With the exception of the Lower Hunter and the Illawarra, the vast majority of Australia’s resource projects are in remote or sparsely populated areas, some extremely so. Even major regional centres such as Bendigo and Ballarat have no real living memory of major mining operations and our major population centres, especially on the eastern seaboard, do not have an affinity living simpatico with an open cut mine or oil and gas field.
So we thought of resource projects as being in hot and remote areas; places that won’t impinge on our lifestyle or capacity to produce flora, food and fibre. However, a lot of eastern Australia’s productive agricultural areas are also associated with massive conventional and unconventional fossil fuel deposits.
The push to develop these deposits, predominantly thermal coal and unconventional coal seam gas (CSG) deposits, in regions often not used to the concept of co-existence with resource projects and sharing of water resources has caused consternation for both city and country people alike.
Several incidents where community consultation by some proponents and government agencies (Metgasco in NSW Northern Rivers, Bulga Coal in the Hunter Valley), particularly around land access rights and impacts on water resources, led to adversarial situations, and concerns were quickly spread through social media.
We are now seeing the roll-out of retrospective and reactive agreements around land access between industry, landholders and government. These may well have been avoided through consultation with farmers, traditional owners and environmental groups, particularly by government, as to their rights and those of industry under Crown Law, the ownership of the commodity (the Crown), royalties, and environmental obligations for monitoring and rehabilitation.
Recent announcements of potential profit sharing between farmers and resource companies may develop into an interesting precedent in Australia, but appear to be outside direct government regulation (but not facilitation).
The current New South Wales process involving the Land and Water Commissioner and a separate Chief Scientist review into CSG, although the subject of on-going concern and criticism, has clearly taken heed of the community experiences in living with CSG projects in Queensland.
Victoria is in the early stages of community consultation regarding onshore gas projects, although the development of this industry lags behind NSW and QLD due to the proximity and size of the offshore Bass Strait oil and gas fields.
In Queensland, the establishment of regulatory oversight and improved community consultation frameworks has been comparatively reactionary with the introduction of the Gasfields Commission Queensland and the Queensland Competition Authority CSG Regulatory Review: both of which should be seen in the context of the Newman government’s “Green Tape” reduction policy, and also as an afterthought to the commencement of construction of the three main CSG projects.
The varying reactions by governments on the eastern seaboard towards regulation and consultation about (mostly) coal and onshore unconventional gas projects are a result of concerns to a far greater extent from farmers (pasturers and graziers) and in some areas horse stud owners, than the stereotypical “inner-city latte set”. The concerns are significant: competition for and impacts on water and land resources; adequate financial provisioning; and final closure and rehabilitation, to name a few.
But are the concerns in eastern Australia different to those in Mount Isa, Kalgoorlie and Queenstown?
To be blunt, no, but we have to revisit the remoteness and small population sizes of these townships that service major (and long-term) resource projects.
The older established resource towns like Mount Isa, Newman and Kalgoorlie have evolved with the mine(s), give or take the usual boom-bust cycles. It’s too late to establish what the actual baseline environmental conditions, or the ideal co-existence frameworks between pastoralists, miners and traditional owners were in these towns.
Yet the concerns at local and regional levels about water resources, adequate rehabilitation of landscapes and post-mining economies are very similar. In Western Australia, the Pilbara Development Commission is looking at long-term planning to diversify from being solely reliant on mining. There has also been long-overdue progress made in the consideration of and consultation with traditional owners as to how landscapes, including often culturally sacred watercourses and features, should be conserved and rehabilitated.
Australia seems to have accepted that we no longer just “ride the sheep’s back” to prosperity, but also that of the haul truck, liquefied natural gas train and a services sector that has flourished since the deregulatory heyday of the late 20th century. Yet when seemingly conflicting land uses meet, we appear doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past with reactionary, short-term and narrow band-aid approaches.
The onus is on state and federal governments as the owner of our natural resources to better outline to city and country people alike this country’s vision of co-existence with the non-renewable resources sector. Otherwise, the trust that we put in government will continue to erode.