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Aussies Against Fracking
GENERAL PURPOSE STANDING
COMMITTEE No. 5 27 MONDAY 31 OCTOBER 2011
BRUCE ANDREW ROBERTSON, Beef cattle farmer,
affirmed and examined:
CHAIR: Before we proceed to question you,
would you like to make an opening statement?
Mr ROBERTSON: Yes I would. Good afternoon
members of Parliament, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Bruce Robertson. I am a
beef farmer from Burrell Creek. Our farm is located on the Manning River just
west of Wingham. I would like to thank you for travelling here and holding this
inquiry in Taree and for inviting me to attend.
We are here today because of the decision
to approve AGL's Gloucester gas project made in the dying days of a floundering
State Government. It is a decision made in haste, without due consideration of
the effects of the project. This inquiry represents a tremendous opportunity for
the new Government to review this decision. A decision made in haste often does
not stand the test of time.
Allow me to introduce myself. A person is
shaped by their experiences in life. As a child I grew up in Canberra. We had a
small block in the foothills of the Brindabella Ranges. As a child I used to
swim, fish and play in the beautiful little Paddy's River, a rock bed stream
that ran through that rock. Today that stream is no longer fishable, it is no
longer swimmable, it barely flows.
In my thirties I visited a friend of my
wife's who lived on the mighty Namoi River. She regaled us with stories of when
she was a child. She used to swim in the deep water holes of the Namoi and she
said that you could see the bottom 12 to 14 feet down. Today you can barely see
your hand. She lives just outside of Gunnedah. Perhaps the most graphic
depiction of the state of the nation's rivers is at the pub at St Albans, just
outside Sydney, near Wisemans Ferry. It is a beautiful old stone pub and on the
wall of that pub is a picture of a wool barge piled high with wool bales.
At that very spot you can now step across
the river and not get your feet wet. The lack of respect for rivers in this
country always surprises me. After all, we do live in a cliché—the driest
continent on earth.
My Sydney career was as an investment
analyst and fund manager for 16 years. I am well versed in the corporate world.
I come from a long line of farmers and despite a city upbringing I always longed
to farm. My opportunity came in 2002 and I carefully researched areas to farm.
In this great dry continent I wanted to
farm in an area of rainfall over a metre a year that was not too seasonal. I was
also looking for good soil. These criteria at times seemed too demanding. This
narrowed my search down to somewhere well under 1 per cent of the land in this
nation. I have resided here with my family in the stunningly beautiful Manning
Valley ever since.
My submission revolves around three main
Change of land use and the lack of planning
of land use; the Manning Valley as a prime agricultural area; and the effects of
coal seam gas mining on water quality for domestic use, tourism, fisheries,
agriculture and industry.
I would like to add, the approval of AGL's
Gloucester gas project has a number of facets that lack transparency, are
riddled with conflicts of interest and have the potential to cause great harm to
our community. The people of this valley cannot hope to have confidence in their
leaders if these issues are not addressed.
These are issues that can easily be fixed.
I do not propose to present you only with problems; I can present you with
In summary, the approval of AGL's
Gloucester gas project was taken at the eleventh hour by a floundering State
Government and nothing less than a total review of the entire process is
warranted. Thank you.
The Hon. Dr PETER PHELPS: When we were in
Queensland we met with farmers who believed that it was compatible to have coal
seam gas and agricultural operations running concurrently on their farms. What
makes you believe that the two are incompatible in this instance?
Mr ROBERTSON: Thank you for the question.
There is a fundamental difference between the agriculture that is carried on
here and that in Queensland, where you probably visited, I assume, around Roma
The Hon. Dr PETER PHELPS: Chinchilla.
Mr ROBERTSON: I would assume that the
average size of a farm there would be 5,000, 10,000 up to 20,000 acres. The
average size of a farm here is probably around 100 acres. You start running a
road through 100 acres and put one gas well on it and pretty much that farm is
If we talk about the dairy farmer we saw
here earlier today who runs 500 to 600 dairy cows, if you take out 10 per cent
of his productive land, I can guarantee you he is in trouble. Ten per cent of
his productive land on Oxley Island—I do not think he stated it but it would
probably be around 300 to 400 acres. You would need to take out 40 acres of that
for the coal seam gas mining—and it does need land.
Make no mistake, everyone says it is only
the size of a little container but there is a 20-metre exclusion zone around it
and you need roads to link them. That needs land and this, in an area where the
size of the farms is small, is nothing less than a catastrophe for the farmer
and it makes them unviable.
The Hon. Dr PETER PHELPS: I am not familiar
with the agricultural intensity of the land up here but, seriously, is a
100-acre farm in this area financially viable without non-farm income?
Mr ROBERTSON: Yes, in some instances it is.
