Positive Futures Series 110823 What’s the Fracking Fuss all About? Panel Discussion

“We might come back to that after we’ve moved on a bit further. Thanks Liam. Let’s move onto CSG. You could be forgiven for thinking that CSG is a new industry in Queensland. Certainly over the last few months it’s become a very hot topic of discussion in this state.

If you have natural gas connected to your home at the moment though, chances are you’re already using CSG every day. It accounts for around ninety percent of Queensland’s gas supply. The CSG industry says that after fifteen years of safe and efficient CSG extraction in Queensland we have no reason to fear the rapid expansion of the industry to supply export markets.

Around forty-five billion dollars worth of CSG projects are on the slate for Queensland, bringing some eighteen thousand jobs to regional areas in desperate need of employment opportunities and adding around a billion dollars each year in taxes to the state’s coffers for infrastructure and essential services. Those are some compelling economic numbers.

On the environmental side of the ledger, Australian studies by CSIRO and Worley Parsons indicates that CSG fired power stations emit up to seventy percent less greenhouse gases than our existing coal fired power stations. But in both Australia and the U.S., where our next speaker is based, CSG has raised significant environmental and health concerns related to contamination of water and fugitive emissions, and the environmental and health impacts of those.

In Queensland it’s also at the heart of a looming stoush over property rights. If I could welcome Professor Michael Economides. Leaving aside the property rights for the moment, could I just ask you; what’s your understanding of the concerns being expressed in Queensland about the environmental impacts of CSG?

Australian farmers feed around sixty million people each day, forty million of them overseas and Queensland is responsible for around twenty percent of that production. Queensland farmers are operating already in areas where gas is plentiful so they’re worried about their livelihoods and their lifestyles being at risk.”

“It’s one more concern weighing down an industry already challenged by climate change, soil degradation, labour shortages and declining productivity, and considering that agriculture accounts for fully half of Australia’s water use, you can understand their concerns about potential new threats to diminishing water supplies.”

Drew

“Okay, the biggest issue that we have, ladies and gentlemen, is one of balance and sustainability. This is not about one industry removing the other from the landscape. This is about both being in place to do what they do.

The reality as Karyn has just said is that we — our consumption domestically in Australia in our fresh food and produce is ninety-six percent of our fresh food and produce is grown domestically. We still export a hell of a lot of that, but ninety-six percent is consumed here.

We are constantly facing landscape competition issues. We’ve got the climate change issues. We’ve got droughts, floods, everything else, and trust me we’ve experienced all of that in the last twelve or fifteen months. But the reality of landscape competition means if we remove the agricultural or food and fibre production system from this landscape and replaced it with one hundred coal seam gas wells or replace it with an open-cut coal mine, or replace it with a bauxite extraction process, then the production system that was there and in situ and has been there sustainably for generations to date, sustainably producing, sustainably looking after the environment that’s there, will not be there anymore.

There are some industries that will be able to come back from, but particularly mining, we will never have an agricultural production system again on that landscape. We currently manage as agricultural producers some eighty-six percent of the available landscape of Queensland. That’s everything that’s outside of the city, eighty-six percent. Eight-two percent of the state of Queensland is currently covered by one or more mining and resource tenures.

The unfortunate reality Karyn was that we’ve got the situation in Queensland where the referee of this game is also one of the sole largest beneficiaries. You spoke earlier of the billion dollars of royalties that’s going to be paid back to the state coffers, and yet they are the ones setting the rules.

The reality some twelve months ago of how myself as a primary producer, sitting on my family property, because we have one hundred fifty-five thousand farm businesses across Australia, and nearly all but about two or three percent of them are still family owned. So it’s mum and dad sitting around their kitchen table in the morning, get a knock on the door, “Good day, I’m from such and such gas company. By the way, here’s my tenure, my tenure over your free-hold land, but here’s my tenure. Would you mind stepping out of the way please, sir, if you’re lucky, because I have the drill rigs at the front gate.” That was their reality.

Just moving on, some of those rules have changed. Some of the conduct that these companies must adhere to has changed since October last year, and some of the realities for the exploration processes have been changed to try and gain some more of that balance there. But the process at the end of the day does not provide for a landholder to say “I’ve invested ten million dollars into this property. It’s been in my family for five generations now and I’ve got my son and my grandkids already here that I want to pass it onto.” I can’t say no. That company does have the legal right to come on.

