The matter of Rosella

If it wasn’t so serious, it would be rather funny: the 28-page policy document for the Northern Rivers region the Baird Coalition government published before the recent New South Wales election almost manages to avoid mentioning gas.

On page 17 it notes that “coal seam gas has been identified as a major issue concerning land use and environmental protection” in the region and declares “the challenge is to balance competing interests in line with community expectations.”

What’s funny, you see, is that the Rosella well at Bentley, the target of so much fuss and the subject of a Supreme Court case the government has just lost (see my last post), isn’t a CSG project.

Nor is it an “unconventional well,” as the Greens label it in order to whip up local sentiment.

It’s true that explorer Metgasco has pursued CSG activities in the region but Rosella isn’t one of them.

It is a bog-standard, conventional exploration well searching a conventional gas target in the Clarence Moreton geological basin.

When the coal seam gas issue reached its highly confused state under the O’Farrell government, the Metgasco board made a decision to suspend such operations until a regulatory framework was properly established and to focus on this conventional gas opportunity.

Its attraction is that a previous well on the structure, which has been dubbed Mackellar, put down in 2009, flowed at a rate suggesting that it could hold enough natural gas to meet all NSW’s needs for a decade.

Of course, nothing is certain in the petroleum exploration business but, if Rosella met Metgasco’s hopes, the royalties going to the State community, via NSW Treasury, would be very well worth having, the region would garner much-needed local employment and other benefits and more than 30,000 State business users of the fuel would also benefit.

(The government acknowledges that unemployment in the Northern Rivers region is higher than the NSW average “and youth unemployment is especially high.”)

Nor has the company sought to ride roughshod over the farmer whose land contains Rosella – the well is in a disused quarry – but he has suffered mightily at the hands of the anti-fossil fuel mob for his willingness to accept the explorers.

Now, in order to reach its target, the Rosella well needs to pass through overlying coal and tight sands strata, as is normal for pretty well every onshore well drilled in Australia (including those outside NSW borders providing 95 per cent of the State’s gas needs).

For this reason, the “gastivists” deem it unacceptable.

They have, for example, whipped up oyster farmers 100 kilometres away in to a frenzy of concern over contamination of their beds.

As late as this week, a radio shock jock, who seems to have a well-honed appreciation of the advantages of seizing on a controversy where few of his listeners have any knowledge but feel it might concern them somehow and strumming it for all its worth, has been parroting that Rosella needs fracking and is therefore unacceptable.

Never mind that Metgasco says it doesn’t want to frack this well, hasn’t applied to do so and hasn’t approval to do so.

The Metgasco/Rosella imbroglio is a classic example of activists not letting the facts obscure an opportunity to make mischief.

There are lots of other examples.

What makes this one especially interesting is how the Coalition has allowed itself to be sucked in by a confected drama and is now enmeshed in toils of its own design, having comprehensively mismanaged an opportunity that could – with emphasis on could – offer a means to address its State-wide gas problems in a substantial way.

If Rosella went ahead and returned positive results, the project would require more seismic activity and further appraisal wells, all requiring detailed regulatory approvals, including community consultation, ahead of the issuing of a production licence.

As I understand it, the distance – in time – from a Rosella success to actual gas sales in to the NSW market from a developed field could be about four years. If the field required hydraulic fracturing, this would see more approval applications and more consultation and a further amount of time.

As an aside there are just 30 families – 150 people – in the Bentley area where the well is situated but, at its peak, the demonstrations against the project involved 1,000 protestors or more (there have been media claims of 2,000).

Numbers of them travelled from interstate to participate.

This is not a local pushback against a development but an organized campaign by radical activists who have spooked a government (and especially its National members) to an astounding degree – and sucked in much of the media to an equal level.

Allowing the affair to reach today’s pass has put the Coalition in the position of being challenged to say (with respect to gas policy) who governs New South Wales and how it has allowed an anarchic movement to drive State-wide community interests closer to being in a ditch.

In its Northern Rivers poll manifesto, the Baird government commits to “support a growing population and to drive investment and jobs growth” in the region while “ensuring careful management to protect natural features and agricultural assets.”

What mark out of 10 would it like for its performance so far?

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