The Hon. Dr PETER PHELPS: In what sorts of
Mr ROBERTSON: I run a boutique beef
business which provides me with a modest income. I do have off-farm income as
well; I am not going sit here and tell you I do not. But it is a modest income
and without that income, I would have to leave the farm.
The Hon. Dr PETER PHELPS: That leads to my
next question. If a farmer who is already on the margins, as it is, wants to get
income from coal seam gas wells, why should they be denied that additional
Mr ROBERTSON: Well, Dr Phelps, it is very
simple. I own a property in Sydney and that property is located in Manly. There
are many blocks of flats in Manly. Why can I not build a block of flats on my
land? It is the same thing—it is town planning. The town planners have decided
that in that section of Manly you cannot do that. Now, why are you denying me
the opportunity to build a block of flats on that land? It is exactly the same
argument, isn't it?
In the end we all have to live somewhere
and coal seam gas mining, it appears to me, is going to occur pretty much
anywhere on the coast from Sydney north under current legislative settings and
under the policy espoused by your Government. It would appear to me that pretty
much the whole lot is going to go. There is no land reserved at all. There is no
planning. In towns we have planning, as in any other enterprise.
I am not allowed to whack a factory on my
block in Manly. I cannot erect a block of flats on it; I can only have a single
dwelling such as the one that exists there now. Even that is constrained with
how much I am allowed to build on it. So, restricting people's ability to make
income off their land is not something that does not already occur. It already
happens. To me that argument is fallacious because it already occurs. We already
do not allow development willy-nilly, do we?
The Hon. SCOT MacDONALD: In your submission
you say, "The river flats will have all weather raised gravel roads covering
them. There will be 24 hour floodlighting of all 110 wells."
I am not sure that we agree that will be
the case. The Minister and the Department of Primary Industries would feel very
strongly if those raised gravel roads caused any interference to water flows.
There will be checks and balances on this.
Minister Hodgkinson is very strong on the
NSW Aquifer Interference Policy. I cannot say it will be a perfect instrument
but there will be a regulatory instrument with a very strict protocol on the
drilling and its impact on the aquifers from shallow to deep. I am troubled by
the scale that you are alluding to. Even if we get to the maximum production of
300 or 400 wells in this area—which might be two or three hectares—we are
talking about 25,000 or 30,000 square hectares, that would result in one or two
per cent of the landscape.
Everyone understands if it is a small
property then the scale of it will be that greater—but I understand that will be
overcome by making it horizontal. That would not impact on the smaller
properties you are talking about, but if you were to take five hectares from a
100 hectare property there would be a substantial impact. I do not think we are
at the stage of making wrong judgements—
CHAIR: Is there a question?
The Hon. SCOT MacDONALD: I am looking for a
response to that.
Mr ROBERTSON: I would be delighted. To my
understanding the substantial impact is one of the points of your question.
First, if you are on a 10,000 acre property
and it is over the hill and far away you do not notice it. But if you are on 100
acres and there is a gas well it is almost as if it is in your backyard.
Second, it is one of the many public
relations untruths that have been spun about mining and agriculture coexisting.
I will give you two examples. First,
Shenhua Coal, that well-known coal mining company is now one of Australia's
largest agricultural landholders. That is the model that is being followed. The
mining company buys the land it needs to operate on and the surrounding farms
and you get a total change—as we heard earlier today—in community. It destroys
What has also happened, and we have seen it
more recently, is that we have AGL, that well-known wine making company—sorry,
that is right, it is not a wine making company: it is a gas company—is now the
owner of Pooles Rock vineyard in the Hunter.
This is happening everywhere, and it is not
just broadacre farms. The model is that they buy the farm and then they operate.
It is just bad luck for the surrounding farms.
It appears that the mining companies do not
think that mining and agriculture can coexist. Why would they be buying
vineyards otherwise? To my knowledge winemaking is not a core skill of AGL. It
is not one that too many people in the investment community would be looking at
when they looked at AGL—they would be looking at its gas production.
That really does go to the core of it. This
public relations myth is being spun to everybody. I do not have a public
relations company behind me. I am a single person. I do not have an organisation
behind me. I can only come to you with the truth. The truth is that these
companies are buying the land and doing what they want with it. That's it. You
can see the reason why the farmers are selling out.
If someone comes to you—and you are in your
40s or 50s—and says, "Mr Robertson, we will let you operate the land for another
10 years. We are not looking at developing the block until then. We will give
you 50 per cent more than the farm is worth. Sign this confidentiality
agreement. Bob's your uncle."
Pooles Rock vineyard is another interesting
example. It happened to be owned by the estate of the late David Clarke—a very
rich and powerful man, whose estate would be worth many millions. Clearly I do
not think AGL wanted to tussle with someone like that, so they offered a
ridiculous amount of money and get lost.
