Coal seam gas (CSG) is fundamentally divisive. Proponents of short-term profits are pitted against those whose priority is to preserve the sustainable resources of agricultural land and scarce water. As such, CSG is the source of campaign stoushes in New South Wales and Queensland, and among Senate candidates.
CSG is predominantly regulated by state governments, which are supportive because of its economic benefits. The NSW state government believes that CSG has similar potential to that in Queensland, where the industry could generate over 18,000 direct and indirect jobs, increase gross state product by over A$3 billion and generate royalties of more than A$850 million a year.
Currently, if there is a threat to the water supply the Commonwealth steps in. A Coalition government will attempt to nullify this power, however, easing the path of current projects and paving the way for more exploration.
To complicate matters for the Coalition, National Party members wanted strategic agricultural land to be made off-limits to CSG. But, in practice, the party kowtows to the Liberals, who have no such plans.
So, where are the electoral battles over CSG? And what are the stances of the parties?
There is nothing to stop CSG companies entering farming and grazing properties to sink wells. That is, if the state government has approved the development on the basis of the proponent’s environmental and agricultural impact assessment, and if the state’s planning court has not found other reasons to intervene.
Legislation in New South Wales and Queensland adds a restraint by banning CSG development within two kilometres of residential areas.
In Victoria, there is a moratorium on fracking. The government is waiting for a report of the gas industry before deciding whether farmers should have the right to veto mining.
Up to now, the Commonwealth has got involved in CSG assessments if the development impinged on environmental assets subject to international agreements. The usual outcome has nevertheless been the approval of projects with conditions.
The Commonwealth water trigger legislation, which passed the Senate in June, means that any coal seam gas (and coal mining) development likely to have a significant impact on water resources will be referred to the Commonwealth environment minister for expert assessment.
The importance of this legislation - promulgated by retiring independent member for New England Tony Windsor - is that there are about 60 projects awaiting assessment and CSG and coal companies have a poor record in assessing projects’ cumulative impacts in their environmental impact statements.
A further argument for Commonwealth intervention is that the Queensland government has inspected only 369 wells - out of a total of 5,000 operating - in the last year.
A putative Liberal/National (LNP) party government will bypass the water trigger by moving to state-based environmental approvals. This is despite its support of water trigger legislation through both houses.
This weakening will have the countervailing effect of strengthening the resolve of community groups to oppose CSG developments. Direct action has already contributed to CSG company Santos’ cancellation of plans to drill wells in the electorates of Parkes and New England.
A new confrontation could well accompany Santos’ intention to drill wells in the Pilliga State Forest in Parkes – a probable prelude to a massive development.
Where the NSW state government will likely take up concerns is in the Sydney Basin, Blue Mountains and the Illawarra where there are potential impacts of CSG on drinking water.
New South Wales is short of gas, producing only 6% of its requirements, and Kevin Rudd told the National Press Club last month that reforms are needed for the supply of competitively priced gas for Australian businesses and households.
But Rudd is misinformed in believing an increase in supply of gas from NSW developments will lower its price. Gas will be priced at export parity – two to three times higher than present domestic prices.
The impacts of CSG on agricultural land, particularly in Northern NSW federal seats, are a major focus of concern. The seat of New England, retiring independent Rob Oakeshott’s seat of Lyne and the seat of Parkes, are all destined to be taken by the Nationals at the election.
In Queensland seats where CSG is a hot issue – Maranoa (Dalby, Chinchilla, Roma), Groom (Toowoomba, Darling Downs) and the Sunshine Coast (such as Longman) – Liberal Party candidates will likely be returned.
The real battle
Given that rural seats in NSW and Queensland where CSG is an issue will be easily held by conservatives, there won’t be much CSG action from the House of Representatives.
The focus of CSG debate will be the Senate. The impact the upper house will have in preventing the watering down of existing CSG legislation by an elected LNP government – and indeed the very effectiveness of the Coalition in government – will depend on who holds the balance of power. Presently nobody knows where that power will lie.
Contesting the Senate and ranked according to the strength of their anti-CSG stance are: the Greens, Socialist Alliance, Stop CSG Party, Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) and the Democratic Labor Party. The policy of the Palmer United Party is unclear.
The Greens leads with its stance of no new coal or CSG approvals; the right of farmers and landholders to say “no” to coal and CSG; protection of water resources, including the Murray-Darling and Great Artesian Basin; and rejection of new coal or gas ports along the Great Barrier Reef. The Stop CSG Party policy is similar except that it excludes coal mining.
KAP policy includes strong constraints, requiring landholder consent for mining; prohibiting all drilling through the Great Artesian Basin and exempting “strategic production land”. The party has shown it is serious about CSG: KAP member for the Sunshine Coast Ray Hooper introduced a bill into Queensland state parliament to protect farming land, but it was defeated.
What could hurt the Senate prospects of the Greens is their preferencing behind Labor by the LNP and in Queensland the preference swap deal between Labor and the KAP. Looking more and more likely is a situation where the balance of power in the Senate is held by a handful of members on the crossbenches.
For voters concerned about CSG, it is important to scrutinise the policies of a host minor parties, including their alliances.