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We need more research into the safety of CSG, says community

With the debate increasing over coal seam gas (CSG) exploration, and all sides claiming the moral high ground, how do you find out what the community really thinks about the issue? Well you could do what…

As CSG development races ahead in Queensland and NSW, even supporters want to make sure the industry is safe and well-regulated. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

With the debate increasing over coal seam gas (CSG) exploration, and all sides claiming the moral high ground, how do you find out what the community really thinks about the issue? Well you could do what the mayor of a country town faced with expanding CSG developments did: ask people what they think.

Lismore City Council was the first in Australia to run a referendum-style poll on CSG at the NSW local council elections last September.

The poll question itself was developed independently by researchers at Southern Cross University (SCU) through a process of consultation with relevant stakeholder groups, and implemented by the Australian Electoral Commission. Most voters (97%) took the opportunity to respond to the poll question:

Do you support CSG exploration and production in the Lismore City Council area?

Some 87% ticked the “no” box.

In order to gain a more in-depth understanding of community perspectives beyond the simple yes/no response, the University developed an exit-poll survey. Given the contentious nature of the issue, the utmost care was taken to maintain impartiality at every stage of survey design and implementation, so that different community perspectives could be captured accurately. Forty trained SCU volunteers approached voters at all poll booths in the electorate, gaining a sample size of 1036 voters (4.2% of the electorate).

Survey respondents were asked how they voted in the poll; where they got their information about CSG from; what they saw CSG bringing to the region; whether they agreed with their family and friends on the topic; whether they would be prepared to change their mind on the issue; and whether they felt they could impact government decision-making.

The survey was representative of the poll vote, with 87% of survey participants indicating they had voted “no” to the poll question. When asked where they got their information from, word of mouth was the primary information source, followed by local media. About 5% of respondents claimed to use scientific papers directly.

Key concerns from non-supporters were the potential long-term impacts on water systems, on the natural environment and on quality of life. Almost a third of respondents took the opportunity to make comments, which helped to better understand patterns in the survey. Many were strongly worded and straight to the point:

Don’t ruin our water for a short-term cash grab.

This is a grab for foreign benefits railroading their production without clear scientific or procedural investigation/tests.

Supporters of the industry saw jobs and an improved regional economy as major benefits of the industry, with many seeing CSG to be a clean energy source.

(I) support CSG provided well-managed strategies.

Overall, a large proportion of survey respondents regarded the current legislation, regulation and monitoring of the CSG industry as inadequate. Another key issue raised by non-supporters, supporters and undecided respondents alike was the issue of research. They said that more research needed to be done to prove the industry safe prior to further development. But comments also related to a mistrust in science, including the ability of researchers to be impartial. The highest number of comments from undecided respondents related to this. For example:

More information from independent source on whether CSG is good or bad. At present all we have is two sides making their influence & decision making to say either good or bad.

Such comments from supporters of CSG were:

More regulation on exploration licenses is needed, and more scientific research into the CSG production is required.

This poll (and today’s vote) doesn’t allow me to say that I support CSG but only under strict conditions (and only if they can be agreed and met).

There were a number of comments from non-supporters urging that the industry increase its transparency, slow down its pace and take a more precautionary approach:

A lot more work needs to be done to assess its safety. Even then the “roll out” of the industry should be slow and cautious so that unforseen problems that arise will only affect a smaller amount of land.

When asked whether they would be prepared to change their minds on the topic, 53% of non-supporters and 88% of those in support of the industry said they might.

On the other hand, less than 10% of supporters claimed to have their minds made up, and over 40% of non-supporters had their minds made up. Comments showed this choice to be often due to a view that the industry was simply not needed, with renewable energy technologies able to supply Australia’s growing energy demand.

I do not believe that CSG has any benefit to our local or national community. We should be better advised to investigate sustainable and environmentally positive resources.

The report also raised the potential for social disharmony, with many comments showing a strong emotional connection to this issue, and those in support of the industry experiencing isolation from the majority of their family and friends with their perspective of the industry.

