Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

CSG Regulation Is “Frackmented”

By Ian Lowe

The coal seam gas industry in NSW is arguing against the need for buffer zones, while it’s “open slather” in Queensland.

I was plunged into the debate about coal seam gas at the recent Adelaide conference convened by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. I was on a panel with industry representatives and a former Australian government minister responsible for resources and energy, Martin Ferguson.

The industry people were unhappy that the NSW government had imposed what they saw as arbitrary restrictions on the development of coal seam gas extraction within 2 km of dwellings. They argued that there was no scientific basis for a buffer zone of 2 km, rather than 1 km or less – or more, I thought.

While the industry would prefer no limits on where they can drill, I am equally unhappy that the policy to restrict impacts on people in NSW is not complemented by corresponding protection for productive land, natural areas and biodiversity. This suggests that the aim of the limits is simply to minimise the number of unhappy voters.

By contrast, the Queensland government has adopted an “open slather” approach facilitating development almost anywhere. More than 1000 wells have now been drilled. Local opposition has generated the “Lock the Gate” movement, with quite conservative farmers and other rural landholders engaging in civil disobedience to prevent access to their land. A backbench MP has tabled a law that would protect agricultural land.

I agreed with the industry people that we should have a uniform national approach. Remarkably, Ferguson argued this would not raise standards because, he said, he had supported gas development as strongly as any state minister!

Some industry people argue that the restriction on developing gas resources in NSW is endangering supply, but this seems improbable to me. The potential supply from wells already developed in Queensland is comparable to the total demand in the eastern states, and the industry is planning further massive expansion.

The goal is clearly to export gas. I told the conference that there might have been a legitimate defence for exporting gas if it was replacing coal and it could fit within a responsible overall carbon budget, but these conditions certainly don’t apply. The state and Commonwealth governments that are supporting the export gas industry are also supporting further expansion of coal exports, so they clearly aren’t trying to reduce carbon dioxide production.

While there could be a possible role for gas to augment renewable energy supply, I did not see any interest from the industry in that possibility. It is another case of a fossil fuel industry in denial of the problem of climate change and the threat it poses to their business model.

*****

The Australian Academy of Science convenes a conference in Canberra each year in memory of the life and work of the late Frank Fenner. This year’s event considered Population, Resources and Climate Change, and the outlook it presented was truly bleak.

The global population is still growing by 80 million per year, conventional oil production has already peaked, and the problem of climate change demands a rapid move away from fossil fuels. Within Australia, the rate of population growth is far higher than most affluent countries, our domestic oil is rapidly running out and the new government wants to cut back our inadequate response to climate change. So there was an atmosphere bordering on despair as delegates absorbed the gloomy findings.

The most positive presentation was from science communicator Julian Cribb, who has drawn attention to the looming problem of providing food for the growing population. He argued that the new capacity for interacting electronically is creating a global virtual community that can act to resolve problems, even if governments lag behind.

At the time, we hadn’t seen the exposure draft of the Australian government’s proposal to repeal the laws putting a price on carbon dioxide. The draft legislation doesn’t replace the fixed price with an emissions trading scheme, but simply abolishes the price.

The electronic universe is awash with criticism of the proposal to scrap a price mechanism that has coincided with a significant drop in the use of coal-fired electricity, in favour of a plan that has no support from either economists or technical experts. That will test Cribb’s optimism.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.

The coal seam gas industry in NSW is arguing against the need for buffer zones, while it’s “open slather” in Queensland.