The reality of the impost that we have across our landscape is we have these wells, we have these pipelines, we have these compression stations. We are not operating under the same land management rules in the agricultural sector as what the coal seam gas or resource sectors are in some areas. We’re seeing the impost of this infrastructure across our facilities, whether it be a laser-levelled intensive irrigated cotton paddock that I’ve invested millions of dollars into to get to that sense. And I suddenly have a coal seam gas well in the middle of it. Or even if it’s just purely an extensive grazing industry where I suddenly find three dozen wells across a five thousand acre property.

We also then have the reality that this is a hit-and-run industry. The coal seam gas production from a well is only about ten to fifteen years in longevity.

The agriculture production I’ve already mentioned has been there for generations now. And sustainably done so, will be there for generations to come, if not in perpetuity.

The reality of coal seam gas wells is the industry as a whole in Queensland, and you can ask any of the companies, they’re actually proposing to be removed from the economy and from the industry perspective by about 2040. That’s only because the graduated process of rollout of wells at this point in time. They’re also saying the full impact of this industry and of these works will not be felt until 2065.

The main impact of that longevity issue is more around the governance of water. And it’s not just contamination. It’s also draw down. If an agricultural landholder wants to extract water from whatever aquifer, we need to get an extractive license. That extractive license is done because it’s a sustainable take, therefore that level is set at a sustainable level.

A coal seam gas well will extract millions of litres of water over its life. It does have a curve to it, for those of you who understand the production of these systems. The upfront generation of water is normally greater than the upfront generation of gas. Over time that does weld off.

The reality is that over time we are putting forty thousand pin pricks into these aquifers, and sucking gigalitre upon gigalitre of water out. The reality of the porosity of these aquifers and the coal seams that they’re in is the movement of water is obviously not instantaneous. It will take some time for the aquifer to actually resettle. The reality also at this point in time of why an agricultural system has an allocated license, it’s because of that sustainable yield.

In Queensland, the CSG wells do not have an allocatable license because it’s not considered a sustainable take, therefore why would you put a sustainable license on it? That’s the Queensland government’s own explanation.

Very much Karyn, and that’s why we’re saying it needs to be in balance and needs to be sustainable. We’re not saying there’s no room or no place for this industry. It’s a very important industry, not just for Queensland but internationally as well, but we need to have that balance.

Water is our primary concern, both quality and quantity. But the second reality there is also our landscape competition and our ability to still have the landscape to provide for our food and private production.”

Chris

“We have one of those that’s heating this debate that’s making these silly generalisations. We have the Liverpool Plains in New South Wales and the Darling Downs in Queensland, two fantastic places. They’re fantastic because they have water and soil that coincide, not because of the soil inherently. We have soil like this in other places in Australia. We’re not very interested in it because we don’t have water for it, or it’s salty because it’s been there for so long.

The overlap area between this and mining and coal seam gas, the quotation numbers of what’s actually happening needs to come to the table and that needs to be put against the actual change of production that’s under threat.

My name is John. I’ve worked in beneficial reuse of waste water since 1983, and worked on energy projects and other related issues for a long time. I’m trying to understand the impacts to the agricultural systems of Queensland, and I’d like to know from Drew and perhaps Chris what sort of losses in agricultural production do you foresee with the development of coal seam gas, should we go to forty thousand wells?

Drew first?

We’re already seeing the reduction of head heights or reduction of pressure in some of the aquifers that are currently being used for agricultural production. Farmers will tell you that. The coal seam gas companies will tell you that. The Queensland government will tell you that, to the point where they’ve even set trigger thresholds for remediation works to be done over that last twelve or eighteen months.

If it gets to the point where these aquifers through whatever interaction occurs are either contaminated beyond the point of use or drawn down to a point of not being commercially extractable for the production system, it’s not that production won’t exist. But we’re not just talking about the irrigated areas. We’re not just talking about the intensive cropping regimes.

Intensive cropping only covers about four percent of the state. We’re talking about stock and domestic water that we have an extraordinary large percentage of the population of Queensland that is reliant on that. If we talk about the Darling Downs that Chris mentioned earlier, in the Western Downs Regional Council there are twenty-one towns. Nineteen of those rely on these aquifers for one hundred percent of their water.

