CSG: A question of balance

James Nason, 20/09/2011


That the Coal Seam Gas industry has been compelled to launch an all-out advertising offensive is the strongest sign yet it feels it is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the public.

The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association says its “We Want CSG” advertising blitz is needed to restore balance to the debate, which it believes has become dominated by “alarmist and unsubstantiated” claims about potential negative impacts.

For someone who has been watching the industry’s development in Southern Queensland over the past five or so years, this seems extraordinary.

Extraordinary because most landholders and environmentalists would argue that their own campaign to protect inland water and farmland from negative impacts was fuelled by the same motivations that now drive the CSG industry’s campaign.

In the early days of the current gas rush – 2007 and 2008 – most headlines reporting the rise and rise of CSG trumpeted export bonanzas, royalty windfalls and jobs booms. Mentions of potential downsides and impacts to farmland and freshwater were difficult to find.

Thanks to the economic growth it promised, the CSG industry also enjoyed strong backing from the Queensland Government. When then deputy premier Anna Bligh spoke about her vision for rural Queensland at a Rural Press Club of Queensland lunch in Brisbane in 2007, she spoke not about agriculture but resources, and the bright future that Coal Seam Gas promised for the State. It seemed that whenever Ms Bligh looked west or north from Brisbane, she saw not cattle or crops but gas wells and pipelines.

At the same time landholders were hearing stories from the US of vast networks of gas wells and pipelines spider-webbing across huge tracts of rural land and talk of aquifers being contaminated and or drained as a result of coal bed gas extraction.

With every news image of a beaming Anna Bligh shaking hands with another gas company executive and trumpeting tens of thousands of new gas wells for southern Queensland, it was hard for nervous landholders to embrace the excitement.

CSG companies provided assurances that what happened in the US would not happen in Australia, mainly because the underlying geology is not the same and the coal seam gas process differs from the shale gas process that predominates there.

Lack of assurances

What landholders had trouble ignoring however was the repeated inability of gas companies or the Government, when asked, to provide definitive assurances that CSG extraction would not cause potential damage to aquifers or farming land.

They also questioned why CSG companies were given carte blanche access to pump unlimited volumes of water from the Great Artesian Basin, when the Government had spent millions of dollars trying to protect it by capping and piping flowing bores; and why CSG operations were permitted to bring millions of tonnes of salt to the surface when they still had no plan for how to appropriately deal with it. Wasn’t this the same stuff that the Queensland Government saw as such a threat to the environment a few years earlier that it imposed onerous tree-clearing restrictions on farmers to protect against?

The major CSG companies point to their years of experience in global CSG operations and argue that it makes little commercial sense to do things poorly – why let the gas you have spent millions of dollars trying to access migrate away into water wells, or why contaminate or drain aquifers that will cost a similar amount after the event to try and repair?

The CSG industry adds that precautions are well-in place to prevent the vast majority of impacts. Sophisticated underground monitoring systems alert them to changes in aquifer water levels before any major damage can be done, dangerous chemicals have been banned from the fraccing process, and they are bound by the most rigorous regulations that govern CSG activities anywhere in the world.

But farmers and environmentalists aren’t convinced. If the science was settled, they argue, CSG companies and Government regulators would be able to provide definitive assurances that vital underground aquifers and strategically valuable farming land will not be damaged.

They won’t. The Queensland Government’s head of CSG monitoring operations told ABC radio this week that negative impacts will happen. The CSG industry’s own literature and environmental impact statements say problems will occur, however minimal.

Therein lies the problem. The chances of a problem occurring may be minimal, but who wants to be the landholder who experiences a potentially dangerous gas well blowout on their property, or to have large areas of valuable farming or grazing land flooded by toxic, saline water from a CSG pipe leak? It is not so much not in my back yard, but not in my back paddock.

