Final post

Hello dedicated blog readers!

Well, I’ve reached the end of my controversial science subject which means this will be the final post of my coal seam gas blog. Sigh. I’ve quite enjoyed the blogging process, though I haven’t always had time to do as much research as I’d like.

I tried to approach the topic fairly, though I think I’ve come across as pro-coal seam gas. Especially in the eyes of one of my new readers (check the comment section of recent posts to see what I mean).

I feel like the important aspects of the CSG controversy are getting lost along the way and all of the non-issues are being puffed up disproportionately. Land use planning seems to be at the heart of many objections, but never really discussed in those terms.

The potential for overlapping land tenures under Australian law is clearly causing problems but there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about how to resolve this issue. It’s like everyone is focused on the symptoms (gas wells on farm land, loss of amenity, unsatisfactory compensation etc) and noone is interested in the disease.

A number of people have told me that this blog has helped them to look past the hysteria seen in the Gasland documentary, which is very satisfying to hear. It was never my intention to convince people to believe one thing or another, just to present some facts and stimulate new thought and discussion.

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Lies, damned lies and falsified submissions

In the latest chapter of the coal seam gas debate, high profile anti-CSG protest group, Lock the Gate, were recently accused of falsifying documents submitted to the NSW Parliamentary enquiry into CSG. It appears that Lock the Gate lifted their submission directly from US research into shale gas (a whole different process) and substituted ‘shale gas’ for ‘coal seam gas’. A comparison is shown below of the submitted text (left) and original text (right).

The press release accompanying this submission included a statement from Lock the Gate spokesperson Drew Hutton that he doesn’t want to see the community “hoodwinked by phoney claims”. Hmm … sounds like the community should be worried about ‘hoodwinking’ from all directions.

Belinda Robertson, the chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) had this to say on the matter:

“The anti-CSG campaign is sinking into farce. The circulation of a fake letter to land-holders aimed at generating fear and repeatedly making unsubstantiated claims is bad enough, but misrepresenting the work of others is a new low. What is particularly disappointing is the poor level of scrutiny being applied to the very groups calling for a fact-based discussion.”

You can download the full press release from APPEA.

CSG essay

The third and final part of my assessment for the controversial science subject was a 2,500 word essay on the coal seam gas controversy. I’ve provided a link to the essay at the bottom of this post but it’s a bit academic and unlikely to be of interest to the casual reader. I had a lot of material to cover in just a few thousand words, so I tried my best to tease out and describe the main threads of the controversy. Here is the opening paragraph:

The practice of coal seam gas mining, while long-established in Australia, has exploded into the public consciousness during the last 12 months, generating extensive media coverage and public discussion as the industry, community and government grapple with the potential impacts of this massive industry. The public has raised objections about multiple aspects of the industry, including mining practices, interactions with the community and land rights. Driving the controversy is a clash of values and an inherent distrust of mining companies. Feelings of distrust strongly influence the way coal seam gas extraction is discussed, particularly in the media, and add an additional degree of complexity to an already complex topic. This essay will describe the ‘coal seam gas controversy’ as it exists in Queensland at present, analyse why the controversy has developed and present recommendations to assist in the resolution of the controversy.

Essentially, I argued that there were two main aspects to the controversy: the stuff associated with overlapping farm and mine tenures, and the science aspects related to health and environmental safety.

Within the scientific aspect, I noted that some of the public agrees with the scientific results but not the way that risk is dealt with (i.e. they agree with the known toxicity of a chemical but are not as willing as the industry to risk contamination of the water supply), while other sections of the community do not agree with the science. I related the science disagreement to a lack of trust between the community and the industry, primarily caused through the (apparent) novelty of the process, poor lines of communication and pre-existing trust issues carried over from the land-access side of things.

It was difficult to make recommendations for this situation. The best I could do was refer to the advice provided by the Minerals Council of Australia with regard to community consultation.

So what do you think? I admit that it’s not my best work. Busy girls write imperfect essays (then beat themselves up about it). I especially cringe at my use of the old “this essay will …” device. Anyway, enough self-flagellation, the essay is submitted and there’s nothing more to be done about it.

[If you’d like to read the entire essay, it can be downloaded here: Coal seam gas essay]

Queensland Water Commission

Have you ever heard of the Queensland Water Commission? I hadn’t until recently. They’re quite an important player in the world of coal seam gas.

The QWC is a statutory authority established a few years ago under the Water Act to oversee the sustainable management of water resources in south east Queensland (and a few other areas around the state). More recently, the QWC has been appointed to manage the impacts of CSG water extraction on groundwater resources. In particular, the QWC is concerned with areas that might experience cumulative impacts as a result of multiple mining tenures. Rather than assessing each mining operation or location individually, the QWC takes a broader perspective and considers the impacts if multiple mines were to go ahead in the same area.

