Paul Howes' bipartisan gas burn

Both sides of politics are paining manufacturing with messy legislation on coal seam gas, the AWU chief says.

Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes administered a bipartisan towelling to politicians when he spoke at the New South Wales forum on gas supply that I chaired in Sydney on Friday.

“We have allowed ourselves to get in to a very awkward position about energy, and particularly coal seam gas, in this state,” Howes said. “And we have a long way now to get back to a sensible middle ground.”

The arguments being pursued by the Australian Industry Group and others on what to do with the gas once it is out of the ground are putting the cart before the horse, Howes asserted, “because first we must agree that it’s a good idea to get the stuff out of the ground.”

He argued that Australia should be “switching (from coal) to gas en masse” as part of the transition to a cleaner energy economy. A single coal seam gas well on a 15 metre by 15 metre plot can produce the equivalent of 85,000 tonnes of coal, he said. “CSG can produce baseload electricity with up to 70 per cent fewer emissions than coal, using less water and less land.”

Gas should be seen as a key transitional source for an Australian move to a cleaner energy economy, Howes added, but in New South Wales “gas has managed to become synonymous with environmental destruction.”

The problem, he added, is that the state is being badly let down by its politicians.

Across the border in Queensland, Howes pointed out, the coal seam gas industry is now employing 27,000 people and will soon be paying $850 million in state taxes annually to help fund roads, hospitals and schools.

The political situation, he said, is little different in Victoria, where “the word in Melbourne is that the Liberals will end up doing nothing (about the Peter Reith report on CSG) because they are so scared of the Greens and (despite) the industry (potentially) providing a much-needed lifeline to the ailing state manufacturing industry.”

In Victoria. Howes said, it seemed likely that we will not even see the lifting of the ban on exploration that is needed to discover the CSG potential.

Napthine’s “folding to the demands of the Greens may win praise from some sections of the community, but it will be the manufacturing workers of Victoria who will ultimately lose out.”

Meanwhile in New South Wales, he argued, a strange phenomenon had taken hold, he said, involving extreme opinion from the Left and Right of the public spectrum. Howes accused the major parties in New South Wales of resembling a couple of potential inheritors trying to humor a mad old aunt.

The Coalition, in a spectacular display of over-reaction, after two years of soothingly telling activists they were absolutely right to be terrified of CSG had put a ban on activity within two kilometres of residential areas and ordered the state’s chief scientist to review all existing activity, while Labor decided they could go one better by saying 'forget the review, how about a straight-up ban on all CSG activity in all water catchment areas'.

Howes added: “This approach is not about improving rigorous environmental safeguards. It’s about piling up messy legislative hurdles in to a huge, cumbersome pile until nothing can happen and investors get fed up and leave.”

He accused the major party politicians of “straight-up cowardice.”

Meanwhile, Howes argued that New South Wales Labor are missing a massive opportunity because they should be moving forcefully to occupy the middle ground on the issue.

Exploiting the state’s CSG resources, he said, will mean cheaper gas for households, cheaper energy for industry, more accessible feedstock for all sorts of manufacturing and more jobs.

Keith Orchison, director of consultancy Coolibah Pty Ltd and editor of Powering Australia yearbook, was chief executive of two national energy associations from 1980 to 2003. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the energy industry in 2004.

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