Victorian Opposition

Victorian Opposition Energy and Resources Spokeswoman Lily D’Ambrosio.

Victorian Energy and Resources Minister Russell Northe.

Victorian Energy and Resources Minister Russell Northe.

A BILL restricting the use of Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene and Xylene (BTEX) in hydraulic fracturing fluids in Victoria is likely to pass the Parliament after the Labor opposition announced its support.

But the Resources Legislation Amendment (BTEX Prohibition and other Matters) Bill 2014 does not actually ban the use of these chemicals in fracking activity.

It also incorporates other changes to onshore exploration practices.

In an address to parliament on 6 August, Victorian minister for Energy and Resources Russell Northe said the bill furthered a government commitment to maintaining a robust regulatory framework for Victoria’s Earth Resources sector.

“(BTEX) are naturally occurring compounds found in petroleum products. These chemicals have been known to have harmful effects on human health,” he told the parliament.

“This amendment will provide Victorians with confidence that strong protectiosn apply to the regulation of the earth resources sector, with a focus on the continued protection of our environment and our agricultural industries.”

Opposition Energy and Resources Spokeswoman Lily D’Ambrosio said Labor would support the bill, but added that she had some reservations about the government’s intentions.

In particular, she noted that the legislation talks about restricting the use of BTEX chemicals to “the maximum amount prescribed by the regulations”, rather than banning it outright.

“This is a very important point, and this is the political question: if the government believes that BTEX is safe up to a certain concentration, then it needs to be upfront about that,” she said.

“BTEX and its constituent elements, taken together, do occur naturally underground and can often be released through drilling and mining works, and that is a concern, but this bill deals with BTEX as an additive in the drilling process.”

“Industry agrees that we have a situation in Victoria where BTEX has not been used in any form of onshore drilling for many decades, and that is something we have to acknowledge,” she said.

“If a coal seam gas industry were to develop here, it would be important to ensure that BTEX was not used as an additive in that drilling technique.”

“Labor wants an effective ban on BTEX, and we are very clear about that,” she said.

Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber also seized on the point, expressing his disappointment that there was no outright ban on the use of the chemicals.

“This bill is a clear indication that the Coalition will lift the moratorium on fracking after the election,” Mr Barber said.

“Like everything else Denis Napthine says about his government’s plans on gas drilling, this law is a giant fudge. You would think that a bill titled ‘BTEX prohibition’ would prohibit the use of BTEX chemicals in fracking, but it doesn’t,” Mr Barber said.

“Even if this bill passes, and the moratorium is lifted, fracking can go ahead using BTEX chemicals.”

The moratorium to which Mr Barber refers is in place until July 2015 – with a Victorian State Election expected later this year.

Other changes to Victoria’s resources legislation incorporated in the amendment would see the state regulator given the power to offer enforceable undertakings – that its, punishments – to the holder of an authority in lieu of prosecution for an offence under the act.

The bill will also enable Victorian traditional owner groups to work with the state government in providing for the making of land use activity agreements between them. These agreements may specify conditions on exploration authorisations and prospecting licences.

“Where these conditions have been agreed to by an earth resources authority holder, the earth resource authorisation will require compliance with the conditions,” Mr Northe said.

The bill will also amend the act to remove a licence holder’s requirement to mark out their licence area with posts and other markets.

“Posts and markers can be removed, moved by other parties or may not be well maintained by licensees,” he said, adding that modern technology could position locations today with more accuracy and less cost.

“The requirement to survey a licence area for prospecting, retention and mining licences will apply at the licence application stage rather than following the granting of a licence,” Mr Northe said.

Finally, the bill will extend a site inspector’s power of entry to include unauthorised worksites.

“This amendment will ensure that inspectors have appropriate powers to gain access to illegal sites for the purposes of giving directions, gathering evidence and undertaking other compliance action.”

The bill will be considered when Victoria’s parliament sits again in early September.