The trouble with getting along on CSG

Coal seam gas is a very polarising topic and there's good reason for that.

Crikey

In Climate Spectator last week, Barbara Sharp offered some thoughts about the polarisation of the coal seam gas debate (A fracking PR nightmare, February 29).

It’s worth reading her entire piece, but I take the gist of it to be a call for 'Australia… to negotiate a mutually acceptable way out of the CSG mess.'

In our research on the Western Downs last week we found some stakeholders who would agree with that call. It wasn’t too dissimilar to the views of Mayor Ray Brown and Ian Hayllor of the Basin Sustainability Alliance.

Sharp argues that communication and data are flashpoints for the debate. She is right about that.

More than one of our interviewees suggested that the science was hotly contested, and it’s been a recurrent theme of our research articles that baseline data for assessment of risk and impacts is missing or inadequate. As Kim Jameson said, collecting such data after wells are already in place is worthy, but obviously insufficient. Moves to fund adequately such scientific research are now proceeding with the establishment of the Federal Government’s Independent Expert Scientific Committee. But, again, the horse has already bolted.

Similarly, we can confirm from our interviews and conversations that many feel communication and consultation has been piecemeal and often lacking. That may also be something Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser alluded to in his recent remarks.

Stone writes:

"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."

There are at least a couple of problematic assumptions in this apparently attractive vision.

First, there is the assumption that all sides to the debate have the same objective. That’s not so. Until farmers and landholders feel their rights are adequately secured, it’s difficult to see that they should take the leap to self-sacrifice in a broader interest, particularly when there is no agreement about that broader interest anyway. There’s an opposing and equally valid view that some forms of land use (mining and agriculture) are simply incompatible. Similarly, the environment – water quality, public health, and much more – has its own advocates, and so it should.

We simply cannot assume, as Sharp appears to do, that values are shared sufficiently to form the basis for the revelation of common ground through dialogue.

Secondly, there is great disparity in power between stakeholders. Individual landholders often feel quite isolated against the weight of the industry. Some people with a direct concern in the debate – for instance, residents on low incomes in towns – are only represented in a very diffuse sense in the decision making field. Nor does everyone have the law on their side, or the same ability to articulate their interests and represent them in the media and in policy debate.

There would be practical ways of addressing this. One that occurs is a publicly funded arbitration and mediation process between landholders and companies, that diverts conflict away from the courts where the simple cost of representation is often a great disincentive.

That’s just a suggestion.

But before we adopt an 'everyone should be nice to each other' position, we need to recognise that there is truth in the perception that some have that the actions of some players are far from nice. And we need to recognise that the common interest is not the sum of powerful interests.

This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on March 2, 2012.Republished with permission.