Too big, too fast

One veteran water bore constructor in Southern Qld told me last year that there are not enough experienced people working in the industry, or Government regulators to monitor them, to ensure that the tens of thousands of new wells that must be built to meet export contract deadlines over the next few years will be constructed without significant errors affecting at least some. Even a 1pc error rate across 30,000 wells equates to 300 problematic ones.

In simple terms the fear is that the industry has been allowed to get too big too fast.

The Queensland Government’s regulatory approach has been to require CSG companies to negotiate “make good” arrangements after problems occur.

Landholder and environmental groups say the “precautionary principle” approach should be taken instead which would require resource companies to produce scientific evidence before the event to prove their activities will not cause damage.

A key concern with the “Make Good” approach is whether companies will have the ability to fix contaminated land or aquifers or drained bores after the event. And, regardless of whether the problem can be physically fixed, the onus to prove that a resource company is responsible for a negative impact will still fall on the landholder.

While it may seem more than a coincidence when a bore that has faithfully produced water for decades suddenly runs dry soon after CSG operations begin nearby, a landholder may still need to produce more evidence than coincidence alone to prove that the cause was not another factor such as drought for example.

At the last election the Queensland Government made a commitment to create 100,000 new jobs in its current term. That is the central plank of its bid for re-election next year and is reliant upon every major CSG project planned for Queensland going ahead.

People concerned about CSG impacts have long feared that in their desire to unleash royalty flows and new jobs as quickly as possible, Governments have not paid enough attention to providing the watertight guarantees that those already using the same land to produce food and fibre need.

Inland revitalisation

The CSG industry has changed the face of large parts of inland Queensland. Country towns that were traditionally farming and grazing centres have morphed into mining settlements in a few short years. Akubras, RM William boots and utes carrying working dogs are outnumbered in the main streets of towns like Dalby, Chinchilla and Roma by hard hats, yellow shirts and bullbars with high-waving orange dune-flags.

The industry has breathed new life into regional Queensland’s economy. Well-paying jobs are now available to many, income that has saved the bottom lines of not a few farms. Compensation payments for on-farm wells have provided a valuable and consistent source of cash flow, particularly during droughts. Country areas have re-populated in a way that they  could not have under agriculture alone.

Businesses such as hotels, motels, car hire companies and tradesmen in many cases have done well.

The economic prosperity has not been shared by all though. The fly-in, fly-out nature of workforces has restricted the benefits and it is not hard to find country town retailers who say the benefits have only been a fraction of what was promised.

The deeper pockets of the mining industry has also forced up costs and rents and made it harder for farmers to find affordable labour. The rapid deterioration of inland roads such as the Warrego Highway, which is disintegrating beneath a weight of heavy traffic it was never designed to carry, has been another downside of the mining and gas boom.

Which brings us back to the start.

These issues and concerns have indeed started to dominate media headlines, but that was not always the case.

CSG companies have thrown significant resources at winning the hearts and minds of rural communities. CSG sponsored playgrounds, theatrical productions, race days, sporting teams, caps and water bottles for every child in town and large media and communications budgets go a long way to shoring up support.

That the cashed-up, well-resourced and Government-backed industry now says it is losing the battle for media coverage and public sentiment is a tacit endorsement of how effectively landholder and environmental groups have campaigned for better protections of natural resources.

Landholder groups such as the Basin Sustainability Alliance and the environmentalists who have joined and bolstered the campaign in the past 12 months – such as Drew Hutton and the Lock the Gate alliance – are not well resourced, don’t have extensive advertising budgets, and have to fight each battle on their own time and from their own pockets.

The increased profile of AgForce in the CSG debate in Queensland this year and the strong position that NSW Farmers has taken on the issue in response to massive planned developments in the state has helped to bring the issue to national prominence.

The tide does appear to be turning, and APPEA now sees a need to restore balance to the debate. But farmers and their environmental allies may argue that balance is only just being achieved now after years of one way traffic in the CSG industry’s favour. 



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.


Get Beef Central's news headlines emailed to you -