Palaszczuk Government, the commencement of these provisions has been put on hold pending consideration of further amendments.
The proposed changes to the Water Act 2000 have the following implications for water users in the Queensland part of the Lake Eyre Basin, and in particular the Channel Country:
- The inclusion of “make good” obligations for landholders whose groundwater supplies may be affected by mining operations will involve landholders in considerable expense and stress to ensure their interests are appropriately protected. The current “make good” provisions are legally flawed and are extremely favourable for protecting the interests of the Resources Sector.
- The removal of the requirement for mining tenure holders to obtain a Water Act licence or permit for dewatering operations has removed a landholder’s/water user’s Water Act objection and appeal rights to the Land Court on the take and or interference with this water.
- The amendment of the Mineral Resources and Petroleum & Gas (Production and Safety) Acts to establish a consistent framework for dealing with the take of “non- associated” groundwater under the Water Act is a positive outcome. However the quantities of water accessed as “non-associated” water are relatively small, compared to the amounts of water taken as “associated water”.
- The development of a “water supply strategy” for managing the Resources Sector’s water demand from the GAB in the Cooper Basin will potentially allow for large quantities of water to be extracted from the GAB. This will have impacts on the pressure of the basin as well as the water supplies for towns and pastoralists who depend on the basin as their sole source of water supply.
- Under the new water planning framework - Water Resource Plans and Resource Operations Plans which outline how water will be sustainably allocated and managed in Queensland, will no longer exist. The splitting of water planning components into Water Plans, a Water Management Protocol, an Operations Manual and the Water Regulation will increase “red tape” and make it more difficult for stakeholders to source and assimilate information.
- The process to accelerate the conversion of water licences to tradeable water allocations and deliver a fully realised water market in Queensland by 2017 could result in water licences in the Georgina/Diamantina and Cooper Creek Water Plans being converted to tradeable water allocations, without appropriate scrutiny by local stakeholders. This may impact on the security and reliability of existing water entitlements.
- The removal of the requirement to regulate (no need to obtain water licences) the take of, or interference with, water where the risk to sustainability is low could result in the extraction of water from streams in the headwaters of the Lake Eyre Basin becoming deregulated. This may create a “law of the jungle” approach by these water users as well as a level of uncertainty as to how much water is being extracted from these areas.
- The inclusion of a Water Development Option process that allows for unallocated water to be reserved for and committed to a development proponent outside of a water plan may lead to similar outcomes as those in the Murray Darling Basin – the over-allocation of surface water and a deterioration of the ecological health of the Lake Eyre Basin’s streams.
Major implications for the Channel Country include:
- Changes to Chapter 3 of the Water Act to include “make good” obligations for landholders whose groundwater supplies may be affected by mining operations.
- Amendment of the cumulative management area (CMA) framework to extend it to manage the cumulative impacts of mining operations on groundwater resources outside of the Surat Basin
- Removal from the Mineral Resources Act of the requirement for mining tenure holders to obtain a Water Act licence or permit for dewatering operations.
- Amendment of the Mineral Resources Act to grant mineral resource tenement holders a “statutory right to take associated groundwater” - this is water that has to be removed to allow the mining operations to proceed. Miners will still be required to secure a Water Act licence to access non-associated groundwater.
- Amendment of the Mineral Resources and Petroleum & Gas (Production and Safety) Acts to establish a consistent framework for dealing with groundwater. The Mining and P&G industry’s access to “non-associated water” will be managed under water licences issued under the Water Act. This is water used for mine camps, dust suppression and constructing & testing of infrastructure.
- The development of a “water supply strategy” for managing water demand by the resources sector and others from the GAB in the Cooper Basin.
- The Bill introduced a new water planning framework. Catchment based Water Plans (which will be subordinate legislation) for the allocation and management of a basin’s or catchment’s water resources have been retained. However, operational matters such as water sharing rules will be reflected in a “water management protocol” for un-supplemented water resources and an “operations manual” for regulated water resources associated with water infrastructure storages, as well as the Water Regulation.
- Chapter 2 of the Water Act 2000 was to be amended to accelerate the conversion of water licences to tradeable water allocations and deliver a fully realised water market in Queensland by 2017.
- The removal of the requirement to regulate (no need to obtain water licences) the take of or interference with water where the risk to sustainability is low. Who decides whether the risk to sustainability is low – and how it is decided is yet to be revealed.
- The inclusion of a process for unallocated water to be reserved outside of a water plan (through a Water Development Option) and also provide water users with faster access to reserves of unallocated water. It also allows the Minister for Natural Resources & Mines to utilise an EIS prepared by a development proponent to inform an amendment to a Water Plan to provide water for a Water Development Option. This process could allow the Chief Executive of DNR&M and the Minister for NR&M to provide a commitment to a development proponent to access water from the Georgina/Diamantina Rivers or the Cooper Creek and progress a “fast tracked” amendment of the Water Plans to provide this additional water, without appropriate scrutiny by local stakeholders.
Desired Policy Changes:
The stakeholders in the Channel Country call for:
a) The implementation of a legally enforceable planning framework that protects the unique grazing values and the chemical free status of Queensland’s iconic Channel Country, while allowing for sustainable development opportunities that live in harmony with these values.
b) The implementation of a legal framework that protects the hydrological and ecological integrity of Queensland’s iconic Channel Country, while allowing for sustainable development opportunities that live in harmony with the hydrological and ecological values of the region.
c) The adoption of a legal framework that allows the community, Local Government, landholders and all who have an interest in the sustainable management of the State’s natural resources, the right to lodge objections to development approvals and associated conditions and to have their views dealt with respect and integrity.
d) The adoption of a legal framework that ensures all water users in Queensland are afforded with equitable, consistent and secure access to the State’s surface and groundwater resources, and that their water rights are protected with integrity.