Opinion: Positive gas policy needed, not capitulation

December 3rd, 2015

It will be a triumph of politics over policy sense if the Victorian Government extends the moratorium on natural gas development following the anticipated publication of a Parliamentary report next week.

A long inquiry by an Upper House committee is set to deliver a report which pundits predict will recommend extension of the natural gas exploration/development moratorium which has been in place since mid-2012.

However, the recommendation is likely to be met with some dissent.

According to the Herald Sun’s political editor, James Campbell, at least one MP on the committee – former Small Business Minister Adem Somyurek — will make clear his belief that the moratorium ought to be lifted.  And in doing so, he will be voicing a view held privately by many MPs – Labor and Liberal.

MPs appear loath to express their opinions because they believe the public has difficulty discerning the true facts, with this telling quote from the Campbell piece:

“…especially with Lock The Gate, funded in part by Friends of the Earth, out there scaring the hell out of farmers.”

Former Federal Cabinet Ministers Peter Reith, Ian Macfarlane, Martin Ferguson, Craig Emerson, Greg Combet and Gary Gray have all lamented the willingness of State Governments (in Victoria and to a lesser degree NSW) to sacrifice political leadership to the fear of losing votes to the Greens.

This well-considered position, from respected current and former policy makers, reflects dispassionate assessment of science, facts and history.  This fact-base and historical record is compared to the “misinformation” (a word used by a number of MPs at State and Federal level) peddled by many activist organisations.

Activist organisations talk of an environmental Armageddon with passion and apparent conviction, despite the facts and history of the gas industry showing otherwise.  The world’s biggest environmental protection authority, the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA), has declared that fracking has not caused significant damage to groundwater.

The EPA’s statement has been echoed in Australia by the CSIRO and the NSW Chief Scientist, as well as a number of State-based scientific authorities.

In Victoria, the State’s Environment Department has told the inquiry expected to report next week that gas extraction in Gippsland and in the west of the State would be “low risk” to aquifers.

It will be interesting to see how the inquiry deals with this evidence.

What makes this situation worse is that the moratorium started as a pause on development of any coal-seam gas resources – as this was the category of concern for activists.

Flushed with lobbying success, enviro-activists pushed the Government to extend the moratorium to all forms of natural gas and the Napthine Government duly complied.  Because gas extraction is covered by a petroleum exploration licence in Victoria, the effect was also a ban on any fossil fuel exploration.  This stopped two exploration companies dead in their tracks and foiled plans to deliver low-cost oil and gas to local businesses in the State’s west, where such activity has been underway offshore for decades.

There is no doubt that some MPs, farmers and their representatives, including the Victorian Farmers Federation, have been spooked by the ‘Armageddon’ activists.

Graziers and crop growers may regard the whole oil and gas industry as a risk best avoided.  But they will be doing millions of consumers, workers and small business owners (including agribusinesses) a major disservice if they block development of the industry,  allowing resultant price rises and possible supply shortages (as predicted by energy-use forecasting agencies).

Manufacturers Australia, the Energy Users Association and the Australian Workers Union have all warned of business closures and major job losses if new gas supplies are not tapped.  Some major manufacturing companies have shelved plans to build facilities in Victoria, citing lack of certainty of supply.

This situation is well understood in WA, SA, Queensland, the NT and NSW, where well-regulated onshore gas development has been a fact of life for many years, and agriculture and natural gas have been proved to be readily able to co-exist.

As unions, manufacturers and small businesses have told successive Governments, it is time Victoria woke up to this — and adopted an approach that is right for the future of the State and its millions of gas consumers, in homes, small businesses and industry.

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