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National Science Week - James Price Point

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Rachel Siewert 19 Sep 2012


Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (13:11): I raise the issue of James Price Point in the Kimberley and its relationship to the conversation we have been having in this place over the last week about science. It is National Science Week this week and we have a lot of scientists in the building talking to us about their various areas of expertise, and also raising issues about investment in science and the importance of science. Unfortunately, I could not meet with the group of scientists who were to brief me yesterday because I was in this chamber talking about the supertrawler and in fact science. My office very gladly met with them and have shared some of their information with me. I would like to officially apologise for not being able to meet with them.



My contribution yesterday in the debate on the supertrawler was an example of talking about the importance of science but having some uncertainty about the science in regard to some of the decisions we have to make. It was a good example of simply not knowing enough to support some of the decision making on that particular issue, as was clearly demonstrated during the debate.

I want to relate this process to the current situation with James Price Point in the Kimberley because the science in this debate is also very important. Firstly, I want to go to work around the environmental impact assessment done by the company. They have said that their assessment process must be good because they spent $80 million on it. But I also point to some of the work done by the Cetacean Research Unit at the Centre for Fish, Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems Research, School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology, Murdoch University in Western Australia. They looked at the marine side of the environmental impact assessment undertaken by Woodside and point to the failures in the science in that report. They talk about relatively simple things like the poor survey work that was done and how the latest approach was not used; that the number of humpback whales in that area have been significantly undercounted; and that the report makes simplistic responses that are not backed up by research or science. For example, they make the point that the report states, 'This project will not impact on dolphins, bottlenose or spinner dolphins, because these species are widespread, highly mobile and unlikely to exhibit behavioural and avoidance responses such as fast-flight responses, faster dive times and high-speed swimming.' It goes on in that vein. The point that the research paper from Murdoch University scientists makes is: 'The first statement above, for example, implies that development will result in the flight of bottlenose and spinner dolphins. Being able to exhibit avoidance responses does not equate to a species not being impacted at a population level.'

The paper also makes the point that the company's research does not point out which species they are talking about and that there is an assumption they are talking about one species. In fact, there are more species there. In particular, all their work did not identify at all the facts that there are miniature spinner dolphins there. The paper talks about inappropriate surveys in approach and methodology of dugongs. It also talks extensively about impacts on dolphins. The point is that it is clear that the work has not been done adequately. The research unit has also expressed concerns about the lack of independence of environmental impact assessment and peer review.

I now turn to the issue of the dinosaur footprints. Dr Salisbury has done extensive work on the dinosaur footprints, some of which has been recently released and I understand there is more to come. His work points out how important this area was for dinosaurs. The area has been underdocumented and has not been properly assessed. Again, scientific work there has not been done properly. Dr Salisbury points out there has been no dedicated funding to complete the survey of the footprints.

Another area of failure at James Price Point is the lack of adequate documentation of the existence of bilbies. It took a community science project to find these bilbies. This brings me to one of the exciting things in the Kimberley region, particularly for the James Price Point development but also for broader Australia. There is a growing willingness of communities to take on community science work and community science is happening all around Australia, in particular in the Kimberley. Community science is when members of the community volunteer their time to work with scientists to do proper monitoring, so that results of this monitoring can be appropriately taken into databases and used as evidence on particular points. These projects are carrying out very important research science.

In the Kimberley, for example, the community has been doing the monitoring of bilbies. The community there has been doing daily monitoring of whale movements off the coast of the Kimberley and at James Price Point. In fact, as I said in this place not long ago, in the first four weeks of the community survey being undertaken this season, community scientists have clearly demonstrated the failure of Woodside to accurately document the number of humpback whales migrating along the coast and the fact that that area of the Kimberley coast is so important as a whale nursery. The EIA, as I mentioned, downplayed the numbers of whales using that area and completely failed to highlight the importance of that area for humpback whales as a humpback nursery. The community scientists are clearly documenting those numbers and updating a website very regularly. They are using a scientifically rigorous method for this. Other areas that community scientists are working on in the Kimberley are in documenting turtle movements and the use of beaches by turtles. In particular they are documenting turtles nesting on that coast. They are also monitoring things like seagrass. I am trying to demonstrate that they are a dedicated group of very passionate and professional people who are giving up their time and resources to help demonstrate the gaps in the science that has been commissioned by Woodside for the company's strategic assessment.

