Forward thinking

There is so much media dross masquerading as energy news and views today that it is almost a shock to come on a genuine piece of insightful thinking.

The source is the May/June edition of the excellent American magazine “Foreign Affairs” – see www.foreignaffairs.com, which is paywalled or you can lash out $20 for a hard copy at our better news agencies.

The issue features a 35-page set of commentaries gathered under “What will fuel the future” that I, at least, found well worth reading.

There’s Citi’s global head of commodities research, Edward Morse, explaining why the US-led focus on shale gas will “drive a fundamental change in global energy markets” along with a piece by an American industry CEO on why pursuing the shale opportunities are going to be harder outside his country.

And a leading American environmentalist, Fred Krupp, writing intelligently, if probably not wholly to the taste of the upstream petroleum industry, on how natural gas can turn out to be “a net environmental benefit” if perceived problems associated with its production can be addressed.

There’s also University of Minnesota professor David M. Levinson canvassing what is needed to make zero-emission cars go mainstream and a trio of academics canvassing why nuclear power stalled and how to restart it.

And there is an interesting piece by US federal bureaucrat Sharon Burke on how the single largest consumer of fuel in America, the Department of Defence, works to ensure that it is not caught short in terms of energy by being “a major incubator of cutting-edge technologies.”

One doesn’t have to agree with all the opinions put forward in order to appreciate that these are people who are thinking seriously about issues and listening to them can help refine our own views.

Reading well-reasoned views that go against the grain of our own opinion is good for us, but so much of what I see locally these days, especially in the electronic media devoted to green energy issues, is a tedious regurgitation of ideological prejudice or the product of shallow and naïve thinking

Speaking at the APPEA conference in Perth last month, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane observed that people in New South Wales with genuine concerns about coal seam gas and questions about long-term sustainability of farmland have been “swamped by small interest groups and, in some cases, anarchists.”

Speaking at the same event, Queensland Gasfields Commission chairman John Cotter made the point that one of the key factors enabling the development of his State’s gas resources “has been strong political leadership.”

This is strong as in effective, not as in strong arm – as in the notorious Noonkanbah incident in Western Australia in 1980 when a frustrated State government sent armed police to escort a drilling rig in to an Aboriginal community, an affair in which I was subsequently caught up as the new CEO of APPEA’s forerunner.

One of the real fears I have about the goings on in northern NSW is that the ingredients of a situation getting dangerously out of control are now all there, thanks in no small part to a dithering administration in Sydney.

Here’s Cotter again: “A lot of the angst and anger around coal seam gas and other resource developments on prime agricultural land has been due to a lack of upfront planning.”

In a thrust that should not be lost as the APPEA conference fades in to the background, Cotter added: “The onshore gas industry talks proudly about its safety culture; I look forward to the day when the industry can talk more confidently and consistently about its community engagement or social culture.”

The point here is that it takes two sides to polarise a debate.

Central to all this is context, as I have said more than once before here and elsewhere, and central to context is people talking intelligently about the very broad environment for resource development.

Which is why I value material like the latest “Foreign Affairs” coverage of energy issues and fervently wish we could see this level of debate emulated in Australia more frequently, rather than various parts of the media taking sides – or playing the faux balance game, a frequent ABC trick, in which strident opinion is juxtaposed with reaction to it.

This is not informing the community, it is throwing more brands on the fire while pretending to be helpful.

A really insightful energy white paper could be useful at this time – we have the green paper imminent and the RET paper to come – but one has to wonder if what is slouching towards us ca live up to this need, given the state of political debate?

In parenthesis, one of the ingredients of strong government is strong opposition. Poor would be a charitable epithet for the present federal Labor effort, a point driven home by the reaction of voters to the party in the recent WA Senate by-election.

Coming back to “Foreign Affairs,” it is interesting to see Citi’s Morse asserting that it is “highly likely” Australia, China, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UK “will see meaningful production” of shale resources “before the end of this decade.”

If this happens, he adds, there will be a “dramatic disruption” of the conventional global trade in energy.

Locally, this would change the energy scene, too.

However, as the NSW imbroglio, and sideshows elsewhere, including Victoria, are demonstrating, the extent to which the Australian economy, the community and the resources sector can benefit from such a disruption depends not just on technological innovation, which is highly important, but also on good governance and community acceptance of the new energy path.

There is a great deal to be done before we can feel confident that Australia – and its largest region of population and the economy, NSW – is making good progress on this path.

The situation, as the “Foreign Affairs” editors put it, “calls for hedgehogs rather than foxes.”

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