The results of this survey have thrown up a lot more questions, and what we will seek to do now is carry out additional surveys and focus groups in areas experiencing various stages of CSG development. This way we can explore in a lot more depth the range of motivations of people who are for and against, to get to the bottom of the issues.

You can read the full report here.

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde


    Where is the science in this?

    Not saying that polling is not sort of scientific - these opinions are facts.The question is is there any physical science out there that can help these folks out?

    And I'm afraid the assurances of folks working for CSG explorers aren't going to do it. From my scrapings of understanding of the operations of aquifers and water tables and the like, anyone who reckons they're able to "guarantee" anything is going to act predictably is talking bulldust. And the history of these assurances doesn't look good elsewhere, where the local folks believed them.

    If the science behind these hungry fellas is any good let's see it. Even better if it's from someone not on the payroll.

    1. Georgina Byrne


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Hear hear. There is absolutely no benefit to farmers and a heck of a lot of negatives in places where this industry has been going gangbusters. Government and the opposition desirous of becoming the government keep banging on about "agriculture in the North" while busily approving CSG projects...or "tight gas" as they're calling it in WA...which will do nothing but damage to the far more productive agricultural land in the more southern reasons. Logical? I don't think so!

  2. Neville Mattick

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    We have to be warned by this article - thank you for publishing the results of the surveying.

    Similar statistics of approval of Green Energy and in particular Wind Farms in Australia exist, yet LNP Governments set about to promote fossil fuels unabated.

    My conundrum, is how is it that Conservative Governments pretend to have Climate Change credentials when their is no practical alternative (to Coal and CSG) Energy Generation source being implemented?

  3. Stephen Ralph


    I remember watching the American documentary on CSG some years ago.

    It seemed an incredible indictment on the whole process. To some extent I took for granted that what was being presented was a fair and reasonable damnation of CSG exploration.

    And now it seems we are following the U.S. into this area of "mining".

    If the documentary presented valid criticism, and the negatives portrayed are actual, Australia should be be outlawing the process in a heartbeat. It seems that like Climate Change, the ramifications could not only be catastrophic, but irredeemable.

    1. Peter Ormonde


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      The flick you'd be thinking of is "Gasland" by Josh Fox. Here's his website:

      And here's a heavy edit in two parts:

      Now this bloke here, Ronald Ripple was telling us on TC last year that the Gasland movie is about SHALE gas Not Coal Seam Gas and the two geologies are totally different. I wonder of he still thinks this.

      You still about Ronald? You reckon our fracking is going to be different? Be most interested to hear you current ideas.

    2. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Australia has both shale and coal seams targeted by exploration. Unfortunately the distinction is used often but less research is available for our region than for the US where exploration has been going for some time now and the first court cases by negatively affected residents have now been won - it's not reassuring to say Australia is different when the same or other risks exist without the long term research in place to back up the promises of being safe.

    3. Andy Saunders


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      OK, all was well up until that point. Hanabeth didn't mention fracking once in the article.

      Peter, shale gas and coal-seam gas are *very* different geologies, as are the respective wells for each (anyone who uses the word "mining" instantly loses any shred of credibility I'm afraid).

    4. Peter Ormonde


      In reply to Andy Saunders

      Ooops ... here I stand - my credibility in tatters and a nippy little wind picking up.

      Not actually after credibility I'm actually after some science. CSG rigs are all over the place here and the locals are confused and get NO ANSWERS from the companies to their questions.

      Now - bereft of cred as I am - I actually studied a bit of this - picking up a ticket in Contaminated Site Management in later life ... this involved looking at a lot of plume diagrams of toluene leaks and the like from…

      Read more
    5. Andy Saunders


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Sorry, Peter, maybe I over-reacted slightly (and the "mining" comment was certainly not directed at you, obviously).

      The difference between shale and sandstone? Permeability, mostly (of course the minerals, microstructure etc is all different, but the relevant result is permeability differences).

      I'd be surprised that horizontal CSG wells are fracked at all. Please correct me if I'm wrong. But if I'm right, facking is pretty much irrelevant to CSG. And shale, well, fracking is all over that…

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    6. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Andy Saunders

      what about it being referred to as "water mining" which it seems to be given the volumes required.

