Q&A: Mick Buffier, NSW Minerals Council chairman

In a MINING DAILY exclusive, Michael Mills spoke to incoming NSW Minerals Council chairman Mick Buffier.

The NSW Minerals Council announced the appointment of new chairman Mick Buffier earlier this week.

In a statement, Buffier, also the group executive for Xstrata Coal’s global operations, indentified a number of issues the Council would focus on in coming months.

These included the planned national OH&S legislation, streamlining the NSW approvals process and minimising the impact of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) on the industry.

In a MINING DAILY exclusive, Michael Mills spoke to Mick Buffier from Johannesburg about these issues.

Mills: What are the pros and cons of a National OH&S System?

Buffier: The NSW Minerals Council supports a National OH&S System for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, a lot of the major companies work across different states and I think there is something like eight pieces of OH&S legislation across the country.

So if a company was operating across Queensland, Western Australia and NSW, it would have to comply with all the different legislation and requirements.

It is also very difficult to move statutory people to interstate projects and this has always been an issue.

Secondly, it is no secret that the Council has not been happy with the very onerous reverse onus-of-proof requirements under the State’s legislation.

Under the current laws, the employer has the absolute liability of care.

We do not think this provides an adequate test of the individual in terms of what is reasonably practical to carry out.

So we support a lot of the initiatives coming out of the National OH&S harmonisation.

Having said that, in no way are we backing away from the commitment to zero harm in the industry.

This will continue to be a huge priority for the Council and our member companies.

Mills: What do say to the argument that changing the onus-of-proof will diminish worker’s rights?

Buffier: This is a matter of legal fairness.

You have got to remember that these are criminal prosecutions.

Why shouldn’t any person or company be entitled to the same rights that others enjoy under the current legal system?

It is a fundamental part of the legal process and we are just asking for fairness.

At the moment, we are taking a keen interest is the appeal before the High Court by Kirk Holdings, because the outcome may have a direct impact on this issue.

Mills: What improvements are required to the NSW approvals process?

Buffier: We are pleased that the NSW Departments of Industry and Investment and Planning have taken onboard the need to improve the approvals process.

We are very pleased that there are number of working groups in place at the moment between the Council and those departments.

For example, we applaud the step that Planning Minister Keneally has taken to set deadlines within her Department, known as the ‘358 Requirement.’

Under this, 85% of all major assessments will be complete within three months, 95% within five months and none will exceed eight months.

However, having said that, all of the overlapping Government departments and approvals still need to be addressed.

Even after a mine receives its development consent, it is still dependant on gaining licence conditions and sometimes local government and other departmental approvals.

The whole thing is heading in the right direction and we are pleased about that, but there is still more to be done.

Mills: Do you think there should be a top-down approach to untangle the approvals processes at all levels of Government?

Buffier: We would welcome any streamlining of the overlaps between the Federal, State and Local Governments.

Mills: We all know the Council’s position on the CPRS. What do you think needs to happen for both sides to come away with an adequate compromise?

Buffier: The first point I’d like to make is that the costs that will be imposed on the mining industry and coal in particular, will actually be for mining the material, not for using it to generate electricity.

I’m not sure how well that is understood by the public.

So the $14.5 billion that will be imposed on the coal industry in the first ten years will be for simply digging it out of the ground, not for energy or steel production.

The second point is that Australia, when it comes to coal, only accounts for 5% of the world’s total coal production.

So, it is possible that if the scheme is introduced, ‘carbon leakage’ will be the only outcome.

This means that the jobs will be lost in Australia and any carbon reductions made here will be filled by our competitors in places like Indonesia and Russia and there would be no net reduction of global emissions.

Equally, the industry is being treated unfairly by not being named as ‘Emissions Intensive-Trade Exposed.’

Industry bodies, including the NSW Minerals Council, the Minerals Council of Australia and the Australian Coal Association (ACA), are telling the Federal Government the mining industry really needs a more measured and more transitionary approach to carbon reduction.

Compared to the US and European schemes, this is an extremely tough and aggressive system.

To our knowledge, Australia is the only country in the world that is including fugitive methane emissions from mining in the scheme.

So we would like the Government to be more in line with what is happening internationally.

As an industry, we recognise that something needs to be done, so we are supportive of an emissions trading scheme.

We are hoping that the discussions between the Federal Government and the Opposition will lead to something that is more transitionary and more measured.

Mills: The ACA has made public an intention to put $1 billion into low emission technology research. What do you make of the argument that the mining industry, considering its revenue, is not spending enough?

Buffier: The truth is that a number of major companies, including my own (Xstrata), are already separately putting their own money into research, in addition to the $1 billion from the ACA.

One example of this is the Otway Basin project in Victoria, which is proving up the storage of carbon dioxide underground in the strata.

There are many companies in Australia that are funding other projects and initiatives to reduce greenhouse emissions.

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