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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 issues:

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 solutions.

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 or Chinchilla.

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 unviable.

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 instances?

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 income?

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 the community.

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 supplementary question?


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?

CHAIR: Order!

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 legislators?

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 property?

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 rainfall area.

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 area.

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 the river.

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 from?

Mr ROBERTSON: It was basically coming from farmland.

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 farms.

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 farms?

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 developed here?

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 things.

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 of it.

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 operating.

CHAIR: What is the water source on your property?

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.


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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