It’s too late for more words in the coal seam gas debate.
Recent comments by coal seam gas industry leaders ranging from Total’s head of exploration Yves-Louis Darricarrere to former Santos chief executive John Ellice Flint that the industry has failed to convince Australians of the force of its arguments are in many ways true.
Newspoll research showing that two-thirds of Australian voters are opposed to CSG, or undecided, further validates their concerns.
These industry leaders are calling for better and more communication and information.
But it is far too late to be arguing for a better case to be put. Another PR campaign by APPEA, AGL, BG or Santos would be unlikely to mount a new, more compelling case for the need for coal seam gas or its safe extraction. Surely the best case has been put already and still not quelled its opposition.
Communities get up in arms when they feel frightened. They feel frightened when they become confused by the facts presented by self-interested parties, and when they believe they are powerless to change the inexorable path laid out for them.
The communities of Queensland and NSW are angry and have picked up the best four-by-two they can find. The club they are using is the media and the whack to the head they are giving to the politicians and shock jocks underlines the fear and threat they feel.
So how is trotting out Dracula to argue for access to the blood bank going to work, if it hasn’t worked so far?
The CSG fracas is a classic case of fear and loathing being generated for a whole host of different reasons. When people are fearful, they get angry. When people are angry, they don’t listen. Ask BHP Billiton, Gunns, Leighton Holdings or the government if the CSG debate is a new uprising of resistance.
The political is personal. Neither the communities nor the CSG companies are listening to the other, because neither has found a way to understand the issues confronting the other while there is a 40-point headline public shouting match happening in the media.
Harvard-based thought-leader on public dispute resolution, Lawrence Susskind, talks about six types of anger. You can see all of them in any town hall meeting – not just CSG meetings – where the afraid and purposeful meet in the face of an amorphous enemy that challenges their world view.
People get angry when: they have been hurt, feel they could be hurt, feel their values or beliefs have been challenged, feel they are in a position of weakness, or feel (rightly or wrongly) that they’ve been lied to.
And all of these types of anger can be channelled into the rational and righteous anger of those seeking to advance a broader agenda, such as the Greens and Bob Katter’s Australia Party.
At the vortex of all this is the question of trust. Communities find it hard to trust commercial interests while they feel threatened by them and have people they do trust, such as campaigners and (curiously) former politicians, telling them to be afraid.
Ramming more information down their throats won’t make communities trust that a profit-geared monolith has their best interests at heart.
So the nation’s push away from coal and transition to new, less damaging energy sources is faltering at the logjam of moratoriums and the wait for "clearer data”.
The tragedy of this is that more data on water table impacts, fracking, greenhouse benefits, or job creation will still not open the minds of opponents, any more than the vocabulary of fear will convince gas producers that their science is wrong.
The CSG debate needs to be informed by good technical knowledge, but not driven by it. Who decides what is good knowledge? The facts need to be trusted, and that won’t happen simply because there are more of them.
The question of "whose data decide?” is central. Independent data are only useful if all sides of an issue agree to accept the fall of the findings.
But still, the data will remain the tail wagging the dog. The opportunity for joint fact-finding, for agreement on the information needed for informed decisions is sitting waiting for leadership.
It is waiting for both sides to climb out of the trenches and come together around a table to find a way forward.
What sort of nation would we be if we were unable to rise to the challenge of ensuring our resource developers heard and responded to the fears and complaints of the very people who will live with the consequences of resources developers being wrong about their facts?
Communities should not be made to feel so fearful. Companies' and regulators of companies’ activities should be able to be believed.
More public relations won’t fix that. It only takes one leader to start the listening, and others will follow, and then Australia should be able to negotiate a mutually acceptable way out of the CSG mess.
Barbara Sharp is the managing director of social risk consulting firm Pax Populus.
A fracking PR nightmare
Another public relations campaign from industry is unlikely to dispel the fear surrounding coal seam gas. Resource developers would do better to focus less on waiting for new data and more on showing leadership.
It’s too late for more words in the coal seam gas debate.
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