Arrow Energy community consultation posters in a vacant shopfront window in Dalby.

In writing at CSG: Behind the Seams about Coal Seam Gas and its ‘social licence’, Professor Roger Jones observed:

The coal seam gas industry is seeking a social licence to operate. Part of that social licence is tacit, where the community recognises the benefits of an industry and accepts it is acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Another part of that licence is exercised by government in permitting the activity and ensuring that a range of conditions are met on behalf of the community.

Professor Jones also noted that the industry’s social licence is contested, with some stakeholders wishing to deny or suspend its licence to operate because of the adverse impact of perceived risk, existing or prospective.

In an election campaign where the Labor Party is keen to underline its economic and jobs credentials, Anna Bligh talked up the gains from gas royalties on Day One.

Less noticed were some remarks by Treasurer Andrew Fraser.

(Perhaps that’s because the Queensland election campaign got caught like a bunny in the headlights by the Canberra leadership road train’s momentum!)

Andrew Fraser has urged coal-seam gas producers to work harder to secure a “social licence” for their operations, describing public antipathy towards the industry as “a tragedy”.

Mr Fraser also attacked the “absolutism” and “hypocrisy” of the Greens and the environmental movement in campaigning against CSG when it was produced with lower carbon emissions than coal and was a viable transition fuel to greater use of renewable energy.

Mr Fraser faces a tough fight for his marginal seat of Mt Coot-tha, where The Greens have historically scored their highest primary vote in the state. So his rhetoric might be driven by the need for a measure of political product differentiation.

However, the claim that CSG creates fewer carbon emissions than coal is contested. Professor John Quiggin examined some of the issues in this piece, but we will also be canvassing a range of views on the impact of  ‘fugitive emissions’.

So the jury is out on this one.

As we’ve been emphasising, the crux of so many Coal Seam Gas questions is the fact that development has proceeded before the scientific evidence is in.

The impetus behind the pace of development is, in part, the nature of the industry’s economics. Fixed-price contracts have been signed which require delivery at a determinate time. In a couple of years, with increasing supply coming onstream, the world price may drop. So the billions of dollars of investment which the Labor Party touts as liable to create a booming economy in the next parliamentary term creates its own momentum.

It’s in this context that Mr Fraser’s claim that the mining companies bear prime responsibility for securing their own social licence to operate must be scrutinised. As Professor Jones argues, government has a role to play as well, and while Mr Fraser is correct to call for a better informed community debate, that debate could, it might be suggested, be predicated on the best available scientific evidence.

It’s not our role in this project to make the call ourselves. We also hope to contribute to that vital role of disseminating quality information.

But it is our role to clarify the terms of the debate, as articulated by politicians.

It is also a vital role of the state to protect and balance all relevant interests.

So it would seem reasonable to argue that the State Government (and the LNP Opposition, if it forms government after March 24) carries a weight of responsibility on its own shoulders here.

Nor is it just about communication between companies and communities. The substance as well as the process of communication – the transparency and openness of the interchange – is also key.

The government must be an advocate for the community as well as for the industry, and ensure, among other things, that the debate is conducted with respect and on the basis of the fullest possible range of evidence.

We’ll keep watching this debate as it unfolds!

Dr Mark Bahnisch
FAQ Research

Photo credit: Pandora Karavan, FAQ Research, taken using a mobile phone. See Pandora’s photo essay of the FAQ Research field trip here.

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