I rise today to speak on this bill, the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment (Safety and Other Measures) Bill 2024, and I’m feeling disappointed with a government that once again has put up incomplete legislation in this place which illogically merges two separate issues into one bill. This is poor governance, and I will not be supporting this bill.

Like the Nature Repair Market Bill and the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill last year, this bill is once again putting the cart before the horse. It’s making changes that could greatly impact the natural environment before we’ve seen the long promised bill to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the EPBC Act, under the government’s Nature Positive reforms.

My constituents dearly value our natural environment. They need to protect it and they want the government to help them do so. A recent community survey undertaken by my office asked, ‘What do you love most about living in your local area?’ Time and time again, consistently across hundreds of responses, my constituents say they love nature, they love the scenic environment, they love the natural beauty and they wish to protect it.

When I was elected as the member for Indi, I was also given a clear mandate by the community to make meaningful action on climate change a priority and to protect the natural environment which we all hold so dear. I take these mandates very seriously and I carefully scrutinise any legislation that could impact how the government approaches fossil fuel projects and environmental protections. This includes the bill before us today.

This bill has two purposes. The first is to improve safety for offshore resources sector workers. This will implement recommendations of a 2021 review into offshore oil and gas safety. It includes measures like strengthening the role of health and safety representatives, providing better protections against discrimination and improving protection for diving activities related to gas and oil projects. Of course I support these provisions of the bill. These are dangerous jobs, and I recognise the need to ensure that our laws offer the best protections for workers, particularly for those operating in dangerous environments, as with offshore resources work.

However, the second purpose of the bill is entirely unrelated to worker safety and is deeply problematic. It is to make changes to the offshore environment management regulations to allow the Minister for Resources to make amendments to them—that is, to change how offshore petroleum and gas projects, which, let’s be clear, are fossil fuel projects, which are contributing to climate change, are regulated.

Currently, offshore projects are approved by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, which I’ll refer to as the authority. More than 10 years ago, the minister for the environment said that the authority’s approvals for new offshore gas projects are taken to be compliant with the EPBC Act. This means that new offshore gas projects do not have to go through separate referral assessments and approvals under the EPBC Act.

The government say the problem with this current system is that the approval authority’s regulations have not been updated and improved over time, and this bill changes that by allowing the Minister for Resources to effectively change regulations that govern offshore gas approvals. One aspect of these regulations that the minister would be given the power to change is the requirement for companies to consult with impacted traditional owners, who have rights and important cultural connections to the waters on which these projects may be built.

The government admits that this bill is in response to recent court cases, including one which found that the gas company Santos did not adequately consult with traditional owners on the Tiwi Islands for a proposed offshore gas project as required under the authority’s regulations. The government says that, in response to this court case, both companies wanting to build offshore gas projects and the traditional owners who are impacted by the projects are unsure what the consultation standards are. They want clarity.

The minister has tried to sell these changes as technical. Indeed, they’re only referred to as ‘other measures’ in the bill’s title. But I suggest that if you dig a little deeper you will see that these amendments could have serious ramifications.

A major issue that I have with this bill is that it does not guarantee that these regulations will be of the same or a higher standard as the assessments under the EPBC Act. The EPBC Act, let’s remember, is there to protect and conserve our unique natural environment and minimise any harm to it. In addition, right at this moment the government is drafting important reforms to strengthen the EPBC Act. These include the creation of a national environment protection agency, which would make sure regulations for offshore gas projects are consistent with new and hopefully higher environmental standards. The laws in this bill may come into effect before these new environmental protection laws, and they may be at a lower standard. That is cause for concern; it is cause for alarm.

Another concern is that this bill pre-empts the review of community consultation and engagement requirements currently underway, announced last year in response to the court cases mentioned earlier. The Climate Council has criticised this, stating:

Introducing and seeking passage of this bill before this consultation process has concluded is very poor public policy practice, and leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the Government is simply engaging in performative consultation designed to reach a foregone conclusion.

It’s scathing. I’m worried that this bill is a foregone conclusion because it’s exactly what the gas companies want.

A freedom of information request found that Santos—a major gas company I mentioned earlier—wrote an email to the minister asking for the changes to the laws that we are seeing here today in black and white in this bill. The Senate committee’s inquiry into the bill similarly received evidence from the gas industry urging the parliament to pass it. I note that this committee was given less than a month to receive submissions and hold a public hearing, and that this rushed process fails to give adequate time to consider clearly controversial legislation, which risks subverting the independence of environmental regulations. So it leaves me asking the question: why is the government rushing this controversial bill through parliament, if not to appease the interests of the fossil fuel industry over good process and good governance?

Many reputable organisations and academics have sounded the alarm that consultation standards in particular could be weakened. The Australia Institute have said that the changes proposed in the bill allow the minister to relax the rules imposed on offshore oil projects, including rules about consultation requirements. They warned of serious risks—that the bill ‘risks bypassing traditional owners, local groups and tourism and fishing businesses’.

Ensuring high standards for community consultation and engagement is critical. The Australia Institute, again, in criticising the bill, said:

Given how disruptive and destructive offshore oil and gas projects can be, they should not be built unless they have a genuine social licence to operate from the people whose lives and livelihoods will be affected.

Genuine social licence, achieved through community engagement and benefit from energy projects, is important. Communities have the right to have questions answered and concerns addressed. They must have the opportunity to benefit from a project that may impact them. I include this for fossil fuel projects, but for renewable energy projects too.

In my own electorate, renewable energy developers are currently proposing massive solar and battery projects in small rural townships, but my constituents—some of whom will live next to these projects—are finding out about them through a letter in the post or under their door, or sometimes through a news report. Community consultation matters. Community consultation undertaken by companies is woefully inadequate. It leaves communities feeling disempowered; it leaves them feeling anxious; it leaves them worse off. This government must prioritise changing this. They must legislate best practice for energy projects, whether that be for a fossil fuel project or for a renewable energy project.

I am concerned that, with this bill, the government is once again sidelining community engagement as just ticking a box—just an exercise to get developments off the ground. It’s disingenuous. It is not good enough. The minister says that any changes to consultation requirements for offshore gas projects would go through separate policy processes with the appropriate scrutiny. This might be the case, but I want to see that in black and white. Right now, we have no certainty whatsoever.

I urge the government to amend the bill, to strengthen protections against the Minister for Resources weakening regulations below EPBC standards, and to require the minister for the environment to agree to any changes in regulations proposed by the Minister for Resources. I understand amendments have been drafted by the Minister for Resources, but these amendments don’t stop the minister from watering down consultation requirements. They don’t allow the minister for the environment to veto the regulations if they don’t comply with the EPBC Act. They simply don’t address the concerns I have laid out. What a weak effort.

Until I see these concerns adequately addressed, I will support the amendments of my crossbench colleagues the Member for Warringah and the Member for Goldstein, which would remove the provisions relating to the offshore regulatory system entirely.

The Parliament should pass immediately reforms to improve worker safety while allowing members of Parliament adequate time to consider controversial changes to other parts of the bill on their merits. As an Independent I consider each bill on its individual merits, and I cannot support legislation such as this that has serious flaws for the environment and for the communities. I will not be supporting this bill.

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