As you might imagine, cumulative impact assessments can be very complex and require consideration of a large number of hypothetical scenarios. I’m quite impressed that the government has had enough foresight to recognise the importance of cumulative impact assessments and put measures in place to try and manage potential impacts.

This week, the QWC announced that their CSG operations will be funded by the industry from next year. Investigations and monitoring by the QWC cost approximately $4 million per year and this cost will soon be borne by the mining operators, rather than the public purse. If you’d like more details on the levy, try this article or the pdf overview provided by QWC.

It’s not just about the data

There was a viewer comment left on the Insight website last week which I thought was worth sharing:

 A disappointing Insight. By focussing so intently on data, the CSG representatives were able to control the whole discussion. This is not just about data, it’s about credibility, food, water, the future, farmland that’s been in family hands for generations. These are broad and important subjects which the CSG people avoid talking about. Noteworthy that the CSG industry person, academic and govt. regulator were all in agreement. Where’s the independent arbitrator?

There’s a few interesting points here. First up, “it’s not just about the data”. On the topic of CSG, it’s definitely a valid point. Although there is some disagreement about reported scientific data, there are so many other aspects to the debate. Confusingly, the community and media tend to lump all of the issues together, rather than deal with them separately. Lumping issues together creates a feeling of all or nothing, where disagreement on one issue implies rejection of CSG entirely. If the issues were worked through individually, it would be simpler to identify the road blocks to each issue and determine whether workable solutions can be reached. It’s helpful to recognise that difficult topics are better painted in shades of grey.

The second aspect of the viewer’s comment I find interesting is the implication that academia and government aren’t independent, because they agree with the industry. It’s as though the viewer has taken the default position that the industry is wrong and that the viewpoint of academia and government is worthless if they don’t also recognise the industry to be wrong. To be honest, I’m not sure what kind of independent arbitrator the viewer is looking for. Who would she consider to be independent if not academia and / or the government regulator?

Whose side are you on?

One of the interesting fall outs of the coal seam gas controversy has been the alliance between farmers and green groups, such as GetUp. Not too long ago, these groups were butting heads over the export of live cattle but now they are united against a common cause. We’ve seen the same thing happening in politics, with the Greens and Nationals sharing a common stance on this issue.

The CSG controversy is funny like that – it touches on all sorts of topics and affects all different aspects of the community. Even within individual groups, the feelings aren’t clear.

The overwhelming voice from the farming community to date has been one of objection against the mining companies. However, that’s starting to change. Some farmers have had good relationships with the mining companies and are speaking up about it. Ree Price on the CSG episode of Insight said this:

We have had mainly positive [interactions] with the two companies that we are dealing with and all the contractors of course. But ours has been a fairly positive story. We have worked along with the companies involved and have been kept in the loop and asked questions until we find out answers.

It sounds quite different to the commonly accepted belief that mining companies force their way onto private property and keep important information hidden from property owners.

What I find interesting is the way that the media and broader community get hooked on a particular narrative. There have been a few bad situations where safety procedures have failed or farmers haven’t been sufficiently consulted. But rather than see these situations as ‘once offs’, there seems to be a perception that case-studies are all that’s needed to support an argument. A narrative has been developed and we keep telling the same story over and over.

The thing is, case-studies can be useful to highlight and demonstrate problems, but they aren’t the full story. It’s important to ask what’s happening on all those farms that aren’t in the media. Chances are, it’s just business as usual.

Familiar Faces

Did you catch the coal seam gas episode of Insight on Tuesday night? If you missed it (like me!), check out the SBS website to watch it online.

source: Insight, SBS

I noticed a few familiar faces in the audience – Drew Hutton, the activist spearheading the ‘lock the gate‘ movement, Andrew Brier, who spoke in the CSG information videos developed by DERM, and my old boss, Chris Moran!

Chris currently heads up the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland, though was director of the Centre for Water in the Minerals Industry when I worked for him. He was exactly as I remembered him: thoughtful, pragmatic and well-spoken. Chris has a strong ability to step back from a problem and approach issues from a broader perspective

During Insight, Chris gave an example that helps put the volume of extracted groundwater in perspective. Here it is (paraphrased):

Consider a 20,000 sq km area which is being mined for coal seam gas. At peak extraction levels, you might expect about 200 gigalitres of water to be extracted (which is almost half the water in Sydney Harbour). It sounds like a hell of a lot. However, if you were to spread this volume of water over the entire extraction area, the water would only be 1cm deep. In an area that receives 60cm of rainfall annually, the amount of water that’s being removed is probably less than the annual variation in rainfall.  So when you stop thinking about this enormous number of 200 gigalitres and think about what it really means in that context, you realise it’s not that much water.

