Opinion: Gas ban at odds with expert evidence

October 9th, 2015

If the Victorian Government decides to extend the moratorium blocking natural gas development, it will be doing so against the evidence provided by its own best experts.

Based on doomsday hearsay from activist groups such as Lock The Gate, some farm groups and others have claimed that natural gas development cannot be allowed because of the ‘unacceptably high risk’ to water resources.

But scientists in the Victorian Environment Department have assessed the situation and determined that gas development represents only “low risk” to groundwater in both the Gippsland and Otway basins.

For the record, scientific assessments almost always ascribe some level of risk, even in industries which have been operating successfully and without major incident for 100 years or more, as is the case with natural gas.

This properly-researched conclusion by the Environment Department has been presented to the current Government inquiry into unconventional gas.

It is completely at odds with activist claims. But it is no surprise to scientists and engineers in WA, SA, NSW, Queensland and the NT, where gas has been extracted from onshore wells for decades without any incidence of aquifer contamination.

Last year, the NSW Chief Scientist conducted a thorough investigation of gas extraction in Australia and overseas.   Her conclusion was that extraction and production was ‘low risk’ and that risks could be managed with appropriate regulation.

This year, scientists and engineers in the South Australian Government examined the issues in the context of proposed development in the State’s south-east, just over the Victorian border. It concluded that history, experience and contemporary technological advances showed the industry could proceed safely, with existing regulations addressing environmental protection.

In the top end, gas is a life-blood. Almost every town in the NT runs on electricity generated from natural gas, and has done so for decades, without harm to any aspect of Territory ecology.

What many people in Victoria do not realise is that onshore natural gas extraction has quite a long history in Victoria already, in both the Gippsland and Otway basins.

It is true, most gas has been piped into Victoria — and up the East Coast — from wells in the oil and gas rich Bass Strait. But exploration wells were sunk in eastern and western Victoria as far back as the 1940s. In fact, the large WA-based oil and gas producer Woodside Petroleum had its start on the Gippsland coast, at the small town of Woodside, south-west of Lakes Entrance.

In the west (Otway basin), onshore commercial gas production occurred for 20 years from the mid-1980s. Onshore wells have also been drilled on the coast to access near offshore oil and gas fields, including at least one in the Otway basin which is operating today and has been for several years.

The safe record for natural gas goes back even further in other parts of the country. In some parts of southern Queensland, natural gas is present so close to the surface that it can be found in surface water, including some rivers. Gas was first put to use in Roma in the early 1900s, where it was simply separated from surface water to ignite the town’s first ever street lighting.

Track forward a century and Roma today is undergoing a renaissance on the back of new investment in natural gas development. A town in decline has been reinvigorated as businesses and young people find opportunity serving construction and maintenance of facilities delivering gas to local industry and export markets, earning the State much-needed royalty income.

And farmers have reaped the benefit as well. In 2014-15, Queensland gas companies paid landholders a total of $220 million for hosting facilities – a very handy economic buffer against the possibility of poor seasons. And all were able to continue their existing growing/grazing activities at the same time.

By locking out sensibly-regulated development, the Government will be locking farmers out of a chance to share in the economic bounty, and help protect their properties from the rigours of tough seasons.






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