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CSG: Should everyone just be nicer?

In Climate Spectator yesterday, Barbara Sharp offered some thoughts about the polarisation of the Coal Seam Gas debate.

It’s worth reading her entire piece, but I take the gist of it to be a call for “Australia… to negotiate a mutually acceptable way out of the CSG mess.”

In our research on the Western Downs last week we found some stakeholders who would agree with that call. It wasn’t too dissimilar to the views of Mayor Ray Brown and Ian Hayllor of the Basin Sustainability Alliance.

(Video interviews with these two folks are in the pipeline.)

Sharp argues that communication and data are flashpoints for the debate. She is right about that.

More than one of our interviewees suggested that the science was hotly contested, and it’s been a recurrent theme of our research articles that baseline data for assessment of risk and impacts is missing or inadequate. As Kim Jameson said, collecting such data after wells are already in place is worthy, but obviously insufficient. Moves to fund adequately such scientific research, as I reported yesterday, are now proceeding with the establishment of the Federal Government’s Independent Expert Scientific Committee. But, again, the horse has already bolted.

Similarly, we can confirm from our interviews and conversations that many feel communication and consultation has been piecemeal and often lacking. That may also be something Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser alluded to in his recent remarks.

Stone writes:

But still, the data will remain the tail wagging the dog. The opportunity for joint fact-finding, for agreement on the information needed for informed decisions is sitting waiting for leadership.

It is waiting for both sides to climb out of the trenches and come together around a table to find a way forward.

There are at least a couple of problematic assumptions in this apparently attractive vision.

First, there is the assumption that all sides to the debate have the same objective. That’s not so. Until farmers and landholders feel their rights are adequately secured, it’s difficult to see that they should take the leap to self-sacrifice in a broader interest, particularly when there is no agreement about that broader interest anyway. There’s an opposing and equally valid view that some forms of land use (mining and agriculture) are simply incompatible. Similarly, the environment – water quality, public health, and much more – has its own advocates, and so it should.

We simply cannot assume, as Sharp appears to do, that values are shared sufficiently to form the basis for the revelation of common ground through dialogue.

Secondly, there is great disparity in power between stakeholders. Individual landholders often feel quite isolated against the weight of the industry. Some people with a direct concern in the debate – for instance, residents on low incomes in towns – are only represented in a very diffuse sense in the decision making field. Nor does everyone have the law on their side, or the same ability to articulate their interests and represent them in the media and in policy debate.

There would be practical ways of addressing this. One that occurs is a publicly funded arbitration and mediation process between landholders and companies, that diverts conflict away from the courts where the simple cost of representation is often a great disincentive.

That’s just a suggestion.

But before we adopt an “everyone should be nice to each other” position, we need to recognise that there is truth in the perception that some have that the actions of some players are far from nice. And we need to recognise that the common interest is not the sum of powerful interests.

FAQ Research will have more on this topic as CSG: Behind the Seams progresses.

Dr Mark Bahnisch
FAQ Research.

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  • 1
    Brian Bahnisch
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    Mark, this post identifies important issues.

    By the way, form the Interim Senate Report (para 4.54):

    Santos and Dart Energy have also indicated in evidence to the committee that they would not enter land without the owner’s consent.

    If they can take this position, why not the others?

  • 2
    izatso?
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Safety Clauses, Exit Compensation Clauses, Golden Parachute Clauses ……. Whatever…………… A Vast Subterranean Toxic Lake is no fair exchange for our ancient Artesian Basins and Aquifers. Short and Long Term Insanity………. Unconscionable………….

  • 3
    Mark Duffett
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    If “more than one of our interviewees suggested that the science was hotly contested”, why does this blog seem determined on seeking the views of everyone under the sun with the remotest interest in CSG except actual geoscientists? Please feel free to point me in the right direction if this impression is mistaken.

  • 4
    Mark Duffett
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    You also write “there‚Äôs an opposing and equally valid view that some forms of land use (mining and agriculture) are simply incompatible.” Why is it an ‘equally valid’ view? Surely this is a question that science can address? How about some evidence?

  • 5
    Mark Bahnisch
    Posted March 5, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Mark, I actually replied to these comments over the weekend, but Crikey blogs had some IT maintenance scheduled and my replies seem to have disappeared.

    To summarise my reply:

    (1) We have a range of content written by scientific experts which is progressively being published. To some degree the scheduling is governed by availability/submission of copy as well as by editorial judgement. So watch this space!

    (2) It’s just as valid as a value judgement. The science by itself does not determine whether or not particular forms of land use should be prioritised over others. I am trying to get at the way people position the debate, and make use of the science.

  • 6
    Mark Duffett
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your reply, Mark, I look forward to further well-informed instalments.

    Regarding my second point, what I was driving at was the idea that, at least in the case of CSG and other keyhole-type extraction, mining and agriculture can physically co-exist on essentially the same land. This notion was touched on by this recent ABC Landline story: http://www.abc.net.au/landline/content/2012/s3445186.htm. The impacts of mining on agriculture in this context are surely something on which scientific judgment can be passed.

    By the way, a footnote to the ABC Landline story. One of the interviewees says “tourism’s a totally sustainable industry”. No it’s not, not while it remains utterly dependent on fossil fuel.

  • 7
    Mark Bahnisch
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Mark, I think that’s right, and thanks. I guess the issue comes down not to whether the two activities *can* co-exist on the same land but whether people feel they *should*. Mind you, there are a lot of variables involved in the first proposition – ie how to ensure co-existence is sustainable on both sides, which might in turn have a lot to do with the size of a property, whether it’s used wholly or in part for cropping, and all sorts of other things.

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