The battle between the gas industry and activists continues unabated in New South Wales and Western Australia with no love on either side. Queensland’s gas sector also has its share of opposition, however Chairman of the state’s GasFields Commission, John Cotter, is making real inroads into repairing the sector’s image and giving the community back their voice and sense of ownership.
What do you see as the most prevalent piece of misinformation in the community regarding the impact coals seam gas extraction has on the environment?
Groundwater is probably one of the most prevalent areas of mis-information, or rather misunderstanding, when it comes to the onshore gas industry and the environment. It’s not surprising given the often complex and technical nature of hydrogeology and groundwater.
It’s one of the main reasons why the independent GasFields Commission was established in 2012 to help improve communication of factual information to enable better understanding of the issues relating to the security and integrity of groundwater in Queensland.
A wealth of scientific information, monitoring and research on groundwater impacts has and continues to take place in developed gas and agricultural regions like the Surat Basin.
For instance, Queensland’s Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment (OGIA) has comprehensively modelled groundwater impacts from the onshore gas industry in the Surat Basin since 2012 and that work continues to be refined and updated annually with new research, independent monitoring results and company data.
As a rural landholder, I am adamant that science must lead our community discussion on protecting and managing groundwater.
In Queensland, one way that has helped to bridge the communication gap has been to actively involve landholders in groundwater research and monitoring programs. In addition the Commission has recently released the first of several technical papers which provide an easy to read explanation of the science around topics such as aquifer connectivity.
There is also a responsibility for onshore gas proponents, government and scientific agencies like CSIRO and universities to continue to work together to more effectively communicate with landholders and the broader community on these groundwater issues.
What is the Commission doing to help rural communities in the Surat Basin transition from the high-economic-activity construction phase of the gas boom to the less active production phase?
The development of the onshore gas industry in Queensland’s Surat Basin has helped to diversify the economic base of many rural and regional communities over recent years.
Industry research shows that in 2013-14 just over 1000 local businesses were supported by the onshore gas industry across the Maranoa, Western Downs and Toowoomba local government areas of the Surat Basin.
The CSG to LNG industry in the Surat Basin is expected to transition over the next 18 months from a construction peak of around 40,000 total jobs to 12-14,000 long term jobs with many to be based locally.
The GasFields Commission is working with the onshore gas proponents, local chambers of commerce and regional development organisations to ensure there is clear communication and understanding about those long term business and employment opportunities. For example, the Commission recently held forums bringing together the major CSG-LNG proponents with local business and community representatives to share and discuss information about this next phase of opportunities for the Surat Basin.
The challenge now is for the onshore gas proponents to be proactive and transparent in communicating how this transition will be managed and ensure their legacy is one that promotes and develops local jobs, skills and business opportunities.
What advice do you have for other states struggling with managing relationships between communities, land owners, activists and gas companies?
From the Queensland experience, one critical factor that has helped to manage relationships has been the strong political leadership and clear industry policy and regulation that set expectations about the direction of both our agricultural and the onshore gas industries. That political expectation helped ensure a more balanced and cooperative approach to tackling coexistence issues such as land access, groundwater, and community impacts.
Secondly, those directly affected landholders and communities wanted factual and independent information to help assess and understand the unprecedented size and scale of development of this new industry in regional Queensland.
That thirst for information and better engagement between industry and community was one of the key drivers for the establishment of the GasFields Commission in Queensland. As a statutory body independent of both government and industry, one of the Commission’s roles is to bring parties together to help communicate, understand and resolve coexistence issues.
Thirdly, there is a scientific approach that continues to drive and inform industry policy and regulatory frameworks. An example of this is the research effort by the Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment (OGIA), CSIRO and other agencies to monitor, measure and model the potential impacts of the onshore gas industry on groundwater supplies.
Importantly, our learning is that there are no shortcuts or silver bullets for the onshore gas industry and resource industry generally to build and maintain community trust. As we’ve witnessed in Queensland and other jurisdictions, that community trust is hard won but is also easily lost. Hence the challenge for managing relationships between landholders, communities and the onshore gas industry is ever present and never ending.
What, currently, are the biggest obstacles to co-existence between the agriculture and onshore gas sectors? What areas need to be worked on the most?
