The chairman of a consultative group established in Southern Queensland to bring coal seam gas company executives and landholder representatives to the same table to address key issues of concern says the move has made a positive difference.
As the exploration footprint of the CSG industry pushes further north towards the Northern Territory and south into Victoria, more people are looking to the Southern Queensland experience to see what can be learned about managing the industry’s rapid growth.
One approach taken by the Queensland Government earlier this year In response to growing rural tensions over CSG issues was to establish the Surat Basin Engagement Group. The move was designed to bring CSG company decision-makers, departmental director-generals and landholder representatives together to learn about each other's issues and to work out solutions face to face.
The group’s chairman, former AgForce president John Cotter, said the approach has led to "robust and vigorous discussions" at times, but overall the concept has made a big difference by helping each sector to understand how the other does business.
“One of the most important things is the interactive process between landowners and the companies at a senior level, where you can have open and frank discussion, you can put your issues on the table, and you get them dealt with at that level,” Mr Cotter said.
“What you have got now is the senior levels of the company taking an active interest in the landowners’ business, and understanding and learning how to work through the issues that a particular landowner has.”
Mr Cotter said the group had recently secured an agreement that will allow landholders to decide if they want contracts with CSG companies to be bound by confidentiality agreements in future. The blanket use of confidentiality agreements has been criticised in the past for clouding the true market for access-fee payments, and for generating anxiety and suspicion as landholders question whether they have received a fair deal compared to others.
The CSG industry’s rapid growth in recent years has been accompanied by fierce public debate as to whether the economic benefits it brings justify the potential impacts it poses to land and water and agricultural operations.
A federal parliamentary committee recently warned after completing a four-month inquiry that CSG industry developments were outpacing scientific knowledge of impacts and Government attempts to regulate it. The all-party Senate committee called for a freeze on new CSG developments in the Great Artesian Basin area until more independent research into cumulative impacts on aquifers and salt-management solutions was completed.
Such concerns have triggered public protests in recent years and a national campaign led by conservationist Drew Hutton encouraging landholders to lock their gates to gas companies until moratoriums on further development are secured. Mr Hutton was fined $2000 in the Dalby Magistrate Court last Thursday for his role in a CSG blockade at Chinchilla earlier this year.
While some see a combative approach as the most effective way to express landholder concerns, Mr Cotter said his view is that more can be achieved by working with industry and government.
“There is a whole lot of people out there who want to stop the industry, and that is their right, and that is the wonderful country that we live in,” Mr Cotter said.
“But I saw the opportunity to get some really good benefits for landowners and regional communities in this, and that is my motivation.
“You can go and belt your head up against the wall, or you can get in there and negotiate the best deal you can, and that is what I am in the business of – making sure every landowner gets the best deal they can.”
Mr Cotter said his role as the independent chairman of the SBEG was to facilitate the views of all players at the table. Group members included representatives from six landholder groups, all of which had maximum opportunity to negotiate benefits for landowners, he said.
Asked whether he believed existing levels of scientific knowledge surrounding CSG impacts were adequate, Mr Cotter said it was critical that existing levels of knowledge are continually improved upon.
One of the first moves by the Surat Basin Engagement group had been to establish a water working group to bring all existing scientific data on potential water impacts together.
He said that every new hole drilled by the industry provided another set of data which was analysed and added to the existing body of understanding, which was helping the science to build and grow as the industry progressed.
Calls for a moratorium based on gaps in existing knowledge missed a key point, he said.
“For people to sit back and say, we’ve got to get all the science and then we’ll decide whether the industry goes ahead, well, what are you going to scientifically analyse if you don’t have the data?”
The possibility of negative impacts occurring was minimised by the heavy layers of regulation applied to CSG projects and the sophisticated well-monitoring systems that helped to anticipate negative impacts before they occurred.
Two years ago, most landholders affected by CSG felt intimidated, and felt that the legislation was against them. “They felt these huge companies with a bank of lawyers could ride roughshod over them,” Mr Cotter said. However he said that was changing as a result of work to foster a greater understanding by CSG companies of landholder issues.
He predicted that relationships between landholders and CSG companies would improve as the industry moved from the exploration to production phase.
“A lot of the angst and a lot of problems came from the exploration stage, when you’ve got a lot of smaller companies with a drilling rig going out and drilling holes and not really caring because they will be gone tomorrow.
“But then when these big companies get their Environmental Impact Statements approved and have to go out into the market to get funding, that was when they really started to take seriously their corporate social responsibility.
“They are here for the long term, they have got $16b they’re talking about investing, so they’ve got some skin in the game. That is where we have come in and said righto, you’ve got this funding, you’ve got this approval, you’ve got to start treating us all as equal partners, including the community.”