Pro-gas pundits label activists ‘extremist fringe’

The Stop CSG movement delivers 20,000 signatures to the NSW government in 2011. Photo: Jaime Plaza van Roon

Australian Workers Union (AWU) leader Paul Howes has taken the offensive to bolster what he sees as a faltering unconventional gas industry. He wants the industry to step up its campaign to stop the federal Coalition and the NSW Labor opposition from “buying the arguments” of an “extremist fringe” on coal seam gas (CSG).

“We now have a situation,” Howes told the AWU on May 8, “where Shut The Gate [sic] and other disparate anti-CSG groups are currently writing to Coalition MPs asking them how they will honour their commitment and ‘put a landholder’s right to say no’ into legislation. Seriously, this is a worrying state of affairs.”

This was echoed at the annual Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) conference in Brisbane on May 29. Santos chief executive David Knox told those assembled that the “extremist” Greens had hijacked the debate over CSG and worsened the looming energy supply crisis in NSW.

Queensland deputy premier Jeff Seeney said the NSW and federal governments’ plans for stronger water regulation on CSG projects and the call for a moratorium on CSG developments were powerful threats against the industry. It was time to fight back, he said, like the mining industry did against the aborted super profits mining tax.

“I'd urge you to take the fight up to the radical greens’ campaign with a similar vigour because it has the potential to cost your industry many times more.”

The gas industry is worried about the impact of the community backlash against CSG and liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The campaign has forced concessions and made investment harder to attract. In the past year, the Browse CSG-to-LNG project in Gladstone in Queensland, the Scarborough project in Western Australia and the LNG plant in Queensland have reconsidered plans for onshore plants.

In NSW, CSG companies now must observe a two-kilometre “buffer” zone around “critical” industries and face stricter mining regulations in water catchment areas.

CSG critics say these measures are a step forward, but would not be adequate to protect water and land from contamination.

The new regulations and the industry’s over-projection of the amount of gas it would be extracting in the next few years have hindered investment. Energy pundits now predict that NSW will face gas shortages from 2015. This situation has led to calls to for gas to be reserved for local use.

NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham has said the government should “reserve” existing gas projects, halt all new ones, and start the phase-out of all CSG operations.

“Rather than attacking opponents of coal seam gas,” he said on May 29, “government and industry should be discussing an east coast domestic gas reservation policy to ensure the artificial gas shortage being caused by the rush to export coal seam gas does not adversely affect domestic manufacturers and residential customers …

“The CEOs of energy companies who have put all their eggs in the CSG/LNG basket should get the sack … They should have invested in renewable energy such as solar and wind, which is what the public wants and what the climate needs.”

Howes and the energy industry have ignored the community debate over CSG. They also seem oblivious to growing shift in opinion — as a result of scientific evidence — that gas is not the “transitional fuel” it was once made out to be.

In places where the unconventional gas industry has been operating longer, such as the US, studies show that the long-term environmental and health impacts of this energy source could be as bad, or worse, than the dirty coal industry.

Yet this does not deter the industry from running a scare campaign about “extremist” greens and “self-interested landholders”.

Whether the millions of dollars the unconventional gas industry has to pour into its pro-CSG campaign will work is another question.

At the APPEA conference, David Hamilton from the Basin Sustainability Alliance, which represents landholders and rural communities concerned about CSG, shot back at the industry and government, saying it could not afford to push landholders’ concerns aside.

Hamilton said his members’ concerns were “reasonable” and “fair”, and “backed by real life experiences and research”.

The fact that Howes and his energy industry mates are so hysterical should be some comfort to the broad city-rural alliance fighting the dangerous CSG industry. It’s been the combination of mass community pressure from traditionally unlikely allies that has won tighter regulations (albeit far from good enough) governing CSG mining and forced several CSG corporations to cut their losses and suspend operations.

But community groups are aware that this is temporary and the CSG corporations are hoping for a “better” investment climate after the September elections.

A community meeting a dozen groups opposed to CSG mining in NSW met on May 26 in Granville, in western Sydney. The meeting planned to broaden the campaign against CSG.

This is essential to protect land and water against the profits-first alliance of CSG corporations, governments and union leaders like Howes.

[Pip Hinman is an activist in Stop CSG Sydney.]

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