The madness and corruption of unconventional gas

Farmers protest Santos project in the Pilliga Forest. Photo: David Lowe

The people of the Northern Rivers of NSW breathed a big sigh of relief when they stopped the unconventional gas industry at Bentley. But the industry didn’t stop when it hit resistance — it simply went around us, and left the region in a false bubble of security.

When it comes to gas, “unconventional” includes coal seam gas (CSG) or coal bed methane, as the Americans call it, tight sands and shale.

The industry prefers the Orwellian term “natural” for all of this, but it’s basically methane in various forms, 86 times worse for global warming in the short term than carbon dioxide (CO2) when it escapes into the atmosphere, which it inevitably does.

The recent talk from the Prime Minister and Energy Minister Angus Taylor about a “gas-fired recovery” ignores this inconvenient truth, which was proved by Southern Cross University scientists six years ago, and has been confirmed by further studies.

Queensland

Metgasco, the company which was forced out of the Northern Rivers, is now using its $25 million payout from the NSW government to explore the Cooper Basin in south-west Queensland. It’s also active in the petrochemical disaster area of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientific advice that recommended a ban on fracking of the sensitive Queensland channel country has been ignored by the Anastasia Palaszczuk government, and big players in the state, like QGC and Origin, are pushing into many new areas.

According to government figures, there were 5127 CSG production wells established across Queensland by 2016, but the industry is always voracious for new land. Labor's mines minister Anthony Lynham gave them another 30,000 square kilometres to explore last October, then a further 1500 square kilometres in June.

In spite of this, it remains unlikely that the massive gas terminal built at Curtis Island (destroying habitat and places sacred to the traditional owners) will ever operate at full capacity. The supposed economic benefits of the unconventional gas industry to citizens are yet to be seen, with the cycle of boom and bust in full swing.

Meanwhile, gas prices for domestic consumers have risen so sharply since exports began that there are plans to build new import terminals in New South Wales and Victoria to bring some of this exported gas back into Australia.

The network of pipelines around the country, with all their attendant risks, also continues to grow.

Resistance

Organised communities have had wins against unconventional gas in some parts of Queensland, like the Fraser Coast, but overall the picture in Queensland is bleak, with critics being silenced by legal gags, and payouts.

In the gasfields near Tara, for example, after a Northern Rivers-funded health study by Dr Geralyn McCarron found disturbing levels of cancer and neurobiological effects in local residents, those who hadn’t already died, or managed to escape, were given the means to do so on condition they didn’t speak to the media or do follow-up testing.

While the gas industry continues to claim it’s heavily regulated and is happy to point to large piles of paper to prove this, the reality is that they are their own regulator. Affected citizens need to gather their own evidence to defend themselves.

Recently, in the Darling Downs, a farmer commissioned a hydrogeologist to check gas company claims regarding groundwater impacts and found they were completely false, in the company’s favour. Retired Queensland water bureaucrat and whistleblower Tom Crothers said “All of the data was out of kilter and it was just a sheer shambles”.

Northern Territory

In spite of being made aware of the disastrous situation in Queensland and elsewhere by many submissions to its hydraulic fracturing inquiry, the NT government has ended its moratorium and given a green light to unconventional gas in 51% of its territory (and $100 million in public funds), aided and abetted by the local pro-gas media.

First Nations people attempting to defend themselves against the industry find themselves on a grossly uneven playing field, in which permission for a minor exploratory investigation can become a full-blown production situation, without further permissions being sought or legally required.

It’s also become clear that there are major insurance risks for farmers and other landholders for CSG and shale infrastructure to be on their land, with insurance giant IAG recently announcing it will no longer cover public liability for affected landholders.

There have been a few community wins, such as at Watarrka (Kings Canyon) and a very strong defence action against unconventional gas is ongoing in Borroloola.

Recent polling from the Protect Country Alliance showed that more than 86% of Territorians are opposed to fracking for gas in their region, and last month Santos voluntarily gave up two of its NT gas licences (together covering 1 million hectares) in the Roper and Central Arnhem Land regions.

Even with the Territory and federal governments rolling out the red carpet for them, it seems that local and international pressures are taking a toll on the company.

At the height of COVID-19, Santos CEO Kevin Gallagher sold $2.2m of his own stock when there was a brief bump in the share price.

Western Australia and elsewhere

In WA it’s been a similar story to the NT, with Labor making anti-fracking noises until elected to office, and then rolling over for the unconventional gas industry, at least in sparsely-populated areas.

The massive shale deposits in Western Australia make this one of the climate bombs for the world, apart from all of the other pollution risks. The Kimberley region is under particular threat.

Prominent public figures in the state, including author Tim Winton and musician John Butler, are continuing the fight, alongside many community groups who have followed the gasfield-free model first established in the Northern Rivers, but populated areas are not where most of the developments are, and the gas industry is much better organised in WA than it was here.

