New powers to stop coal seam gas wells and big coal mines that harm the water supply would simply give the federal government the clout the public assumed it already had, Environment Minister Tony Burke said on Tuesday.
Confirming the federal government would soon introduce legislation to include water as a trigger for its involvement in approval processes under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, Mr Burke said under existing laws he could take water into account only if he could link the environmental damage to a threatened species of a wetland.
The federal government is contacting scores of mines and CSG projects that have not yet achieved final approval to inform them they would now need to provide new information on the impact of their plans on ground and surface water.
''Realistically whenever I have made a decision on coal seam gas, the Australian public would expect that we are taking into account all the impacts on our precious water resources,'' Mr Burke said.
The move makes good a promise by the Gillard government to independent Tony Windsor during the negotiation to form government in 2010, and Mr Windsor, fellow independents Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter and the Greens all said they would back it.
Mr Burke made his announcement flanked by Labor backbenchers Justine Elliott, Janelle Saffin and Laurie Ferguson, all of whom have campaigned against CSG projects planned for their electorates.
Mr Windsor said there had been a ''breakdown in trust'' over CSG approvals in NSW, where successive state governments had been ''dodging'' the issue of the impact of CSG wells and big coal mines on water.
''Some of these things should not be allowed to go ahead where there are massive groundwater issues we don't understand,'' he said.
Mr Windsor has insisted it is ''nonsense'' to suggest the move is unconstitutional.
Mr Oakeshott said the ''energy gold rush'' had been outrunning the capacity of governments to make transparent science-based laws.
But Greens Senator Larissa Waters accused Mr Burke of agreeing to the new powers only after he had already approved three big CSG projects in Queensland and a project at Gloucester in NSW, without the water information he now says is essential.
The campaign against coal seam gas projects is strong in many marginal electorates, despite the NSW government's recent decision to impose a two-kilometre buffer between gas wells and townships or farms and the withdrawal of AGL's plans to expand its project in western Sydney.
The Coalition has previously said the increased powers are not necessary and they could face a constitutional challenge.
Coalition energy and resources spokesman Ian Macfarlane has said the federal minister was already able to get involved in project approvals and there was no case to expand federal powers.
Mr Burke said he had no concerns about the constitutionality of his plan.