Although this example is a bit ‘back of the envelope’, it does help to frame the bigger picture and see beyond statistics and figures. Sure the volumes of water sound massive in absolute terms, but compared to the amount of water cycling through the groundwater system, it’s not much at all.

CSG: my opinion

A recent facebook discussion about coal seam gas led to this question:

I suppose you’ve been wondering the same thing? As I’ve been working my way through this topic, I’ve tried to avoid forming an opinion so that I can approach each side of the debate fairly. Of course that didn’t work! I have formed an opinion; the response I gave my friend is below.

Well, I don’t think there’s much to worry about in terms of the actual process. That is to say, I don’t think there are any worse risks than other forms of mining. In some ways it’s better because, unlike conventional coal mining, the ground doesn’t have to be torn up and a great gaping hole left in the earth. There is very little disruption to existing ecosystems. What I do have a problem with is the way the industry has expanded so quickly and left the public out of the loop. The communication side of things has been terrible and I think the public is right to feel that it’s been too much too fast. I think it’s worthwhile putting a hold on things in the short-term while government, industry and the public decide what their priorities are in terms of the economy, energy security, the environment and even the way we value agriculture.

Do you agree?

CSG on TV

I was prompted to consider the topic of expertise after watching an episode of Four Corners, which focused on coal seam gas. I’m unable to embed the video directly in the blog, but if you’re interested, the video is available here. In addition to the main issue of the public not trusting mining companies’ expertise, Four Corners highlighted two other ways that expertise might shape the CSG controversy.

The first way is the reference to a different type of expert. In Four Corners, this is the water bore driller who has been drilling bores in the area for 33 years. The question is, is the advice of the bore driller better than advice from mining companies? Who is the expert in this situation? Is it the guy who’s an expert at drilling bores in the local area, or the people who are experts at geology and groundwater modelling? Through this example, I hope to analyse what it means to be an expert. In this case, you might say that the driller is an expert at bore drilling, but mining companies are experts about drilling in aquifers.

The 'Fraccman' (source: The Wilderness Society)

The other aspect of expertise is the expertise of the protesters. Four Corners first introduces us to a man who is such a prolific protester that he does guest talks at community meetings and goes by the nickname of the ‘fraccman’. Clearly he’s an expert protester. Special care is also made to note that one of the other protesters is the chairman of Macquarie Bank. The implication is that this guy is smart, well respected and his opinions are to be taken seriously. Although different to the fraccman, I would say that the chairman is also being portrayed as an expert protester.

The portrayal of people as experts has a strong influence on how much we trust and believe what those people are saying. It’s quite interesting to consider how the public’s view of experts and expertise has shaped the CSG controversy and I hope to have some more to add to this topic over the next few weeks.

In other news, Insight will be looking at CSG next Tuesday (7:30pm, SBS1).

What’s trust got to do with it?

My final piece of assessment for the Controversial Science subject is an essay. I’ve chosen to focus my essay on the twin topics of expertise and trust and I’ll be looking at how these ideas have fuelled the coal seam gas debate. My basic premise is that CSG objectors don’t trust the motives of mining companies and therefore don’t trust any claims they make, even about matters of science.

It’s funny that this should happen, because most people believe science to be fact; plain and simple. Trust shouldn’t even form part of the equation. The public’s view is that science merely reveals a pre-existing truth. Scientific findings are objective and repeatable. What is there to trust or not trust?

Have you guessed? It’s the people, of course! Because here is the reality of science: it’s conducted by scientists, and scientists are people. You might think they’re nerdy people, or intelligent people or even eccentric people, but at the end of the day, they’re still people, just like us. They have flaws just like us. A scientist is not an unfeeling robot working in a magical tower, but a real person who is imperfect, subjective and yes, even corruptible. People have backgrounds and they have motives and scientists are no different. The problem is, the imperfections carry through to the science and carry through to our opinion of the science.

In general, when someone states that they don’t trust the science, what they really mean is they don’t trust the scientist. Perhaps they don’t trust that the scientist is sufficiently qualified in the area, or maybe that the scientist was paid to fudge their results. Either way, if the trust isn’t there, the science will never be accepted.

This is what’s happening in the CSG debate. Mining companies are doing additional research, taking more water samples and building computer models in a desperate effort to convince the public that the CSG process is safe. I think they’re wasting their time. No matter how many fact sheets the mining companies put out or how often they refer back to hard scientific findings, the majority of the public won’t listen. As long as the public feels that the mining companies are untrustworthy, no amount of science will change anything.