Coal seam gas campaign wins friends and frenemies

The grassroots campaign against coal seam gas mining appears to have won important ground, making it onto the popular ABC program Gruen Transfer and as a dedicated feature launched on the ABC news website on November 24. Right-wing shock-jock Alan Jones has also held his own October 19 address to the National Press Club on the dangers of CSG to “food security”, calling the buying up of farm land by CSG companies “legalised theft”.  

The Gruen Transfer program on November 9 had a panel of advertising industry experts commenting on current CSG advertising by Santos and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) aimed at convincing the population that there are farmers who support the coal seam gas industry. 


CSG waste released into the Condamine River near Chinchilla.

Gruen panellist Toby Ralph pointed out that $2-3 million would have been spent by Santos on its advertising campaign — the amount of profit it makes in one day (a trickle compared to the $2 million BHP-Billiton make every 45minutes).

The APPEA ad signs off with a narrator saying “Coal seam gas could provide millions of dollars each year in royalties to NSW”, but what it doesn’t mention is that under Labor’s minerals resource rent tax, the federal government will credit royalties back to the mining companies that pay them.

Ralph pointed out that mining is only 9% of Australia’s economy and provides only 1.9% of employment, so the repeated mantra that coal and CSG mining are “in the national interest” is patently false. 

Perhaps more revealing on the program was the explanation of “how to buy off a community”, referring to the ongoing protests and pickets that have taken place against CSG operations most of this year. Using the acronym FUCCEM, the corporate recipe for containing dissent is: Forge local relationships; Understand local concerns; Create local opinion leaders; Claim the middle ground; Employ activists as consultants and; Marginalise the remainder.

Reliance on ALP

But the CSG industry to date has simply relied upon the Labor Party to write the rules and do its bidding — particularly consecutive Labor governments in Queensland that guaranteed demand for CSG, first in 2000 with the “Queensland Energy Policy — a Cleaner Strategy” and then in 2007 “Smart Energy Strategy”, requiring 15% of electricity to be generated by gas by 2010. In 2007 the Bligh Labor government also changed the way that gas was priced, more than tripling profits overnight; Santos managing director Nick Davies admitted, “Our goal was to expose Queensland to export pricing ...” 

The ABC website feature on CSG, Coal seam gas — by the numbers, collates useful data on the industry, including the types of waste that have already been permitted by the Queensland government to be dumped into the Condamine River near Chinchilla. It also shows the projected water use by CSG companies QGC, Santos, Origin and BG International: at a conservative estimate 300 gigalitres, but up to 1500 GL per year, by the industry's own projections, to be drawn from the Great Artesian Basin.

While the true nature of the industry is slowly being exposed, a right wing of the campaign is emerging and could derail the campaign to ban CSG. Already, the Labor Party in NSW is adapting its position, opposition leader John Robertson calling on November 10 for a “halt on new coal seam gas licences”.

“Until there is a scientific consensus that coal seam gas mining will not damage aquifers and ground water systems, we need to hit the pause button”, Robertson said.  In a similar vein, Alan Jones said in his National Press Club speech, “There has to be a moratorium until we find out the truth”. While appearing to be siding with farmers, he twice assured journalists present that he wasn’t actually against the industry: “Let me begin by saying I’m not opposed to coal seam mining or coal seam gas mining ...” and later: “I am opposed to them running roughshod over prime agricultural land and denying one of the central freedoms that ought to pertain to Australians and that is the right to have the final say over what happens to their own property”.

Jones’ reactionary message was summed up in the title of his talk: “Australia’s national interest — food security and the protection of the Australian regional way of life”.  His chief complaint about the CSG industry is not any of the central environmental or social justice arguments being voiced by campaigners, but that “Our [sic] agricultural heritage is progressively being eroded”. 

Encouraging the right

Heady from the whiff of publicity generated by Jones and the nod he has given to the dozens of pickets and rallies around eastern Australia, the Lock the Gate alliance, which has claimed the leadership of the CSG campaign, has begun encouraging this right wing, preferring speakers from the Bob Katter-led Australian Party over grassroots activists at the Brisbane national day of action on October 15.

Assuming that right-wing opportunists will broaden appeal is a fatal mistake. The only antidote to opportunists like Katter and Jones is a campaign that adopts a more radical message than simply calling for a moratorium. The campaign needs to link coal seam gas to the broader international capitalist social and environmental crisis. Discussions and decisions also need to be democratised; while there has been successful publicity and self-organisation through social media, organising people beyond a national day of action has not been widely canvassed.