One of the biggest obstacles to coexistence is often the lack of effective communication, engagement and understanding that can occur between gas proponents and landholders especially when it comes to accessing land.
The onshore gas industry is somewhat unique to other resource industries in that in many cases its gas production business has to coexist alongside an existing rural business which often is also the family home.
“importantly, our learning is that there are no shortcuts or silver bullets for the onshore gas industry and resource industry generally to build and maintain community trust.”
While Queensland has a land access code, the more successful proponents and landholders I have observed have developed a ‘business-to-business’ type approach to their relationship and one based on mutual respect and understanding.
When both parties have taken time up front to better understand the nature and needs of each other’s respective businesses it can often help them to communicate and negotiate more effectively especially when it comes to tackling problems.
The GasFields Commission plays an active role in reviewing and sharing information on land access and industry conduct. We’ve released a land access checklist to sharing tips and insights to help landholders in their negotiations. The Commission also has powers to bring parties together on an individual or collective basis to address issues of concern.
Your Commissioners are appointed from public applications. This affords the GasFields Commission a certain degree of independence from government and industry. How important is this independence to your success in resolving grievances?
The GasFields Commission was established as an independent statutory body to oversee relationships between rural landholders, regional communities and the onshore gas industry in Queensland.
Our six part-time Commissioners are experienced and professional individuals representative of the wider Queensland community and have portfolio responsibilities that reflect their backgrounds including: land access; water and salt; science and research; local government and infrastructure; community and business; and the gas industry. That independence from government and industry is reflected in the Commission’s powers and functions that are enshrined in the GasFields Commission Act 2013. For instance, one of those key functions is to review the effectiveness of legislation and regulatory frameworks for the onshore gas industry.
The Commission also has the power to obtain information from government and other entities, can convene parties to resolve coexistence issues and where relevant can provide advice and make recommendations to Ministers and the onshore gas industry.
The Commission also publishes and shares factual and educational information about coexistence issues that is independent of both government and industry.
How has the Regional Planning Interests Act been generally received by land owners in the Surat Basin? What were the greatest areas of concern and how are they being addressed?
The Regional Planning Interests Act came into effect from June 2014 with the objective of providing a more balanced way for landholders, resource companies and regional communities to consider and assess resource projects on prime agricultural land.
That desire for greater balance and protection of prime agricultural land has been key to landholders concerns and follows some 18 months of consultations by the Queensland government with resource and agricultural groups.
Under the law, proponents of resource activities and landholders can still reach agreement directly or if not, need to apply for a Regional Interests Development Approval (RIDA). If that RIDA is located in a priority agricultural area, strategic cropping area or a priority living area it can also be referred to the GasFields Commission for advice.
It’s still early days with only a few RIDAs processed to date and the GasFields Commission will look to monitor and seek feedback from landholders, communities and the resource industry on the implementation and effectiveness of these new laws over coming months.
What do you see as the Commission’s greatest success to date?
The Commission is halfway through its second financial year as a legislated statutory body, however, I believe we have already made some significant inroads to improving relationships between our agriculture and onshore gas industries.
One way has been through our powers and influence to bring senior gas industry executives, rural and community representatives around the one table to discuss and better understand each other’s perspectives and look to find solutions to coexistence problems.
We have had a particular focus on onshore gas industry conduct and landholder relations especially during the rapid construction phase of recent years and that focus will be ongoing as it is at the core of building and maintaining long term community trust.
Another achievement has been our focus on the science and seeking to provide factual and relevant information on coexistence issues such as through our support of landholder education workshops, field days, and other forums.
The Commission has also helped to improve transparency of the onshore gas industry in Queensland by working closely with the Department of Natural Resources and Mines to develop and launch a new online tool called CSG Globe. It is an easy-to-use Google Earth application that provides a vast range of online spatial data from gas wells to water bores. There is still a way to go in improving relationships between rural landholders, regional communities and the onshore gas industry in Queensland. Those relationships must be built on mutual respect, trust and greater understanding which takes time and remains our focus.
Chair, GasFields Commission Qld
John Cotter is a beef producer and industry leader with more than 30 years of experience in rural advocacy. He is a former AgForce President and has successfully negotiated the rights of rural property owners in challenging times. Mr Cotter has a track record of bringing gas company senior executives, landholders, government and advocacy groups to the same table and leading open and frank discussions on co-existence.