The Great Green Debate – ANU

On Wednesday the 3rd October I was pleased to attend the Sustainability Learning Community‘s annual ‘Great Green Debate’ at the Australian National University. This year’s topic was a contentious one. Distinguished panel guests were invited to address the topic, ‘Should Coal Seam Gas play a larger role in Australia’s energy future?’

The debate was chaired by Jeanette Lyndsay, Associate Director Education & Deputy Director, Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU.

First cab off the rank was Hugh Saddler, Research Associate, Centre for Climate Economics & Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy ANU and Principal Consultant – Energy Strategies at Pitt & Sherry. Hugh provided an overview of the current and future demands for gas. He highlighted the exponential growth in gas used for energy production but stated that future demand would slow although LNG exports were set to grow in the short term. However, Hugh did point out that LNG would not remain competitive with other countries, particularly China, due to export parity price differences (it is more expensive to extract, process and export gas in Australia compared to our competitors). He also highlighted that gas-based energy production would not be competitive in the current emissions reduction environment due to high levels of taxation as a result of the high levels of methane emitted in the extraction and production of gas. Coal Seam Gas could therefore only play a small and decreasing role in Australia’s energy future.

Next we were treated to a passionate speech by Drew Hutton, President of Lock the Gate Alliance. Drew described how he came to set up the Lock the Gate Alliance in order to protect rural land owner’s rights to refuse access, ‘locking the gates’ to exploration companies. Drew stated there may or may not be a future for gas but it was not up to the general public to prove that extracting gas was unsafe, it was up to government and the gas industry to prove that it was safe. Until the safety of gas extraction was proven, the gates would remain locked. Drew then gave an example of the Condomine river, where methane was bubbling to the surface in over 15 sites as well as through bores and old drill holes. In some places the water can be lit with a match and it will burn indefinitely. The populations around theses sites are getting sick from exposure to these gases and the ground water is being contaminated, while the drilling companies claim these issues were there before the commencement of extraction. This claim is vehemently opposed by farmers who state these problems are a recent occurrence since the commencement of CSG mining in the region.

Describing the extraction process, Drew highlighted the huge amounts of water required for the extraction process and that this water is being diverted from agriculture and town water supplies. He explained the draining of underground aquifers causes massive pressure decreases allowing unstable gases to seep through cracks and holes in the increasingly porous substrate. The aquifers that rural towns and agriculture rely on are being depleted at an alarming rate. The water that does remain is contaminated with chemicals and is becoming highly saline. There is no safe way to dispose of this saline water, farmers are losing more arable land to salinity, they are losing large amount of water necessary for irrigation and there is no way to recharge the aquifers. He then went on to express grave concerns about the even more intrusive and destructive process of fracking and how difficult it is for farmers to manage their land with gas drills and lines pocking the landscape.

The next speaker, Matt Grudnoff, Senior Economist at The Australia Institute started by revealing his observation that investing in big ventures usually resulted in a choice between economic growth or environmental/social protection. However, this choice between the economy or the environment does not exist with coal seam gas because the economic benefits are tiny and are out-stripped by the negative economic consequences of CSG. He explained that the CSG industry’s claims of job creation were false. No additional jobs would be created, they would just be poached from other sectors. Furthermore, the CSG industry was affecting the viability of rural towns and agriculture, decreasing jobs in the agricultural sector in particular.

He also stated that the resource sector is slowing other parts of the economy down by decreasing Australia’s purchasing power parity (higher exchange rates). More specifically, exporting LNG is driving up the exchange rate, crushing the tourism, manufacturing, agricultural and international student sectors. Over the last several years manufacturing has lost 100,000 jobs, our agricultural sector is no longer competitive and for the first time more Australians were going overseas than the number of tourists coming to Australia. He also argued the claims made by the CSG industry that switching to gas would reduce our emissions were false. Again the high emissions of methane gas from CSG were mentioned, compounded by the small size of gas reservoirs and the large numbers of wells required.

The next speaker, James Paterson, Director of Communications for the Institute of Public Affairs Australia, surprised and angered much of the audience by starting with an attack on the pre-debate dinner’s menu. He apparently took umbrage at the sourcing of local food, stating that the locavore movement was misguided, particularly with regards to reducing food miles. According to James, transport has a small impact on the environment. More specifically, there was less energy expended and greenhouse gases emitted from importing food on large container ships than transporting food from local sources due to economies of scale. This is a ridiculous statement. Even if theoretically, economies of scale did offset transporting large amounts of food large distances to Australia’s shores, I guess he forgot to take into account the energy required to off-load the cargo, distribute and transport it to each store in each town in Australia. I also guess he doesn’t particularly care about the nutritional value of food shipped half-way across the world, the environmental impact of the food production systems used, the rising cost of fuel or about supporting Australia’s farmers and local economies.

