For one of the senior members of the upstream petroleum industry, an alarming aspect of the current row over coal seam methane exploration and development on farmland is the repeated emphasis on “mining” to describe the process.
In a conversation in Canberra, he fretted that just this one word, repeated often enough, will cause the gas suppliers a world of trouble in warding off negative views in the urban areas, where most voters live.
The conflation of petroleum exploration and production and mining is a deliberate Greens ploy.
Its propaganda in New South Wales says: “Gas mining is on the rise. Traditional coal communities are undergoing gas mining expansion and communities who have never imagined being impacted by mining are now faced with the dangers associated with gas mining exploration.”
Get the message?
True to form, the ABC has taken to talking about “coal seam mining” in reports and interviews.
And, returning home, I found a short rant in the Sydney Morning Herald that takes up the mantra.
“Our food bowls should not be sacrificed to mining,” said the headline over a commentary by a Liverpool Plains activist.
The Liverpool Plains are 1.2 million hectares of prime agricultural land in the north-west of New South Wales, lying around the Namoi River (where Captain Thunderbolt plyed his bushranger trade in the 1860s).
BHP Billiton would like to develop an underground coal mine in the area and Santos is pursuing coal seam methane prospects there.
But the battleground for this issue is a lot wider than one corner of NSW, as the National Farmers Federation has pointed out to a Senate committee – it has members with concerns about CSG activity in Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, too.
The campaigners have got some traction in NSW by winning a Legislative Council inquiry in to “the environmental, economic and social impacts of coal seam gas activities” on the back of an argument that the regulatory framework has not kept pace with the industry’s development. The MLCs committee will report next April.
The recent Senate inquiry in to the impact of wind farming on rural communities drew nearly 900 submissions, a curious melange of antagonism from country communities and vehement defence from the renewable energy sector.
The NSW parliamentary inquiry is sure to attract hundreds of submissions in similar vein. And lots of media coverage.
There are two different agendas at work here.
Clearly, the Greens and their followers see an opportunity to open a new front in their war on fossil fuels.
This is not what the farmers, by and large, are on about.
I note that the head of the Queensland government’s “LNG Enforcement Unit,” set up to assess claims about the gas sector not complying with environmental regulations, is saying that his biggest concern is that interests other than landholders are drowning out the voices of the people actually affected.
The NFF says that it is not out to stifle CSG exploration and production, but to ensure that farmers and resource developers can co-exist.
“This may require a more considered approach,” it says, “rather than a mad rush towards extraction.”
Listening to ABC Radio’s “The World Today” as I drove back from Canberra, I heard James Baulderstone, the Santos executive overseeing its eastern Australian activity, arguing the case for rural and regional community benefits from CSG development and pointing out that farmers aren’t anti-development.
“What they are concerned about,” he said, “is that developments are done safely and sustainably and they beneficially co-exist with agriculture.”
Quite why the NFF and the upstream petroleum industry have not got together to resolve the difficulties well before now is a good question.
Why State governments in Brisbane and Sydney did not appreciate the potential problem and ensure this happened is an equally good question.
The petroleum industry is starting to concede it could have done better in explaining CSG activities in recent years.
Speaking to a business lunch in Perth this month, the head of the ConocoPhillips’ Australian activities, Todd Creeger, said: “We haven’t done a good enough job in getting out and explaining the science (of hydraulic fracturing – or fraccing).”
This lapse is part of a lack of effective communication that has enabled environmentalists to seize an opportunity to throw fuel on the fire of farming community discontent. Of course, they have found willing allies in the media, which likes nothing better than a stoush, especially where stunts make good TV footage.
We are now, yet again, at the stage where the resources sector and the environmental movement are throwing information at each other, arts arena luvvies like Olivia Newton-John are being used to present scare commentaries for the media – “The cold hard fracks” was The Age’s headline over her Op-Ed piece, which fretted about the threat to Australia’s “pure water sources” – and populist pollies from Barnaby Joyce to Bob Brown are dancing around the fires that have been lit.
This is not just an issue about LNG exports and “Big Gas” making lotsa money.
Because of the need for gas to be a large-scale transition fuel in east Australian electricity supply – and dominantly in Queensland and NSW, representing more than 60 per cent of demand – yet another political log-jam over development is highly undesirable.
Looking out to just 2030, there is a need for perhaps 12,000MW of gas-fired electricity generation to be built, a lot of it north of the Murray and a lot of the rest in Victoria. This is not going to happen without security of gas supply.
The Queensland and NSW governments have a lot at stake in this situation.
Running battles over access to farmland are unlikely to bring down a government, but a substantial energy security problem – bearing in mind that energy security for consumers encompasses cost as well as the lights staying on – is another matter.
Constitutionally, resource development on land is a State issue, as federal Energy Minister Martin Ferguson has been pointing out. Attempts via the Senate to introduce legislation to interfere with this for political gain is unhelpful.
In any of these situations, there are always corporate cowboys.
Ferguson grumped in a radio interview that industry engagement with farmers has been “mixed.” There has been “some negligence” in some CSG activity, he said.
Looking at the situation from the sidelines, it seems to me that the farmers (through the NFF) and the gas suppliers need to get their acts together and negotiate an understanding that sorts this mess out as soon as possible.
This needs to include some clear “terms of engagement” for the farmers and the suppliers.
Meanwhile, both Bob Brown and his team and the media have found a new green seam to mine – and they are not going to waste the opportunity.