In my last blog on coal seam gas (28 June – Temperature rises on coal seam gas) I warned of the political dangers facing the new NSW liberal-national party coalition government around the rapidly growing debate over coal seam gas extraction on private farm land.
Potential impacts on groundwater resources and surface streams are a big part of the public concerns, although the broader environmental and aesthetic elements of gas heads spread across private farms and rural landscapes are part of the story too.
I said then, and nothing has changed since, that the NSW state government will have to very carefully balance the interests of its own coalition – the traditional Liberal* party support for big business (the mining industry in this case) and the rural and farming concerns of the National Party.
NSW Liberal Premier (Governor for US readers) Barry O’Farrell and his ministerial colleagues have played a fairly careful hand around this issue in recent months – obviously aware of the delicate political balancing act they are facing.
However, Federal ‘opposition’ leader, Tony Abbott (head of the Federal Liberal-National coalition) seems not to have taken O’Farrell’s cautious lead, diving head long into the debate last week. Abbott decried that farmers should be able to stop coal seam gas companies ‘forcing’ their way onto their land.
Not only was this at logger-heads with the mining and business interests of his own party, but it put him in direct conflict with long-standing mining laws in Australia that effectively guarantee mining companies access to mineral resources underneath private land (subject to a range of regulatory approvals)
Ironically, Abbott quickly found himself being courted by the Green Party, which came out in support of his apparent ‘anti-mining, pro-farming’ stance. The Greens concerns lie more with the possible environmental consequences of CSG extraction, rather than with the farmers per se, nevertheless they saw Abbott as an ally, albeit a strange one, in the CSG issue.
Abbott was then very quick to point out to the media that there was no chance of an alliance between his party and the Greens on the CSG issue, or on any other issue for that matter! The Greens hold the balance of power in our Federal parliament, and are disparaged by Abbott and his conservative colleagues on almost every political issue they raise.
Realising the political wedge he had walked into, later in the week Abbott backed off from his overtly pro-farming stance, trying to strike a more conciliatory tone saying “We support the mining industry but we don’t want to see prime agricultural land destroyed”. He tried to pass that red hot political potato back to the States stating, “land use decisions ….are fundamentally a matter for the States”.
Beyond all this political advancing and retreating remains the need for a proper scientific analysis on the possible ground- and surface-water impacts of CSG extraction in Australia. Our national science organisation CSIRO last month announced a research alliance with Australia Pacific LNG. Hopefully that will help bring some scientific rationality to what has become a very emotive public debate.
I am guessing that there will be some in the farming and environmental community worrying that CSIRO risks getting too close to the CSG industry. Clearly, CSIRO will need to be extremely careful how it manages the relationship with CSG companies, and how it protects the integrity of its research and research publication process. But, given CSIRO’s strong reputation for independence I am confident they will walk that tight-rope wisely.
*Overseas readers should note that Australia’s ‘Liberal’ party is, strangely enough given its name, our largest conservative party (the equivalent of the US Republican Party, or near enough so). It has a long-standing coalition agreement with the rural-leaning, and even more conservative, National Party. The incumbent Federal ‘Labor’ Government is akin to the US Democratic Party.