Opal fuel: mandating its supply in certain locations

First posted on 16 April 2012 under Uncategorized.
This article has been updated and archived.
Tags: legislation, Opal fuel, petrol sniffing & substance abuse

Summary

The invention and rollout of Opal fuel led to a “dramatic and sustained decline” in petrol sniffing numbers in many Anangu communities.[i] However, some roadhouses close to Anangu lands – including at least two in South Australia – have steadfastly refused to stock this new fuel. Their intransigence has frustrated the comprehensive rollout of Opal fuel across a large part of Central Australia.[ii]

On 1 March 2012, a Bill to “promote the supply” of Opal fuel and “control the supply of other fuels in certain areas” was introduced into the Australian Senate.[iii]

On 27 November 2012, the Senate passed the Bill with some amendments.[iv]
The following day, the Bill was introduced into the House of Representatives.[v]

The Paper Trail

Introduction

Since the 1970s, petrol sniffing has been a recurring problem for many South Australian Anangu communities.[vi]

Between 1987 and 2005, a number of coronial inquests examined petrol-sniffing deaths in Yalata and on the APY Lands.[vii] In the findings of one of these inquests, handed down in September 2002, the State Coroner reported that petrol sniffing was “endemic” on the APY Lands and noted that:

it has caused and continues to cause devastating harm to the community, including approximately 35 deaths in the last 20 years … Serious disability, crime, cultural breakdown and general grief and misery are also consequences.[viii]

During this period, a succession of strategies and programs aimed at combating or eradicating petrol sniffing produced limited, enduring results.

The rollout of Opal fuel

In early 2005, BP Australia launched a new fuel called ‘Opal’.[ix] Opal fuel does not “contain lead and has very low levels of the aromatic hydrocarbons which give the ‘high’ sought by petrol sniffers.”[x]

In February 2005, with funding from the Federal Government, Opal fuel began to replace standard unleaded fuel in some remote Aboriginal communities[xi]. In time, it was taken up by all of the main APY communities and a number of nearby roadhouses.[xii]

The introduction of Opal fuel led to a “dramatic and sustained reduction” in the number of petrol sniffers on the APY Lands.[xiii] In 2004, there were approximately 200 petrol sniffers on the APY Lands.[xiv] By the end of 2007, the number of petrol sniffers on the APY Lands had fallen to less than 40.[xv]

Notwithstanding this impressive result, some roadhouses near the APY Lands declined the opportunity to switch from unleaded fuel to Opal.[xvi] Nor was Opal taken up by any fuel retailers located in the vicinity of Yalata.

Senate Inquiry

On June 2008, the Australian Senate established an Inquiry into petrol sniffing and substance abuse in Central Australia.[xvii]

The terms of reference for the Inquiry included examining “the extent of the rollout of Opal fuel”, as well as “what more needs to be done to effectively address petrol sniffing.”[xviii]

The Inquiry’s final report- prepared by the Standing Committee on Community Affairs – was tabled in the Australian Senate on 19 March 2009.[xix]

In the report, the Committee acknowledged the effectiveness of the “already extensive voluntary rollout of Opal fuel in Central Australia” whilst noting that “much of the evidence” it had received:

indicated that further attention and commitment is required to achieve a comprehensive rollout of Opal fuel in the central Australian region.”[xx]

The Committee also observed that:

  • “supplies of unleaded petrol” were “continuing to enter some [Aboriginal] communities as a result of several strategically located retailers”,
  • 10 roadhouses, including Cadney Park in South Australia, had “refused to stock Opal fuel”, and
  • there was “currently no legislation to mandate the use of Opal fuel”.[xxi]

The report continued:

The committee recognises and agrees that a concerted effort has been made … to encourage retailers to supply Opal fuel. … it appears that for several years there has not been any positive signs of progress and the committee is now of the view that legislation to mandate the supply … appears to be the only way to achieve a comprehensive rollout of Opal fuel in central Australia.[xxii]

The Committee formally recommended (Recommendation 5) that:

  • the Federal Government “complete, as a matter of priority, the necessary work to determine whether legislation is both possible and practicable”, and
  • “if these retailers do not voluntarily agree to supply Opal within 6 months, and if it is established that there are no legal impediments to the implementation of Commonwealth legislation, the … [Federal] government should immediately commence the drafting of legislation to mandate the supply of Opal fuel within the petrol sniffing strategy zone.”[xxiii]

Federal Government response (2010)

On 22 June 2010, the Federal Government’s written response to the Inquiry’s report was tabled in the Senate.[xxiv]

In it, the Government indicated that it had accepted Recommendation 5 “in part”.[xxv]

The Government then went on to explain that:

  • it had commissioned an independent “cost-benefit analysis of the legislative options” to mandate for the supply of Opal fuel,
  • this research had “concluded” that “the community benefits” of mandating supplies “exceeded the costs, both in the short and the long term”,[xxvi]
  • the research had noted, however, that its conclusions “were based on limited data on the prevalence of petrol sniffing and that fuel storage and distribution issues needed to be addressed to enable a full rollout of Opal fuel in northern Australia”,
  • the Federal Government had recently provided $38.5 million “to enhance the current voluntary rollout of Opal fuel” over a four-year period,
  • part of this funding would be used to “implement a surveillance system to collect data on the impact of Opal fuel and the broader Petrol Sniffing Strategy”,
  • this data would “inform future decisions” about “the value of an additional legislative approach” but only after the “full voluntary rollout of Opal fuel” had been completed, and
  • the voluntary rollout was expected to be completed by June 2013.[xxvii]

Departmental advice (2012)

On 17 February 2012, the Federal Department of Health and Ageing advised a Senate Committee that:

  • eight fuel outlets were “persistently refusing” to supply Opal fuel,
  • five of these sites were located in the Northern Territory,
  • two were in South Australia, and
  • one was located on the Queensland-Northern Territory border.[xxviii]

Proposed legislation

On 1 March 2012, Senator Rachel Siewert (Australian Greens) introduced the “Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012″ into Parliament, the purpose of which is to “promote the supply” of Opal fuel and “control the supply of other fuels in certain areas”.[xxix]

In an accompanying speech, Senator Siewert said:

  • the potential of Opal fuel was “being undermined” and “compromised” by “intransigent retailers”,
  • the reasons put forward by these retailers for not stocking Opal fuel “do not stand up to scrutiny”,
  • the proposed legislation would give “the Federal Government the power, when necessary, to regulate the supply of certain fuels” in designated areas.[xxx]

On 27 November 2012, an amended version of the Bill was passed by the Australian Senate.[xxxi] The following day, it was introduced into the House of Representatives.[xxxii]

SA Government position on the roll-out of Opal fuel

On 8 February 2012, the South Australian Minister for Mental Health and Substance Abuse (Hon John Hill MP) advised the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service (CAYLUS) that all communities on the APY Lands “now have only diesel and Opal fuel available for retail sale” and continued:

With regard to the [Federal] Government mandating the supply of Opal fuel in specific remote areas, I am advised that the current voluntary arrangements are sufficient at this time.[xxxiii]

In a reply dated 15 March 2012, CAYLUS asked the Minister to reconsider this position which it felt was:

based on a misunderstanding of the proposed legislation and of the current situation with Opal rollout to South Australian remote communities. [xxxiv]

The reply went on to point out that:

  • two South Australian roadhouses were refusing to stock Opal fuel,
  • these roadhouses had been identified by the Federal Department of Health and Ageing “as being of strategic importance in stopping the flow of standard unleaded fuel to remote communities nearby”, and
  • in the southern parts of the Northern Territory, fuel from “cross border roadhouses is associated with ongoing sniffing at three communities, with occasional outbreaks in others.”[xxxv]

The letter continued:

Given the cross border nature of the problem, federal legislation is what is needed to ensure the Opal rollout is as comprehensive as it needs to be. Currently the NT and WA governments… hold positions in favour of this legislation. If the South Australian Government was to change its position this would provide significant support.[xxxvi]

On 11 May 2012, the Paper Tracker highlighted its strong support for the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012 in a letter to Minister Hill.

