How to mend Queensland's CSG divide

The Conversation

Three little words strike fear into the heart of at least 40 per cent of Queenslanders: coal seam gas. These three seemingly innocuous words have managed to divide a state, and become the hottest topic in the Queensland election.

A poll published by The Australian earlier this week articulated what many have been thinking: 40 per cent of Queenslanders don’t support coal seam gas extraction (while 33 per cent do).

As for the rest… the jury is still out with the remaining 27 per cent. Should even half of those decide they’re not in favour then the majority of the Queensland population won’t support the extraction of CSG.

These statistics have an important message for Queensland politicians – the election may very well be decided on issues related to this highly controversial industry, worth $60 billion.

So what should the incoming Queensland government, whichever party that might be, do to increase community confidence in this energy source?

The community is up in arms because the Queensland government has granted petroleum leases over land owned by the community, especially farmers. Legally the Queensland government can do that because it owns the petroleum under the ground. But this ownership brings a responsibility to all Queenslanders, not just the business sector.

Here is how the government can take charge and take responsibility if it wants to make CSG more palatable.

Use the resource to benefit the people

CSG is touted as an important energy source and a way of securing our energy future, but the incoming government needs to take stock of the use of this resource.

Is it really for domestic consumption by Australians, or is the vast majority of it going overseas, sold by companies at a profit? And where profit is being made, how much of that money comes back to Queensland for the benefit of the state?

The incoming government needs to remind itself that it owns these gas resources on behalf of the Queensland people, and therefore the resource should be used for the benefit of the Queensland people.

Protect water resources

It does not take a rocket scientist to realise that extracting CSG has a huge impact on water resources. An enormous amount of water is required to extract CSG. At present much of this water is coming from the Great Artesian Basin, at a cost to all users of the Basin. The incoming government has to fairly and equitably allocate water use between farmers and gas producers.

Perhaps companies should get water allocations in the same way farmers do. Farmers are asking for fairness in the use of water. This is not an unreasonable request: we need to eat food, but it is difficult to eat gas.

Water use is only half the problem. The community is very concerned about the briny, chemical water that is produced by CSG fracking. The concern is that the water will not be disposed of properly and will contaminate ground water and surface water.

The government needs to lead the management of water contamination and disposal. Studies by the United States Environmental Protection Authority on ground water contamination should be considered. Certainly, the government should fund independent research so that the community has evidence from independent experts, not just from CSG extractors.

Don’t let wells leak

Wells can’t leak: not now, not ever. This is a tough issue for the government since well integrity is geared toward ensuring that the wells don’t leak during CSG production (and we have seen how sometimes we can’t even get that right).

But as demonstrated in the United States, abandoned wells are leaking hydrocarbon into groundwater. This issue is not going to go away.

The government needs to ask CSG companies some difficult questions. How long are the wells guaranteed to not leak? If the wells do leak into the ground water, who will fix them and how?

The government could set up a well liability fund, similar to the Asbestos Fund established by James Hardie. The companies reaping the economic benefits of gas would deposit money into a fund for the future care and repair of the wells and rehabilitation of any lands affected by leaks.

With over 40,000 wells to be drilled in Queensland in the next 10 years, future planning and management of abandoned wells is an important issue for the government to consider. If people know the government has planned how to deal with leaks, they may have more confidence in the industry.

Don’t rely on industry self regulation

If an organisation might harm the community, we don’t usually let it regulate itself. In the United States we allowed bankers to self regulate. We saw the results of that with the GFC.

Many in the community, including myself, believe that self-regulation of CSG extraction is ludicrous. I cannot fathom why a government that owns a resource would rely on those extracting that resource for profit to regulate themselves.

There is a legal framework that regulates CSG activities. The company submits a Well Operations Management Plan (WOMP) which is approved by the government and then implemented by the company at the site. But companies do not always adhere to these plans, and sometimes wells are drilled by inexperienced companies who cannot comprehend the consequences of deviating from the plans.

The last time a company didn’t adhere to their WOMP, we ended up with an oil spill in the Timor Sea, spewing over 25,000 barrels of oil into the sea for over 10 weeks.

Governments need to take the lead. They need on-site inspectors, lots of them, inspecting well activities at critical times such as when a well is being fracked, and when a well is being abandoned.

The incoming government will decry this suggestion with the old call of ‘how will we pay for it?’ Offshore petroleum safety is regulated on a cost-recovery basis: levies on the companies pay to regulate offshore petroleum safety. A similar levy for onshore well integrity would give the community more confidence in CSG extractors because the government would take a strong oversight role. Governments who undertake such inspections are to be applauded.

We are not desperate for this energy. The incoming Queensland government has the opportunity to take a leading role in regulating CSG activities. It will need to do so if it wants to capture the confidence of the 40 per cent who are opposed to CSG activities, and the 27 per cent who are undecided. Until water management, well safety and landholder use issues are addressed in a fair and sensible manner, the government will face increased opposition. And rightly so.

Tina Hunter is an Assistant Professor at Bond University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation – theconversation.edu.au  Reproduced with permission.