“The reality of this entire industry is we’re talking about a gas industry here. It’s not a gas industry ladies and gentlemen; it’s a water industry that has gas as a by-product. The majority of their production to start with is water. What we do with that water, how we manage that water, where the water goes,

what contaminations does that water have, what pressurisation changes that has within the aquifers, they’re the issues that we need to deal with.

Right now these companies that are representing the CSG industry can sell their gas. They’ve got their forward contracts in. That’s fantastic. That’s great for the economy. That’s great for jobs. That’s great for whatever other process you want to say. The reality of that water is still to us, unfortunately, as a Queensland community, the multi-billion dollar question.”

MIchale

“You want to play that game? It’s a hundred billion dollars per year that are estimated right now, counting the multiplier in the economy which is four times the multiplier, we are looking at an incremental economic activity that Australia could participate in of the order of five hundred billion dollars per year. That’s about two-thirds of your current GDP.

In other words, if Australia were to take any market share of this, believe me, many countries are interested. Canada is interested, Russia is sitting over there at the end of pipelines. The Chinese are not interested to be Russified, so here you are probably there is no economic opportunity for Australia that comes even close to what I’m talking about right now. That would increase your GDP divided by twenty million people about twenty-five thousand dollars per year. That’s the magnitude we are talking about.

All these other things we are talking about pale by comparison to this issue. Social justice, how much of that do you want to get for example? That would be very good, by the way. That’s the magnitude. Every time you debate this issue from now on, remember we’re discussing a five hundred billion dollar incremental activity in the Pacific. That’s the magnitude we’re talking about, Japan and China.”

Drew

“I don’t think I can come at it so capitalistic as that. I think the food security debate may need to play a role in that. I think the comment’s already been made; educating yourself in this process is very important. It’s not just social justice. It’s also social license. You hear a lot of the companies talk about their social license to operate.

To educate yourself on that process also then leads to then making some decisions as an individual. The only way we will influence this debate in any way is by working with those who make our legislation. Those who make our legislation are our politicians. If we believe strongly enough that we need to have an outcome then they are the people that you need to be working with, like the gentleman to my left. Because the reality of whatever we decide as an individual means that we should also have the purpose and drive to carry that through. If that means trying to affect change, well that’s where change can be affected.”

Adam Social change ”

There’s lots of ways to get involved. There are lots of groups getting involved in different ways, groups like Drew’s. There are companies involved, governments getting involved at all levels, different community groups are popping up and weighing in when their community gets affected. Obviously you can also try to influence the process by lobbying your politicians or casting your vote according to whoever you think is speaking the most sense on this issue.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people trying to work out in which direction they should direct their efforts in getting involved because to me certainly and also to a lot of people I speak to I think a lot of these issues we talk about are very murky and the air is kind of thick with claim and counterclaim and purported statements of facts from various seemingly reputable bodies that don’t properly align with one another can make it really difficult to work out which is the best way to direct your energy.

I can only give you my view on what outcomes we should be striving for. As I said I think there’s a multitude of different ways that you can push for change, whether it’s by trying to push for greater clarity of information or trying to empower others to get involved in the debate, or spread awareness and educate yourself as various other people have mentioned, or through the political process. I guess there’s a variety of ways. You might want to make use of all of them, given your extraordinary abilities.”

Drew what to do while the gate is locked

“I divide the world in three levels, and I think we’ve just heard all three of them. There’s in a sense a moral imperative to allow people to eat, and to sleep in some degree of warmth and comfort. There’s over a billion people that are in that situation now, so there’s a moral imperative. And comrade, I’m with you, the capitalist system seems to be looking after that big picture.

We seem to have a reasonable amount of muscle at the moment, at the national level, of pulling the resource back out of resources sector to build the twenty-five thousand dollar a year per person advantage. Where it is now is local and you might have heard this term “royalties for regions” and there’s essentially two things that you can do. You can go to government and look for a better share of royalties and will clear share a royalties, and — not all — and you go to the companies who have sustainable development policies and practices that are designed to work with that community.

What I would suggest is that while you’re sitting behind the locked gate, you very carefully plot and talk to one another about when the gate opens, what advantages you are going to seek from the government and from those companies when that conversation restarts.

If it’s only a defense battleline with guns at dawn, and then finally that’s resolved, and let’s say it’s resolved in the direction of the big companies and the government for example, and you’re left with no plan behind that, then I actually think you’ve let the community down.

It’s what’s plan B while the gate’s locked with respect to royalties for regions and respect to the sustainable development policies of those companies”

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