An initiative that provides rigorous science on the potential socio-economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s onshore gas industry has, over recent years, expanded from Queensland to other states and territories. ROBERT HOBSON reports
Onshore gas projects have the potential to meet the country’s energy demands, give local communities an infusion of economic prosperity and spur development in regional Australia.
It was something Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Matt Canavan wanted to see happen when addressing the attendees to the Australian Domestic Gas Outlook conference in 2017, clearly stating: “I want Australia to develop its gas resources”.
“To sustainably develop our own gas resources, we need to ensure that it benefits everyone involved in the industry – from landowner to community to gas companies, and to the governments that benefit from the resource,” he added.
Independent information to make informed decisions about onshore gas development
However, it is a contentious space. Like most communities that have, or are considering, developing a gas project in their region, information is key to making an informed decision.
This is where CSIRO’s Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) initiative steps in. GISERA conducts research that quantifies the negative and positive impacts of gas developments so better decision making can happen when formulating regulatory controls, mitigating risks and determining industry best practice.
This information covers areas such as surface and groundwater, greenhouse gas footprint, agricultural land management, terrestrial biodiversity, marine environment, health, as well as the socio-economic impacts.
Launched in 2011, GISERA was a response to effectively manage and interpret research for both the gas industry and local communities.
“Back in about 2009-10, CSIRO was faced with the issue of having to undertake work for the industry, and at the same time also undertake work to provide information to communities in the region about these potential impacts,” CSIRO research director, Damian Barrett, says.
“To avoid the apparent conflict of interest that might be present in doing these two outputs, the idea of GISERA was formed.”
The success of GISERA has seen it move from its initial focus on Queensland to New South Wales in 2015 because of significant community interest in the national science agency’s work. In 2017, it further expanded its research footprint into South Australia and the Northern Territory.
Investigating groundwater and fugutive emissions impacts
Dr Barrett says groundwater, along with fugitive emissions, are the most concerning issues communities have asked the CSIRO to investigate, with 35 per cent of GISERA’s budget going towards groundwater-related research.
“People living in gas development regions are primarily concerned that their water supply is maintained and of a high quality, and that there is no significant take of groundwater by the gas industry.
“It really doesn’t matter which jurisdiction you go to, whether it is Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, the Northern Territory, or anywhere else – water is the key priority.
We’ve also undertaken research looking at fugitive emissions of the industry.
“Our research in Queensland on the upstream gas industry has found that the emissions from upstream wells are relatively low when compared to international standards.”
CSIRO’s role as a trusted advisor is further extended to researching the socio-economic effects on communities.
“Impacts can be positive and negative, so there are benefits. For example, there is increased income to households in regions undergoing gas development,” Dr Barrett says.
“So, the question becomes about what the distribution of that income is.
“There will be winners and there will be losers, and it’s how you maximise the benefit associated with those who are receiving essentially higher incomes and at the same time minimise the cost to those who are not receiving that benefit.
Dr Barrett also says benefits need not be monetary, but rather having additional resources that may be scarce in a particular area.
“It’s the same with water. In Queensland, the water that’s brought to the surface has been treated and reused for agricultural irrigation. It’s supplied a quantity of water that wasn’t previously there, which is a beneficial use,” he says.
“So, while there’s concern about groundwater, there are also positive benefits in terms of increased water for agricultural production.”
Protecting from conflicts of interest
Just as important as the data collected, is the governance mechanism at the heart of GISERA. As previously mentioned, it ensures the research conducted by CSIRO is not at odds with any perceived conflicts of interest when it comes to funding, and ensures transparency in its dispersal.
The money is received from various bodies – including government, industry and CSIRO – and is dispersed through regional research advisory committees that are responsible for approving research on issues local communities are concerned with regarding the gas industry.
Each state that GISERA operates in has a committee, with a majority of members directly coming from the communities.
“This committee determines which projects are approved to go ahead and the funding of those projects, and ensures that the projects deliver,” Dr Barrett says.
“Once a project is approved under the tenets of the alliance agreement, it can only be stopped by the regional research advisory committee.”
Dr Barrett says other governance provisions help reinforce the integrity of GISERA, including a significant community engagement program and the publishing of research findings on the GISERA website.
“There is also no right of editorial review by any entity outside of CSIRO to ensure independence.
Any issues of environmental concern or breach in any regulations can be notified to the respected authorities.
“This ensures that not only are the funds allocated by a community-dominated regional research advisory committee to address the issues of concern to that community, but everything that CSIRO does is 100 per cent transparent.”
This governance model can be replicated in other industries like hard rock mining and health.
“What this governance mechanism enables is public interest research to be undertaken completely independent of the source of funding to that research,” Dr Barrett says.
“It’s possible for those parties that have an interest in, for example a development going ahead, to fund and make a contribution to understanding the environmental issues surrounding that development.”