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Sophie's Water Trigger Private Members Bill

By introducing this private member's bill today I seek to implement one of the government's own promises: their commitment to expand the water trigger in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The water trigger is the mechanism in the act which requires that projects likely to have a significant impact on water resources come before the federal environment minister for approval. However, as it currently stands the water trigger only applies to coal seam gas and large coalmining developments. The government's commitment to expanding the water trigger to encompass all types of unconventional gas, including shale and tight gas, was documented in their Nature Positive Plan released in December 2022. This is precisely what I am proposing with my private member's bill today, nothing more and nothing less.

The reason I am introducing my private member's bill today is that time is running out for the government to implement this urgently, and this urgently needed amendment to the water trigger. A Senate inquiry into oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo basin handed down its report in April this year. It recommended that the expanded water trigger be operational by 31 December 2023. That deadline is less than 2½ months, and three parliamentary sitting weeks, away. It is a matter of urgency that the water trigger be expanded now, as multiple shale gas fracking projects in the NT are due to be approved imminently.

In further context, the Northern Territory government placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in September 2016 amid concerns that this drilling method could harm the environment and water resources. Following this, the scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracturing in the Northern Territory, otherwise known as the Pepper inquiry, was established to assess the risks of fracking in the Northern Territory. The final report of the Pepper inquiry was released in March 2018 and provided the NT government with 138 recommendations to mitigate the risks of fracking in the Northern Territory.

The Northern Territory government accepted the inquiry's findings and lifted the moratorium on the basis that it would implement all recommendations by the end of 2022. Of greater significance to this private member's bill, the Pepper inquiry concluded that there should be a water trigger in the EPBC Act which applies to all onshore gas activities and requires the federal environment minister's approval for those activities likely to have significant impact on water resources. No such water trigger has been enacted, yet this recommendation is marked as complete on the Northern Territory government's website.

Additionally, in October 2020 Professor Graeme Samuel AC submitted his independent review into the EPBC Act 1999. His review concluded that the EPBC Act, Australia's central piece of national environmental law, is outdated, ineffective and requires fundamental reform. In the foreword of the Nature Positive Plan, the environment minister stated, 'When read alongside the 2021 State of the Environment report, Professor Samuel's reports presents us with an alarming story of an environment in decline. The equation facing Australia is simple: if our laws don't change, our trajectory of environmental decline will not change either. The prospect of accelerating decline should alarm us all.' As Professor Samuel's review makes clear, if we want to ensure that our exceptional natural heritage is there for future generations, we must act seriously and we must act now.

There are two key reasons why this change to the water trigger must be made urgently ahead of the broader EPBC Act reforms. One is the looming threat of more frequent and severe droughts in the future because of climate change. Earlier this month the Bureau of Meteorology declared Australia is again facing an El Nino event. Australia's severe droughts in recent decades have all been associated with El Nino conditions. September was the driest September on record in Australia since 1900. Hydraulic fracturing to extract gas uses enormous amounts of water. It is not acceptable that these projects can be proved without an assessment of how they will impact our precious water resources and the flow-on effects to communities, farmers and the environment, both now and in the future.

The second key reason for the urgency is that, in May this year, the Northern Territory government announced it would allow fracking to commence in the Territory. The granting of gas production licences is imminent for a number of fracking projects in the NT, including Tamboran's projects in the Beetaloo Basin and Black Mountain oil and gas projects in the Kimberley. Tamboran Resources has publicly stated it intends to start producing gas from fracking operations as soon as next year. Australians, particularly those living in affected communities, do not deserve to hear once again that the government was right to approve yet more environmentally damaging projects because they did not contravene our national environment laws. That is especially when the government itself has acknowledged that those laws are broken and must be urgently amended but has as yet failed to do so. Traditional owners and pastoralists in the Northern Territory support the urgent expansion of the water trigger. Ray Dimakarri Dixon, a Mudburra elder in the Marlinja community said:

"Land is our life. Water is our life. We've got nowhere else to go. This is destroying our land and our culture."

Is it time to listen? I also caution the government not to hand over future approvals and scientific assessments under the EPBC Act to states and territories who are likely to favour developments which they profit from over the environment.

The bill I'm introducing today does no more and no less than what the government has already said it should do. It is a discreet part of the EPBC Act that can be amended and passed prior to the more comprehensive reform of the act. It has broad support from the crossbench in both this place and the other place. It is my sincere hope that the government will keep its promise to expand the water trigger by supporting this bill and passing it urgently in this House by the end of the year. I'll now cede the rest of my time to the member for Warringah.