The Hon. SCOT MacDONALD: May I ask a
The Hon. SCOT MacDONALD: I want to take you
to your statement about society changes. Can you tell me why a miner is less of
a human being than a dairy farmer?
The Hon. SCOT MacDONALD: You made that
statement or a very similar one.
Mr ROBERTSON: No, I did not. I did not
denigrate the miners personally. I said the character of the place changes and
there is a difference. You are putting words in my mouth. I never at any stage
said that a miner is any less of a person than anybody else here today.
We need mining in this country. It is a
question of land use and where it is appropriate. As I tried to explain to Dr
Peter Phelps, certain developments are not allowed just anywhere; mining is one
of those that is. How does that work? How do you reconcile that in your minds as
CHAIR: I cannot speak for all legislators
but I would suggest that most legislators would be required to evaluate that
problem in terms of what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
We are here today because that equation cannot flow. You have to have input from
the communities most affected. The Committee is here today to hear your views.
The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: As some sort of
comfort to you, you can put coal seam gas into Manly. Under the current
regulations you can put coal seam gas wherever you want as long as there is coal
in the area. That is something that the people of Manly, Illawarra, Casino and
Namoi Valley are dealing with.
Obviously you moved to this region for a
reason. You said you had a background in finance but you probably did not move
here to make a million dollars.
One thing that is not factored into the
equation is the amenity and social fabric of an area. How do you think this
issue is affecting the rural amenity and social fabric that you moved here for?
It is not only if you have a coal seam gas well on your block but what if your
neighbour also does.
Some of the industry people are saying they
will consolidate the infrastructure in smaller areas, rather than dispersing it.
What does it mean to the social fabric of an area if it extends to a neighbour's
Mr ROBERTSON: This really runs to the heart
of the question. At the very beginning of my introductory speech I said that we
do not value our rivers. There has been a succession of governments and people
in the agricultural and mining industries who have not valued our rivers.
When I moved to the Manning Valley one of
the great pieces of amenity that I saw was a river that was still relatively
unspoiled, it still ran clear and it had beautiful fish in it for the fishermen
of this world. I thought it was a place I could bring up my children. The
amenity for me was the beautiful, natural environment.
Mr MacDonald said today that the gas wells
up at Gloucester will only be linked by a few roads. There are 110 wells and
they are on a floodplain. I cannot stress enough that we seem to have
legislation that protects trees, we have legislation that protects this and that
and the other, but we can whack a development right onto a floodplain in a high
This is not Chinchilla. This is not Roma.
We have rain. When it rains here, it can let lose. If it is on a flood plain
there will be roads between the gas wells. They will have to be up a bit because
it does rain. There will be mud running off and the implications of that mud are
enormous. It is not just for people who like to fish, swim and enjoy the
river—the greenies like me who want to see a tree by the river and still be able
to catch a fish. It is not just for those people. It is for the industry in this
For example, the abattoir at Wingham is a
major water user. If water costs go up too much it will have to cease operating.
Water costs will go up.
We heard today that MidCoast Water cannot
pump if the nephelometric turbidity units [NTU] are too high—that is the amount
of mud in the water. It cannot pump out of the river. It simply does not turn
the pumps on. It is already developing the Nabiac bore fields because of mud in
With coal seam gas coming to our valley,
they will have to find further water sources. What those resources are I do not
know—maybe desalination? I am not a water expert. But there is not a lot around
here apart from the river and a few bore fields. They are going to have to find
them somehow. The costs of that are horrendous. That will be directly passed
onto industry in this valley.
When I say that mining will change the
character of the valley, it will change it not because of the people that arrive
with mining, or because they are miners; it will change it because it will
destroy existing industry.
CHAIR: What do you think is the cause of
the current NTU increase in the river?
Mr ROBERTSON: I mentioned earlier that AGL
and Shenhua Coal are buying vineyards and farmland to do their mining.
MidCoast Water, that gave evidence earlier
today, is now a landholder of a $2 million farm in the Barnard Valley. The
Barnard River—to run through this with you—is one of the smaller tributaries
that flow into the Manning. It is steep country. It is high rainfall country. At
one stage last year the Barnard River flowed at 1,630 NTU. The Government has
water quality guidelines for rivers that basically state that an upland river
should run between zero and 25 NTU. The Barnard River was running at 62-odd
times the maximum limit at which ecological damage occurs.
The Hon. RICK COLLESS: Where was it coming
Mr ROBERTSON: It was basically coming from
CHAIR: One could argue then that reducing
the size of farms also has an impact on water quality, does it not?