    7. Georgina Byrne


      In reply to Andy Saunders

      What do you mean by problems actually being quite low? Does that include fugitive methane emissions too?

  4. Kim Darcy


    At this stage, I am theoretically sympathetic to the technology, but I'm nowhere near on-board with fracking-like processes if they are near, or go under settled areas. Given, how little no far, limit to Wyoming, Siberia, and such places. See how they go, first.

  5. Jack Bloomfield

    Retired Engineer

    More research needs to be conducted before we allow more coal seam gas mining.
    Recent initial field research by a team at QLD Southern Cross University has revealed that it is highly likely that fugitive emissions of gasses (methane etc.) on and around gas-fields are much higher than industry sources lead us to believe.
    The published preliminary findings have been dismissed by various politicians on the grounds that the report has…

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    1. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Jack Bloomfield

      the other significant issue with fugitive emissions which no one seems to have addressed is the increased fire risk associated with highly flamable gases permeating a land scape in a sever fire prone country.

      Could end up looking like a statewide tyre fire in QLD

    2. Georgina Byrne


      In reply to Robert McDougall

      Yes. Has anyone looked at the recent fires in NSW in relation to CSG wells? Or perhaps even more pertinently on water pollution in Queensland/NSW, when these wells are affected by flooding...all this without even considering the Great Barrier Reef (port development/pollution) Hard to find any pluses for CSG really, especially once the flood of cheap gas from the USA starts to affect the price ours will fetch in Asia...and guess what, the public at large especially in country areas will be stuck with trying to clean up the mess once the money no longer stacks up and the boys leave town!

    3. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Georgina Byrne

      I think I read that during this year's floods, the pipeline into Gladstone failed (read: broke, letting gas escape for considerable time) - this is likely to recur and increase methane escaping as well as fire danger in the affected areas with more pipelines planned. Soil expansion, contraction and erosion can all affect these pipeline corridors and locations. There are so many levels of effects across the entire process that it will be impossible to a old further serious leaks or contamination s - it's only a matter of time.

  6. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.


    I find it difficult to get around the need for urgent research into further developing sustainable renewable energy production being delayed while CSG is forging ahead.

    The coal/oil/gas will still be there - it only goes somewhere when we bring it to the surface.

    For the past 200 hundred years, or so, we have not had a very good record with digging up stuff and not restoring the landscape, so why should the public trust that the CSG would be any more accountable than past practice?

    No wonder the survey found 87% in the negative. As for more education be provided for the public; how about more education into environmental management, ecosystems, biodiversity? Instead of what would be little more than propaganda presented by vested interests (CSG industry)?

  7. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Very interesting. NSW and Vic communities have gone through some pretty steep learning curves following the Queensland experience of the boots and all "gasrush". Read the report by the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport Reference Committee to find out about scientific unceratinty, poor behaviour by exploration companies, hostility by landowners when they discover what's involved in csg EXPLORATION let alone permanent extraction.. A reference to "mining" is not surprising given that it's MINING exploration…

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    1. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to wilma western

      Re: BTEX - I think the term would be 'no added BTEX' is used, but since coal seams can contain natural BTEX compounds in the deposits, there is no guarantee it won't appear in the water nevertheless, with the same effects that added BTEX would wreak...

  8. Stephen Ralph


    Hi Wilma

    good to hear that local voices are loud and clear in the fight against a potentially disastrous practice.

    I loved the remark from a commentee (!) that said what's wrong with leaving it in the ground till all the issues are fully debated....after all it isnt going anywhere.

    And again I would echo all those who have commented about WHY aren't all governments committed to sustainable energy outcomes..............I wonder if they will finally get before it's too late.

    I guess we need huge marches thru city streets to say to the pollies - We are not going to take it anymore.

    organise that will you please Wilma.

  9. Jack Bloomfield

    Retired Engineer

    This article from TC 28/11/2012 is worth a re-read.

    "In 2010, Doctors for the Environment Australia first raised concerns about the potential health impacts of coal seam gas mining in Australia. We subsequently detailed these concerns in a submission to the Senate and to the NSW Parliament."

    Very little has eventuated from these representations to our politicians.