‘Coexistence’ sours to Grapes of Wrath
The Queensland Audit Office in reviewing the government management of the CSG industry has found that the ‘robust regulation’ designed to manage coexistence between the industry and the farmers expected to host them lacks transparency, evidence of enforcement is not available and no one is checking on their performance anyway, leaving those dealing with the industry vindicated that the discontent and concerns they have raised over the last decade, 17 government inquiries and innumerable complaints have been validated, however, the vindication sours and turning to grapes of wrath given the impotent response from the departments audited.
During 2019, the Queensland Audit Office in its role as an independent auditor of the public sector undertook an assessment of how the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy (DNRME), the Department of Environment and Science (DES) and the GasFields Commission Queensland (the commission) Manage the of Coal Seam Gas industry in Queensland. Their Report on this audit was presented February 19, 2020.
It is important to note that this was a process of auditing the government departments, not the coal seam gas industry itself. That is yet to occur since clearly the government departments are not doing it. However from the perspective of how does the government stack up in its delivery of administering and enforcing the industry, the following were the outcomes of the audit.
- The departments do not share data, nor coordinate well and the data that should be available from the management activities is not available for analysis which means their activities are not transparent.
- There needs to be an evaluation to ensure the adequacy of remedy for property owners neighbouring coal seam gas activities – it is now timely for DNRME, DES and the GasFields Commission to evaluate the effectiveness of the alternative arrangements to provide adequate rights to people affected by offsite impacts
- Improvement required to ensure the needs and concerns of landholders are adequately considered
- Improvement required to ensure landholders are given the information to make an informed decision
- Review of the Regional Planning Interests Act 2014 is required to determine whether the process adequately manages coal seam gas activities in areas of regional interest. This should take into consideration stakeholders’ concerns about inconsistent definitions of land and exceptions to the assessment process
- Review the need for the GasFields Commission Queensland since many of its functions are duplicated elsewhere, its one specific duty is not being undertaken, ie at present, no one is providing transparency and certainty that regulators of the coal seam gas industry are performing their roles effectively – and that is why there is such a gap in the management of the industry as highlighted by the report, and that the public doubt its independence and transparency anyway. And their reports provide no in-depth analysis, insights, advice or recommendations
- Reinforced my findings in my recently published journal article that the departments place a lessor weighting on H&S Concerns of landholders and stakeholders with health and safety concerns or complaints can be frustrated by the number of regulators and the complex regulatory framework
Therefore, the audit has shown what landholders have understood all along, that government departments are not managing the coal seam gas industry effectively, particularly regarding the impacts for the landholders expected to host the industry. No wonder landholders feel like they are doing the majority of that heavy lifting, landholders who are at a distinct disadvantage from the get go.
In their response to the Audit Report, both the DES and DNRME demonstrate they are not listening and do not understand and don’t intend to change. For example, they have stated that while they agree with the recommendation they reassert their position which is they think what they are doing is adequate and the government policy direction is clear, they do not commit to undertaking the recommended changes; they state that they will continue to do more of the same.
It is the Government policy direction that is setting the benchmark, which is to ensure the primacy of the industry, not the rights and remedies of landholders. So while the audit report says there is a problem with the way the industry is managed, the departments audited say they are just doing what the government policy says to do.
The situation is best summarized by the following quote from the Report.
“The viability of the coal seam gas industry depends on its ability to coexist with landholders and regional communities.
For the government’s coexistence policy to be successful, the regulators and the commission must continue to adapt as unresolved concerns persist, new issues emerge, and the science continues to evolve”
Landholders must write to the government requiring a written response as to what actions will be committed to in order to address these very obvious failings.