In the same letter, we expressed interest in knowing if the South Australian Government supported “the proposed federal legislation and if not, why not.”[xxxvii]

We also asked the Minister for information on any action the Government had:

taken or will be taking this year to ensure Opal fuel replaces standard unleaded fuel in those South Australian roadhouses that the Federal Department of Health and Ageing has identified as sites where Opal fuel should be sold.[xxxviii]

Click here to download a copy of the Paper Tracker’s letter (file size: 232kb)

In a reply dated 25 June 2012, Minister Hill advised the Paper Tracker that in his view the Federal Government’s existing approach of encouraging retail sites to voluntarily sell and supply Opal fuel had been “very successful” and that “further action at the State level” was not required “at this time.”[xxxix] However, the Minister also advised the Paper Tracker that he had asked SA Health to “keep a watching brief on the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012 as it makes its way through the Parliament of Australia.”[xl]

Click here to download a copy of the Minister’s advice (file size: 257kb)

This article has been archived and will no longer be updated. It will, however, remain accessible online as a source of background information for anyone wishing to undertake further research on this issue. Information included in the article was current at the time it was archived. Keep in mind, however, that Ministerial changes and names of departments, among other things, may have since changed.


[i] Nganampa Health Council. Annual Report 2008, p3.

[ii] McFarland, B. 15 March 2012. Letter to Minister Hill from the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service.

[iii] Siewert, R. 1 March 2012, “Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012″, Hansard, Senate, Parliament of Australia, p21.

[iv] Australian Senate. 27 November 2012. “Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012″, Hansard, p72-3.

[v] House of Representatives. 28 November 2012. “Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012″, Hansard, p75.

[vi] The problem was first discussed in the South Australian Parliament in 1979. Specifically, on 8 November 1979, the Member for Spence spoke at length about petrol sniffing at Yalata in the House of Assembly, Parliament of South Australia. In the course of his speech the Member read from a letter that indicated that “as early as 1976″ youth at Yalata had “experimented with petrol inhalation” (Hansard, 8 November 1979, p882).

[vii] See: “Coroner warns of petrol sniff deaths,” 24 April 1987, The Advertiser. Also: Chivell, W. 6 September 2002.  Findings of Inquest into the death of Kunmanara Ken, Hunt and Thompson; Chivell, W. 14 March 2005. Findings of Inquest into the death of Kunmanara Ward, Ken, Ryan and Cooper; and Johns, M. 18 December 2008. Finding of Inquest into the death of Kunmanara Gibson,

[viii] Chivell, W. 6 September 2002. “Executive Summary,” in Findings of Inquest into the death of Kunmanara Thompson, Court Administration Authority of South Australia.

[ix] BP Australia, May 2007, “Opal: a safer petrol for remote communities,” fact sheet, p2. Available online. Accessed: 26 March 2008.

[x] Australian Government, [2006], Joint Submission by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and indigenous Affairs to the Senate’s Inquiry into Petrol Sniffing in Remote Aboriginal Communities, Submission 25, p15.

[xi] Australian Government, [2006], Joint Submission by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and indigenous Affairs to the Senate’s Inquiry into Petrol Sniffing in Remote Aboriginal Communities, Submission 25, p14. In September 2005, the Australian Government provided an additional $6 million (over two years) for the roll out of Opal to additional communities and nearby roadhouses (Community Affairs References Committee, June 2006, Beyond petrol sniffing: renewing hope for Indigenous communities, report, Parliament of Australia, p100).

[xii] Government of South Australia, February 2006, “Submission from the Government of South Australia to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee Inquiry into Petrol Sniffing in remote Aboriginal communities,” Submission 29A, p11.

[xiii] Nganampa Health Council. Annual Report 2008, p3.

