What the Lazarus Inquiry didn’t hear

April 27th, 2016

With the Senate Committee Inquiry into Unconventional Gas likely to table an interim report before the impending double dissolution brings its work to an end, we’ve read through many of the submissions published by the Committee, and there’s a couple that are worth drawing attention to – because the interim report almost certainly won’t.

With the witness lists for the Inquiry’s three hearings overwhelmingly weighed toward anti-industry voices, we expect the interim report to continue the themes that have dogged the inquiry to date – an unbalanced view on the gas industry, and a sustained bias against the responsible development of natural resources.

Putting that issue to one side, the first submission worth reading is from a landholder impacted not by the CSG industry, but by the anti-CSG industry, or Lock the Gate as they prefer to be known.

Richmond Valley farmer Peter Graham is a sixth generation beef and dairy farmer in the Bentley region west of Lismore.

In 2014, he signed a voluntary agreement with Metgasco to give the company access to a disused quarry on his property so that the company could drill a test well for tight gas.

What followed was one of the most disgraceful activist events in recent history.

To quote from Peter’s submission:

“The protestors arrived on the 18th of January 2014, first there were 3 people telling us what to do even telling us how to farm, then 20 people started turning up to the gates and this is where the stand over and intimidation tactics started. The gates were welded up, the spikes were concreted in, so we had them removed, then the water trough gets concreted in and the 200 litre drums with lock on devices are in, a car gets concreted right in the access to the gate way. It’s now when we lose access to our gate for more than three months.”

He goes on to describe the tactics of the protestors:

“The protestors and Lock The Gate were a law to themselves and done what they wanted when they wanted, and yet continued to say they respected the farmer and their rights. We have a historical house on the property that was entered by the protestors, in which spare house stumps were removed from outside, a phone was taken off the wall inside, and rubbish was left on the property. When you hear continual reports of people being paid to be at the camp site, and the number of gas fired BBQ’s in the camp, it all just highlights the hypocrites they are.

Peter goes on to bell the cat on the true motives of the protest movement that sprang up in the paddocks surrounding his property:

“This was never about CSG in my view it was about the Greens trying to stop the fossil fuel industry from expanding into new territory”

“In my view Lock The Gate’s purpose is to stop an industry and stop economic opportunity in the Northern Rivers rather than to protect landholders or aquifers. They will only be happy when they have sent us back to the pushbikes or horse and cart.”

Eventually the NSW Government intervened, suspending Metgasco’s exploration license on the grounds that there had been insufficient community consultation about the proposed works. As News Limited columnist Tim Blair reminded us at the time, many of those who claimed to be local activists were far from it.

The Bentley Blockade has become something of a rallying point for activist groups – to the extent that almost two years later there are still plans afoot to make documentaries about the illegal occupation of the site.

The efforts of Lock the Gate and others denied a landholder his rights, and in doing so denied the opportunity to develop an industry that, with the right regulation and oversight, could have delivered significant economic and employment opportunities.

The second landholder submission that probably won’t be referenced in the final report is from Queensland landholders Leon and Ree Price, who have had direct experience in dealing with gas companies operating in the Wallumbilla region.

It’s a frank account of the family’s dealings with the industry over more than three decades, and while they acknowledge there have been some issues, their experiences are instructive.

On impacts on water:

“We were concerned about the supply, quality and pressure changes that could mean disaster for us and our community should there be any. To ensure we are aware of any changes monitoring bores were put in place at strategic places to safeguard any changes. At present the changes have been minimal (and can be explained with the normal fluctuations that occurred pre CSG) and we are happy at this point in time with the arrangement”

On coexistence, which is one of the key issues held up by activists (and one which we have covered before):

“Our cattle have become used to the extra activity. They graze right up close and under the fence panels around the pumps and we are still turning off bullocks that are consistently in the upper end of the prices at market. We keep a very open and honest relationship going with our Land Liaison team. This is extremely important and has enabled us to undertake our activities when required e.g. mustering, weaning, movement of cattle, planting of crops etc. We have successfully negotiated placement of wells and pipelines, gateways, fence lines so as to have minimum impact on all of our activities.”

On the financial benefits of hosting gas infrastructure:

“Having an income in the rural industry that is not affected by the weather is a definite bonus as well. This income stream has allowed us to accelerate our development program in a way we could not have dreamed.”

And:

“The security of external income has also enabled us to help expand our operation and set up some succession planning. Being able to assist in securing a neighbouring property for our daughter and her husband has been very satisfying and eventually we hope to be able to facilitate this action for all of our children.”

These are the experiences of people living and working in and around the gas industry – not activists behind keyboards in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

They deserve to be heard.

The last submission that we think should be quoted in the final report comes from industry veteran Richard Cottee – someone with extensive experience in the Australian gas industry through his involvement with QGC and Central Petroleum.  Mr Cottee gave evidence at the Darwin inquiry, but his submission has extensive detail and sanguine advice for the committee.

On fracking:

“If fracture stimulation were to be curtailed then the production shortfall for natural gas already predicted would accelerate catastrophically.    Over one million direct jobs, primarily in the manufacturing industry in the states of South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, are dependent on gas as a feedstock for which electricity, renewable or otherwise is no substitute.   There have been numerous enquiries into fracture stimulation by the Australian Council of Learned Academics, the Royal Society, the National Academy of Science of America and the Chief Scientist of NSW to name but a few.  All have concluded that the practice should continue under appropriate regulation.”

On industry development:

“It is therefore important to ensure, with strict regulation, the development of the gas industry in Australia. Unlocking the potential of Australia’s central basins is the only way to ensure a stable gas supply to businesses and households in Eastern Australia and providing long‐term stable jobs in the remote parts of Central Australia.”

In conclusion, we don’t hold out much hope for a fair and balanced interim report from the Lazarus inquiry.

After all, Senator Lazarus seems to be anchoring his re-election campaign on what he refers to as the ‘scourge’ of the CSG industry.

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