Mr ROBERTSON: No, these are very large
CHAIR: On the Barnard River they are.
Mr ROBERTSON: Yes, they are very large
farms. They are not small farms.
The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: What sort of
Mr ROBERTSON: Mainly cattle. It is
interesting that to try and secure their water supply they are actually buying
land, and in a significant way. It was a $2 million purchase or something, which
is not a sheep station but it is still a bit of money.
The Hon. PETER PRIMROSE: You have mentioned
that you chose to come here to raise your family. Can you talk about what your
family, your children in particular, and your neighbours' families are thinking
about their future. What are saying about the possibility of coal seam gas being
Mr ROBERTSON: I can speak for a lot of
farms but the four farms on our road, Latimore's Road, have signs on their gates
saying, "We don't want you to enter unless you ring first because we're worried
about coal seam gas."
Two of my neighbours, Joe and Ewen McEwan,
are here today. They are a little further away but they are obviously very
concerned about it. There is broad concern, which comes from some pretty basic
We heard that MidCoast Water, the authority
that provides our water, was not even consulted in the approval process. This is
not good governance.
The Hon. PETER PRIMROSE: Moving away from
the policy side for a minute, what do people feel?
What are the kids saying, what are the parents saying when the kids go to bed?
What is it doing to families?
Mr ROBERTSON: People are very worried. They
are very nervous and they are scared because there is an abuse of process. Due
process has not been followed in this approval. The full effects of this
development have not been assessed.
We have heard today about the effects on
our water. What MidCoast Water said is downright scary. They were not consulted
in the approval process, they do not know what chemicals are going in and they
are trying to test when they do not even know what it is they are testing for.
This regulation is something out of the
Third World. This is not something we expect from governments in Australia.
People are scared out of their minds, and rightly so.
The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: I am interested
in what you do with your produce. Are you an organic farmer, are you working
towards organic accreditation, where do you market your meat? Is the coal seam
gas in your region or on your farm going to impact on your brand, your marketing
and your profitability?
Mr ROBERTSON: There is a short answer: I am
a biodynamic farmer. I market my beef basically to discerning local customers
and into Sydney. I sell through Feather and Bone in Rozelle and to an organic
shop in Maitland. I am a fully certified Demeter Biodynamic. If there is
contamination of the river it will devastate my business. That will be the end
However, if there is contamination of the
river it will also devastate Wingham abattoir and possibly the entire Australian
beef industry. This issue is much bigger than just one little farmer producing
beef in the Manning Valley.
The way this has been set up, the lack of
governance by not consulting MidCoast Water and AGL being the governing body
that tests its own water means there is no bigger conflict of interest. The
poacher is the gamekeeper. This is very scary.
It is poor governance and when that happens
you invite disaster. There is a conflict of interest and a lack of transparency
and it could affect the entire Australian beef industry if there is a disaster
with the water in the Manning Valley.
It is not just about me and destroying my
business and it is not just about business full stop. It is a water supply.
Please do not forget that the intake is below where these businesses are
CHAIR: What is the water source on your
Mr ROBERTSON: The water source on my
property is the Manning River. I undertook an agreement with the catchment
management authority whereby I fenced off the river and I pump out of the river.
That was subsidised by the Government. Part of the Government's policy is to try
to encourage people to water their stock off the river and maintain the riparian
vegetation zone. I have done that.
CHAIR: What about your neighbours? Do any
of them have a green way?
Mr ROBERTSON: No, it is not common yet. One
of the reasons the catchment management authority quite liked the idea of
working with me was that I had a kilometre and a half of river frontage and in
one agreement they can basically stitch up 1.5 kilometres of river frontage,
which is a significant amount of river frontage for a smaller farm.
CHAIR: What sort of inputs do you have on
your land per year?
Mr ROBERTSON: When I took over the place I
put a tonne of lime on per acre and since then it has been very minimal.
The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: 501.
Mr ROBERTSON: It is just biodynamic
preparations, the fertiliser value of which is pretty close to zero.
CHAIR: Is there anything you would like to
say in closing?
Mr ROBERTSON: Thank you for listening to my
submission today. It would be remiss of me not to thank the Committee again for
coming here today. This is the greatest land use change that has occurred in
this valley since Europeans first stepped on this soil.
The circumstances surrounding coal seam gas
mining in this valley are unique. This is not Roma and it is not Chinchilla; it
is the Manning Valley. Farms are small and the area is densely settled.
We live in a fertile, well-watered
environment that is subject to flooding. The approval process has not considered
the dire effects that this project will inevitably have on our water supply and
how that water supply will be replaced.
I therefore call on this Committee to
recommend an entire and complete review of the approval process for AGL's
Gloucester gas project.
CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Robertson.
(The witness withdrew)
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