For the whole story, let’s go to the transcript

October 14th, 2014

The NSW Legislative Council’s General Purpose Standing Committee Number 5 is currently undertaking an Inquiry into the performance of the NSW Environment Protection Authority, with hearings starting this week in Sydney.

Under examination yesterday, officials from the Authority, including the Chief Executive Barry Buffier and the Chief Environmental Regulator Mark Gifford were questioned at length about their oversight of the State’s coal seam gas industry.

Comments from Mr Buffier have been widely reported today, but it’s worth taking a closer look at the transcript of the hearing to get the full context.

We’ve taken some extracts of the transcript to save you some time, and reproduced them below.

On working with other agencies to regulate the CSG industry (transcript page 7)

Dr MEHREEN FARUQI: How are across-agency collaborations managed? Do you have protocols in the process? For example, how do the Office of Coal Seam Gas and the EPA work together?

Mr BUFFIER: I will ask Mr Gifford to talk about that in a bit more detail but, yes, we do have a memorandum of understanding [MOU] with the Office of Coal Seam Gas. Because this is a developing area of regulation for the EPA—we only took on responsibility for this about 18 months ago—we actually are in a space that I think is very good in terms of environmental outcomes and in terms of us exercising our influence there. I will ask Mr Gifford to comment briefly on that.

Mr GIFFORD: That MOU is not just with the Office of Coal Seam Gas but also with the Office of Water and the Department of Planning and Environment because, along with the EPA, those three agencies and the EPA have clear statutory responsibilities around the exploration, assessment and production phases of coal seam gas. I think coal seam gas is really a good example of the kind of issue that you are raising in terms of agencies working together and ensuring that there is clear understanding between the agencies about their roles and responsibilities and the statutes that they operate as well.

The important aspect, particularly around coal seam gas, is ensuring that we are sharing information at any stage of the development through exploration assessment, production phases and also that there is particular expertise that resides in some of those agencies that each of the others needs to draw on in order to make their decisions about regulatory actions or other actions that they are planning to take. There is a difference with the EPA. The one difference is that our regulatory decisions are made by us. They are not influenced by others in the course of that actual decision-making. Yes, we gather information; yes, we engage and get technical advice and expertise, but the decision to take regulatory action is a sole decision of the EPA.

On whether the EPA allocates resources appropriately (transcript page 11)

Mr SCOT MacDONALD: You are leading on to the next part of my question, which is on coal seam gas. I was out at Narrabri on Tuesday listening to Professor Bill Collins from Newcastle University. He was saying the emissions from the Narrabri project were to amount to six cows. That was his description, not mine.

I hear what you say in terms of coal seam gas; it is going to be a big resource issue for you. Are we in danger of prioritising an issue that might have, by some accounts, a relatively small impact on the environment in terms of water and emissions? Yes, it is the cause of the day for many people and I will ask some more questions about that.

Mr BUFFIER: As you say, this is a complex issue and it is one that the EPA is always conscious of. Where do we put our resources, where do we get best bang for the buck, as I often say? We know that when an issue becomes of concern to the community it really needs to have considerable resources put into it, otherwise you end up with perverse outcomes.

A lot of the community concerns are valid such as a lack of knowledge and a lack of information. We do not have all the answers so we have to spend a fair bit of time and effort making sure that that understanding is sorted out. We do not claim to have perfect knowledge on any of these events. Is coal seam gas a significant environmental issue? My assessment is yes, it is. I am not sure what Bill Collins was referring to. Maybe he was referring to fugitive emissions from gas wells.

The evidence indicates that what happens with the produced water and the impact on the aquifers is likely to be the area where, environmentally, things could go wrong so a better understanding is needed of the operating environment of that exploration and production. Where are the aquifers, what are the connections to the gas bores, what is the integrity of the gas bores are areas where there are significant environmental issues.

The Chief Scientist has been studying this area for 18 months and she says this is an area that requires more knowledge and more work going into it. I would say, yes, it does require those resources.

Alleged contamination of aquifers (transcript page 13)

There’s a lengthy discussion in the transcript regarding detected uranium levels around a CSG water holding pond in the Pilliga region of north western NSW.

The uranium issue became a favourite of the activist movement, who made all sorts of claims about the dangers posed by the small, low-risk discharge of water from a leaking liner in the holding pond.

For the result, let’s go back to the transcript:

Mr BUFFIER: I do not think we tested the uranium levels in the soil, but we know that the uranium levels in the perched watertable were quite high, which was the issue that was in the public arena. The uranium levels by the time it got down to the deeper aquifer were much lower. That is how we know that there was some connection but not a very significant connection.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: The uranium level in the perched watertable, from memory, was something like 700 parts per billion, was it not?

Mr BUFFIER: It was 335 micrograms per litre against an ANZECC guideline for stock watering of 200. If that water in the perched watertable was used for stock watering, which it was not, then it was above where you would want it to be.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: By the time it got down to the watertable itself—

Mr BUFFIER: The aquifer—it was down to 30, as opposed to an ANZECC guideline for stock watering of 200, which is why we were saying that our assessment of the risk of that situation was that it was low risk because the nearest bore was four kilometres away.

 

The Inquiry continues public hearings in coming weeks. We’ll summarise the relevant issues, and provide the full context of the discussions, as they occur.

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