Coal seam gas growth plans set

Byron Bay beach, May 29.

Under the guidance of the NSW Coal and Coal Seam Gas Strategy, the CSG industry is set to grow. Economic growth and the move towards a low-carbon economy are suggested as a just cause for its expansion.

In spite of this, a swell of media reports, documentaries and scientific studies have revealed that CSG’s growth will come with substantial socio-economic and environmental costs.

In February, a government ministerial subcommittee released a Scoping Paper identifying the industry’s potential growth — and has been a guiding document of successive state governments.

Using figures obtained from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the paper points to a 60% increase in global energy demand over the next 25 years, of which the largest increase as a source of energy will be gas.

These are powerful statements. Yet once you begin to deconstruct them, their validity becomes questionable.

The IEA is a politically powerful institution. Formed after the 1973 oil crisis, it advises many governments around the world about global energy prospects. The IEA claims to be an independent body producing unbiased research and recommendations, but the agency has not been free from controversy.

High profile Australian author and academic Guy Pearse exposed the IEA’s consistent underestimation of the potential of renewable alternatives in his 2009 essay Quarry Vision.

A January 2009 article said the Energy Watch Group (a non-partisan international network of scientists and politicians) also alleged in 2009 that the IEA was “guilty of institutional bias towards traditional energy sources of energy and using ‘misleading data’ to undermine the case for alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar”.

The use of IEA data by the government is an attempt to give the Scoping Paper economic power and clout, while neglecting to reveal other economic perspectives. Therefore, we should be wary of accepting what may be considered economic government-sponsored “truths”.

The paper says “the future of the NSW coal industry is tied to global energy demand”. Although initial intentions are for the expanding CSG industry to supply the domestic market, ultimately this growth will be directed towards export.

So the CSG industry will be tied to global markets. Although this is sure to bring in large amounts of revenue, will this result in socio-economic equity?

The findings of a peak industry association, the Australian Industry Group, suggests this will not be the case. It says that energy prices will rise regardless of a price on carbon.

This is expected due to the gas industry eventually being bound to global markets. Energy companies will make huge profits, but the community will bear the brunt of an increasingly globalised domestic energy sector.

The government’s CSG strategy tries to identify emerging community concerns, but it does not go far enough. It fails to recognise the multiplicity of views surrounding this issue.

Many community and non-government organisations do not agree with the assumption that CSG is a valuable commodity. These people do not value its economic benefits over the substantial and long-term negative impacts it has on societies, cultures and environments.

Omitting these views from the paper only helps to further reinforce the government’s belief that it is acting for the “common good”.

This developmentalist agenda, which sacrifices non-economic values for the greater so-called “good” of economic development, can result in only inequitable situations.

It is now generally accepted that Australia must make the transition towards a low-carbon economy if it is to play its part in mitigating the causes of climate change. The paper says gas “is the only conventional energy source that can underpin” this transition.

It is true that natural gas produces less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than coal when burnt for electrical energy production. But this statement is misleading as it fails to recognise the complexity of the total CSG extraction process.

In April 2010, Robert Howarth from Cornell University released a preliminary assessment of the GHG emissions relating to the extraction process known as “fracking”.

He found that gas extracted using this process is “far less attractive than oil and not significantly better than coal in terms of the consequences for global warming”.

It appears that we are ignorantly replacing one damaging resource with yet another. And all under the guise that it is not only a benefit to society economically, but also environmentally.

Keeping its election promise, and in order to make changes to existing regulation, the NSW O’Farrell government recently placed a 60-day moratorium on the issuing of new exploratory licences for CSG mining.

However, by not applying to existing operations, it appears to be a tokenistic exercise — an attempt to appease growing community discontent towards the industry — while helping its development.

For too long we have pushed aside contrasting views to pursue narrow-minded developmentalist agendas. This has and will always result in inequitable socio-economic and environmental outcomes.

[Eden Ottingnon is a student in environmental management and science communication at Macquarie University.]

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