September 18, 2014  |  Second Reading

Resources Legislation Amendment (BTEX Prohibition and Other Matters) Bill 2014

Mr SOMYUREK (South Eastern Metropolitan) — I rise to speak on the Resources Legislation Amendment (BTEX Prohibition and Other Matters) Bill 2014 and note from the outset that, as my colleague Mr Scheffer said, we will not be opposing the bill.

The bill amends the licensing system for mineral exploration and in particular restricts the adding of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX) chemicals to hydraulic fracturing fluids. It does so through amendments to the Geothermal Energy Resources Act 2005, the Greenhouse Gas Geological Sequestration Act 2008, the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990 and the Petroleum Act 1998. The bill also amends the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2010 and the Pipelines Act 2005.

BTEX is an acronym for the chemicals benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. We note that while they are naturally occurring compounds found in petroleum products, they have harmful effects on human health. This is partly where the controversy regarding fracking originates. The issue of fracking is well known, and there are certainly passionate advocates on both sides of the debate. However, I will not focus on that debate in my contribution today but on the BTEX chemicals that the bill prohibits, and I will explain the concerns about each of them. The information I use is freely available on the federal Department of Environment’s National Pollutant Inventory. The fact that these compounds are listed on this database indicates that they should be used extremely cautiously at the very least. When it comes to mineral explanation the reasons for the prohibition will become apparent.

Exposure to benzene can result in skin and eye irritations, drowsiness, dizziness, headaches and vomiting. More seriously, it is carcinogenic and can cause leukaemia. Long-term exposure can affect normal blood production and the immune system. I do not wish to sound alarmist about all of this; I am merely stating the information from the National Pollution Inventory. To put the use of benzene into context, many people are exposed to benzene through tobacco smoke and car exhaust. We have extensively debated limiting exposure to tobacco smoke and car exhaust in this place, and it is quite apparent that the use of benzene for mineral exploration needs to be restricted.

Likewise exposure to ethylbenzene can cause eye, nose and throat irritation.

High levels can cause dizziness and light-headedness or cause you to pass out. Very high levels can cause paralysis, trouble breathing, liver damage and death. Prolonged exposure can cause drying, scaling and even blistering of the skin. Chronic health effects due to ethylbenzene exposure can occur for some time after exposure and last for years.

Short-term exposure to high levels of toluene results first in light-headedness and euphoria followed by dizziness, sleepiness, unconsciousness and in some cases death. Long-term exposure to high amounts of toluene through intentional abuse have been linked to permanent brain damage, problems with speech, vision and hearing, loss of muscle control, loss of memory and balance, and reduced scores on psychological tests. Finally, the health impacts include ear, nose and throat irritation; stomach problems; drowsiness; loss of memory; poor concentration; nausea; vomiting; abdominal pain; and incoordination. High levels of exposure may cause dizziness, passing out and even death.

Repeated exposure may damage bone marrow, and it can damage a developing foetus. For someone listening to me, that list of things might sound a bit alarmist. I have not made that up. That is on a credible web page.

The bill may not prevent BTEX chemicals from being used. Rather the regulations define a maximum amount of BTEX chemicals that may be used, and the bill provides that once the amount is reached, the compounds become restricted hydraulic fracturing substances. This is a large loophole, which I hope is not exploited. Given the concerns I have raised about even low-level or short-term exposure to these chemicals, I prefer to err, as I always do, on the side of caution and prohibit their use. Whilst Labor members will not oppose the bill because we wish to see regulation in this space, it is important to note that the use of BTEX chemicals is not being banned completely by this bill.