[xiv] Government of South Australia, February 2006, “Submission from the Government of South Australia to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee Inquiry into Petrol Sniffing in remote Aboriginal communities,” Submission 29A, p1. See also: Weatherill, J. 26 February 2008, “Dramatic decrease in petrol sniffing on the APY Lands,” News Release.

[xv] Weatherill, J. 26 February 2008, “Dramatic decrease in petrol sniffing on the APY Lands,” News Release.

[xvi] See: Australian Senate. March 2009. Grasping the opportunity of Opal: Assessing the impact of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy. Report of the Standing Committee on Community Affairs, p46. Also: Mansour, J (DoHA). 17 February 2012. Transcript of evidence given to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee during an Estimates hearing, Senate, Parliament of Australia p58.

[xvii] The Inquiry was established at the urging of Senator Rachel Siewert (Senator for Western Australia). See: 17 June 2008, Hansard, Senate, Parliament of Australia, p2464.

[xviii] Australian Senate. March 2009. Grasping the opportunity of Opal: Assessing the impact of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy. Report of the Standing Committee on Community Affairs, p1.

[xix] Moore, C. 19 March 2009. “Community Affairs Committee Report,” Hansard (Proof Edition), Australian Senate, Parliament of Australia, p14.

[xx] Australian Senate. March 2009. Grasping the opportunity of Opal: Assessing the impact of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy. Report of the Standing Committee on Community Affairs, p44.

[xxi] Australian Senate. March 2009. Grasping the opportunity of Opal: Assessing the impact of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy. Report of the Standing Committee on Community Affairs, p46.

[xxii] Australian Senate. March 2009. Grasping the opportunity of Opal: Assessing the impact of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy. Report of the Standing Committee on Community Affairs, p50.

[xxiii] Australian Senate. March 2009. Grasping the opportunity of Opal: Assessing the impact of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy. Report of the Standing Committee on Community Affairs, p51.

[xxiv] The Government’s response was tabled by Senator Kim Carr. See: Parliament of Australia. 22 June 2012. Reports: Government Responses,” Hansard, Senate, p3945.

[xxv] Australian Government. 2010. “Combined Australian Government response to two Senate Community Affairs References Committee reports on petrol sniffing in Indigenous Communities,” report, p32.

[xxvi] The Paper Tracker understands that this research calculated that the establishment of mandating legislation would lead to a $1.3 billion reduction over 25 years in costs to the public health and justice systems. See: Ray, T (CAYLUS). 16 May 2012. Email to J. Nicholls.

[xxvii] Australian Government. 2010. “Combined Australian Government response to two Senate Community Affairs References Committee reports on petrol sniffing in Indigenous Communities,” report, p32-33.

[xxviii] Mansour, J (DoHA). 17 February 2012. Transcript of evidence given to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee during an Estimates hearing, Senate, Parliament of Australia p58.

[xxix] Siewert, R. 1 March 2012, “Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012″, Hansard, Senate, Parliament of Australia, p21.

[xxx] Siewert, R. 1 March 2012, “Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012″, Hansard, Senate, Parliament of Australia, p22.

[xxxi] Australian Senate. 27 November 2012. “Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012″, Hansard, p72-3.

[xxxii] House of Representatives. 28 November 2012. “Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012″, Hansard, p75.

[xxxiii] Hill, J. 8 February 2012. Letter to B. McFarland, Manager, Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service.

[xxxiv] McFarland, B. 15 March 2012. Letter to Minister Hill from the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service.

[xxxv] McFarland, B. 15 March 2012. Letter to Minister Hill from the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service.

[xxxvi] McFarland, B. 15 March 2012. Letter to Minister Hill from the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service.

[xxxvii] McDonald, P. 11 May 2012. Letter to Hon. J. Hill.

[xxxviii] McDonald, P. 11 May 2012. Letter to Hon. J. Hill.

[xxxix] Hill, J. 25 June 2012. Letter to Rev. P. McDonald, Uniting Communities.

[xl] Hill, J. 25 June 2012. Letter to Rev. P. McDonald, Uniting Communities.

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