Coal seam gas industry has to work harder to win over critics

The coal seam gas sector is now fully in the spotlight of a federal election campaign. While controversy over this growing industry has raged for several years, it has increased in recent weeks after the NSW Chief Scientist called for more regulation of the industry.

The coal seam gas sector is now fully in the spotlight of a federal election campaign. While controversy over this growing industry has raged for several years, it has increased in recent weeks after the NSW Chief Scientist called for more regulation of the industry.

Public trust in the extraction of this sort of gas is low, and the industry has launched a high-profile advertising campaign to combat what appears to be growing opposition among ordinary Australians.

Many people, including the federal Resources Minister, believe the industry needs to improve the way it engages with its critics, and on that point, I believe Australia's CSG industry could learn a few lessons from the way the uranium industry worked on its image during the past three to four decades.

For a long time the uranium mining companies' advocacy efforts failed to make an impact and were often derided by politicians, the media and the public. But in 2006, the uranium sector sought to bring a more sophisticated approach to its advocacy on public policy and in the following years there were some substantial successes.

The Labor Party's policy that limited uranium mining to just three mines was overturned and gradually moratoriums on exporting uranium to countries such as China and India were ended.

Western Australia removed its ban on exploring for, and mining uranium, and Queensland did the same.

The change in public perception of uranium was partly driven by external factors; concern over rising carbon emissions caused many to rethink their opposition to the nuclear sector, which is capable of supplying huge amounts of power without filling the atmosphere with carbon.

A rise in uranium prices also helped change opinions, and made the financial sector think that uranium production was a more attractive investment.

But it's also true that the Australian uranium industry made a number of fundamental changes to the way it approached policy debates that helped improve its public reputation.

For today's CSG industry, there are five important lessons that could be learned from the uranium sector's experience.

Firstly, hearts and minds will not be won by facts alone. Good advocacy requires reliable factual information, but emotions will play a surprisingly important role in even the most technical debate. Understanding this is the first step to developing a communications strategy that will resonate with audiences.

Secondly, the CSG industry must learn that the battle is all about trust. Building trust takes many things, from showing technical ability to emotional intelligence, and company representatives will need to have both.

Thirdly, the industry needs operational standards that all companies maintain. During the uranium debate, the mystique and fear of radiation caused deep concern in communities that lived near mines. Codes of practice and reporting methods were introduced throughout the industry and best practices were shared across the industry.

Fourth is the lesson that transparency is your friend. The evil stereotype of spin-doctoring suggests it's an exercise in denial, defence and deflection. These methods rarely work, whereas transparency builds credibility and trust. Lastly, the CSG industry needs to get close to its communities. For many years uranium companies found that environmental activists had harnessed the concerns of local communities and forged a united front with them. The uranium industry learned from this and turned its focus to the aspirations and feelings of people who lived near the mines. Eventually some of the indigenous leaders joined the board of the Australian Uranium Association, and environmental activists were increasingly marginalised.

David Paterson was a founding director of the Australian Uranium Association, and general manager of external affairs at Energy Resources of Australia. He is director of Emergent Advisory. david@emergentadvisory.com

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