I believe a very important issue needs to be highlighted here—that is, the failure of Woodside and its strategic assessment to give an accurate picture of this area. The company has failed to carry out adequate studies. It has conveniently left out the importance of this area. The limited studies that have been carried out have not been adequately peer reviewed. One issue is that this research comes from the developer rather than being independent. Of course, wherever a developer is presenting such information it will present the information in the best possible light.

How do we get a more rigorous environmental impact assessment process that adequately looks at the issues, can be peer reviewed and is worthy of presenting the facts about a particular development? This process would pertain not just to the James Price Point development but to fishing, mining and agriculture. There is a lot of concern in the scientific community about the independence of the environmental impact assessment process. Those comments have been made over a number of years—in fact, for the whole time I have been involved in advocacy for the protection of the environment these have been ongoing concerns. The Woodside development at James Price Point clearly highlights the fact that there need to be independent sources of funding for science, and that funding needs to be put into an independent fund so that independent decisions are made about the science and research being undertaken.

If that had happened at James Price Point, if there had been a process of independently commissioned science carried out on that proposed development, we would have had much more rigorous science and a much better and deeper understanding of the importance of the marine environment, as was highlighted by the Murdoch University's Centre for Fish, Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, such as in the centre's paper that comments specifically on the marine impact of the proposed James Price Point development. We also would have had a much better understanding of the importance of the area in terms of the dinosaur footprints, the interaction of the dinosaurs on that landscape and the emerging evidence showing that dinosaurs helped form that landscape. It is one of the only places, if not the only place, in the world where dinosaurs have so significantly impacted and developed a landscape.

Of course, the other important connection there is the relationship between the dinosaur footprints and those footprints being woven into Aboriginal culture. There is also the importance those trackways play in the interaction with songways. Again, this is one of the only places in the world—if not the only place in the world—where that interaction occurs. That has not been adequately documented. There are some issues there that specifically cannot be related because it is cultural business, but the community has shared with me some of the stories that they are able to share, and they show the richness of the culture, the custodianship of that area and the interaction between the culture and the dinosaur footprints. As I said, this place has not been adequately documented, and we are only now getting an understanding of the extent of the trackways—no thanks to Woodside.

I come back to the importance of making sure that we value and fund good science in this country. There will always be questions—there is never absolute certainty over something—but the more we get a scientific understanding of these issues the better. The more we get an evaluation of particular areas the better. The more monitoring we undertake to inform our decision making the better. Federal funding to scientific research and innovation is almost $9 billion in 2012-13, and federal funding to health and medical research was $760.5 million in the last budget. Unfortunately, we are now hearing stories of deferrals, freezing and pausing of grants that have not been categorically ruled out in certain areas from the ARC, the NHMRC and others because of the surplus to the budget.

My argument is that unless we are investing as a nation in research and innovation and valuing science we lose out as a nation. Our productivity, for example, will not continue to grow. Nor will our understanding of our ecosystems, and what we need to understand about them to ensure their protection, nor our understanding of sustainability in agriculture. With the impact of climate change agriculture is having to adapt very quickly. Australian farmers are very good at adapting, but they have come to the extent of their ability to adapt without a better understanding and without more scientific research being done around how to sustainably manage our landscapes in a changing climate. That is going to be dependent on science.

The arguments at James Price Point are, we believe, very strong in that this development should not be located in this area. It has poor economic, environmental and social outcomes for that area. We need to be looking at alternative sites and we need to be valuing the role of science in this decision making, because it has been lacking. There has been no scientific peer review of the approach that Woodside is taking. We need to be looking into that more strongly. We need to be independently funding this type of research so that we have an independent understanding of the impacts of these developments.

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