James then went on to argue that we should ignore any alarmist messages coming from experts about climate change and the need for renewable energy, as experts can be wrong. I would argue that even if the experts were completely wrong about the severity of our environmental problems and climate change, what is the problem with transitioning to sustainable, renewable energy and technologies that benefit rather than pollute our environment? It would seem to make sense environmentally, and socially, as well as economically. He also argued that the public should stop trying to regulate the activities of multi-national and/or large Australian companies as the Australian population would choose renewable energies on their own if they were actually a better option. This is also a ridiculous argument when you consider the power and influence that these companies have on the government and media through powerful lobby groups, massive concessions, deep pockets and control over research and dissemination of information. Letting companies self-regulate would not be a problem if they were concerned with the greater good, or at least the triple bottom line but history and common sense shows they are more concerned with the greater profit, often at any expense. As you can image, Jame’s speech was not well received by the audience.

The next speaker provided a much more even handed approach to the topic. John Williams, is the Adjunct Professor in Public Policy and Environmental Management at the Crawford School of Public Policy ANU, member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and former commissioner with the NSW Natural Resources Commission. Professor Williams argued that the debate was not just about the benefits and negative impacts of CSG, it is part of a much more complex issue concerning land use across all sectors. CSG is just one of many competing demands on land use and its potential impacts on the ecological functioning of already heavily fractioned land should not be underestimated. He argued that these impacts need to be built into regional strategic planning, but this is currently not being done and investment is not in place to measure these potential impacts.

He warned that it is a high priority to conduct progressive regional landscape analysis to understand the real cost/benefit ratios of CSG before exploration and production licenses are given out. There will be large impacts on the landscape if CSG mining is carried out especially on water extraction and disposal of contaminants and saline water. Of great concern, and something which is currently not being taken into account, is the short operational time and large numbers of gas wells that will require monitoring and maintenance indefinitely once they have been decommissioned. He also highlighted that very little attention was being paid to vegetation and habitat management. In addition, how do you asses the incremental impacts of large numbers of wells on the land and water systems. There is also the question on whether the land has the capacity to absorb the direct and incremental impacts of CSG as well as other usage like urbanization or agriculture. Professor Williams summarised that every type of land use and human activity has an impact on our environment so we need more effective and holistic discussions. There also needs to be stronger and more integrated regional planning as a matter of urgency and an understanding of the capacity of the land to absorb certain human activities.

The final speaker to round out the evening was Lyall Howard, NSW Policy Director for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. He argued that the need for energy would increase exponentially in the near future as demand from the mushrooming middle class in developing countries increased. He claimed that the anti-CSG campaign is the latest in a long line of campaigns against technology and technological advances, and constituted techno paranoia. He backed this observation up by mentioning the anti-GMO campaign and claiming that it too was safe, or at least the risks were being overestimated. The audience didn’t appreciate the patronising tone of this statement and the incorrect conclusions that Lyall drew about community concerns over CSG (or GMOs for that matter). Concerns about CSG and GMOs have nothing to do with technophobia. In fact, the most strident opponents of these industries are strong supporters of advances in technology when they are sustainable, equitable and have minimal or even positive impacts on our environment and our communities.

Lyell then went on to outline what he called ‘three hard truths.’ Number one, there will be an exponential increase in energy demand from the new middle classes (I don’t think anyone present disagreed with him on that statement). Number two, energy supply will struggle to keep up (this is true for the energy industry in its current form with its reliance on finite and swiftly declining resources). Number three, the risks to public health and safety will decrease as better mining technology is developed (this appears to be a partial admission that there are risks to public health and safety inherent in CSG extraction and does nothing to reduce community concern about an industry that is notoriously reluctant to eat into their profit margins with superfluous or burdensome demands such as safer, cleaner technologies. Think ‘dirty’ coal power stations, asbestos, cigarette companies and GMO companies). Lyell claimed that the mining and agricultural industries had a long history of cooperation but that CSG had an image problem and that CSG companies needed to focus on community relations and better communication.

The panel spent the rest of the evening fielding questions from the audience and engaging in lively debate. It was a very interesting evening and I am very glad to have had the opportunity to attend. Thank you to the ANU Sustainability Learning Community for organising this fabulous event!

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