Santos started in South Australia, and is still based in the state, where there remains a ban on fracking in the farming region of the southeast, but not in the northeast. There are also new conventional gas fields affecting some agricultural areas.

South Australia’s strong renewables reputation has meant the gas threat there has gone largely under the radar.

In Victoria, mining magnate Gina Rinehart failed in her attempt to overturn the Seaspray community’s staunch opposition to invasive gasfields, but elsewhere in the state, the fracking moratorium is looking shaky, with a number of new onshore and offshore conventional proposals approved during COVID-19 by the Andrews government.

The iconic Otway Coast is particularly at risk.

Tasmania remains staunch in its moratorium on unconventional gas, which remains until at least 2025.

NSW backyard under threat

The most immediate gas threat in NSW is at the Pilliga Forest, near Narrabri, where Santos are approaching their final government approvals in spite of intense community opposition, including over 23,000 written objections to their environmental impact study (EIS).

Now the Independent Planning Commission, a collapsing gas price, and the will of the people are all that can stop the northwest of NSW becoming a gasfield.

As independent NSW MP Justin Field has pointed out, less than half of the recommendations of the Chief Scientist to ensure the safety of unconventional gas in NSW have been implemented.

If Santos gets a foothold in the Pilliga Forest, there’s a real risk that the rest of the state will follow. This has been the pattern in Queensland and in many states in the United States.

While Santos say it does not intend to frack in the Pilliga (they tried that and found the geology unsuitable) there are clear threats to the Great Artesian Basin (this area is a vital recharge area for the GAB), local threatened species, the community of Narrabri, and the climate if this gasfield is allowed to develop.

Friends in high places

As it has done elsewhere, including the US and Russia, the gas industry has corrupted many of our institutions in Australia.

Examples include the CSIRO, with the imposition of the Gas Industry Social and Environment Research Alliance (GISERA), which recently gave the industry in Queensland a clean bill of health; academia (for example the University of Queensland’s Centre for Natural Gas) and the two major Australian political parties. They’ve done this with the aid of a largely compliant media.

Former federal resources minister Ian Macfarlane is now the head of the Queensland Resources Council, and the revolving door is turning faster than ever between miners and government regardless of which party is in power.

The Nationals, Liberals and Labor are all heavily compromised.

Opposing the industry politically in NSW are the Greens, some independents, and the recently elected Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party member for Barwon (which includes Narrabri), Roy Butler.

Labor did support a moratorium on CSG in the Legislative Assembly recently, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the motion going down 38-36.

Federally, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has threatened to cut GST revenue to states and territories that oppose unconventional gas.

Miners dig in

After being outmanoeuvred for some years in Australia by guerilla activists, the gas industry has upped its PR game recently, and also been very active behind the scenes, entrenching its positions. And not before time.

Gas producers in Australia are facing substantial challenges as economic headwinds shift. The gas price is tied to the oil price, which has been very low recently.

It’s not an accident that the federal COVID-19 recovery commission is being led by iron and gas man, Nev Power, or that another gas industry person, Donald Trump’s ally Andrew Liveris, is co-chair of the NT’s Economic Reconstruction Commission.

In the US recently, the giant company Chesapeake Energy filed for bankruptcy, the latest in a long line of international gas companies to do so. Fracking is what made these companies rich, but it didn’t save them. Their only legacy is poisoned land, air and water.

Whether a bridge to nowhere, or to renewables, unconventional gas is an industry that has no long-term future. In some ways it operates more like a Ponzi scheme than a genuine business enterprise, and was described memorably by former NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham, as a “rape, pillage and run industry”.

What happens with Santos at Narrabri in the next months will be crucial, which is partly why Santos CEO Kevin Gallagher was elected chairman of his industry’s parent body Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association last November.

For the gas industry, this is a must-win battle, to get a toe-hold in the state. For the people of NSW who have fought against unconventional gas for a decade now, this is also a vital moment in history.

What can be done?

The Independent Planning Commission (IPC) is under intense pressure to rubber-stamp the scheme, having blocked the KEPCO coal mine at Bylong on climate grounds, and then having its power to repeat this challenge blocked by the Berejiklian government.

Only an overwhelming public response will sway the NSW government, and this will be doubly difficult while people are distracted by COVID-19, and unable to gather to protest.

IPC hearings are all going to be virtual for Narrabri, and speaker registrations are now closed, but proceedings will be broadcast on the IPC website, from July 20 for seven days.

Concerned citizens can still make a written submission until July 31.

The IPC has said that written comments will carry the same weight as spoken presentations.

If you would like to know more about the Narrabri Gas Project, Cloudcatcher Media’s feature documentary Sacrifice Zone is free to view. The film contains interviews with a large number of experts.

[David Lowe is an award-winning film-maker, writer and photographer with particular interest in the environment and technology. He’s known for his work with Cloudcatcher Media as a campaigner against unconventional gas and coal. This article, reproduced with permission, was first published at The Echonetdaily on July 14.]

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