REGIONAL communities across Victoria have welcomed the opportunity to give their views on the possible introduction of an onshore gas industry in this state.
More than 600 people attended community consultation sessions or ‘Open Days’ held across Gippsland last month. These were followed by open days in the west of the state, attended by about 500 people. Three or four more open days are possible in areas where the geology has the potential for coal deposits.
The session at Mirboo North on June 18 attracted the most people, with 150 or so calling into the local hall between 2pm and 8pm. Almost as many people attended at Bairnsdale and Sale, while around 60 or so went to the Open Day at Yarram. Sessions were also held in Warragul and Inverloch.
Mindful of community concerns about coal seam gas exploration and mining, the Victorian government has extended a moratorium on fracking (part of the mining process) and on onshore gas exploration until at least July 2015, while a thorough investigation is carried out.
The government hired the consultancy firm The Primary Agency to facilitate the open days. Mick McGuire from The Primary Agency was one of the facilitators. He stressed the independence of the process.
“The open days gave people the chance to express their views. Our job was to capture their views,” he said.
He said that ‘onshore natural gas’ was the government’s umbrella term for four types of gas – conventional gas, which is traditionally found offshore, but can be found onshore; coal seam gas; tight gas; and shale gas.
“In Gippsland there may be the geology that suggests any of these,” he said.
As well as the independent facilitators, the open days were attended by technical specialists from the government, including a geologist, a hydro-geologist and an expert on the relevant policies and regulations.
The facilitators recorded the issues raised by the community, generally speaking to small groups of people at a time.
“About three out of four people we spoke to had relatively strongly negative views about the industry,” said Mr McGuire.
This contrasted, he said, with the five to eight per cent of people, especially in Gippsland, who were interested in knowing more about the possibilities of having gas exploration on their land or were supportive of the possibility of diversifying their income stream. The balance just wanted to know more and were open-minded.
Mr McGuire said issues raised included: the potential contamination of aquifer water and surface water from chemicals used in the mining process; the potential for mining to industrialise a rural landscape and change a community; the possibilities of property values declining; the possibility of insurance companies rejecting insurance; and general public health issues. Some people, he said, were very concerned about what they had heard about the coal seam gas industry interstate in relation to public health. Obviously stressed, they became quite emotional in their discussions with the facilitators.
Larry Giddy, from the CSG Project Group, which is a part of the Foster Community Association, was among the people who attended an open day.
“On behalf of the Foster Community Association and me personally, I want to thank everyone who participated at one of the consultation meetings. All input is important. It is down to how the government chooses to use it,” he said.
At Mirboo North, members of the Lock the Gate CSG Alliance met with the facilitators from The Primary Agency before the public consultation session. An Alliance member reported later: “Overall the day was very positive as people appreciated the opportunity to be heard. However, everyone is keenly waiting to see: what happens next; the final report; and what the government does with this information.”
Mr McGuire said in consulting with the public before any mining goes ahead, the Victorian government is taking a very different approach to that of other states, including NSW and Queensland, where CSG mining is already under way.
He said that following the open days, twenty or so community workshops will be run over the next few months for key stakeholders and members of the community identified at the open days.
Meetings have already been held with various groups and organisations, including Lock the Gate, Friends of the Earth, the Victorian Farmers Federation, Ignite Energy and Lake Oil, and more meetings will be held with other stakeholders. All the field work is scheduled to be completed by September.
A further step in the process to prepare a report for the government, so that it is fully informed before it reaches any decision on onshore gas mining, will be the establishment of community panels in Gippsland and the west of the state. Mr McGuire said peak organisations, such as local chambers of commerce, Local Government and Lock the Gate, will be asked to nominate representatives for the panels.
“These will be workshopped on four occasions so that we can better understand the views to present to the government,” he explained.
Also on the agenda, said Mr McGuire, is a quantitative market research study, which will take a statistically valid approach. All the information gathered will be distilled into a report to go to government by March 31 next year. The report will be available to the public.
By the middle of next year the government should have at its fingertips all the information it needs to make a decision, being a combination of the information from the public consultation process, along with Peter Reith’s Gas Market Taskforce Report (essentially the industry view) and a water science study.