The coal seam gas industry (CSG) could have an impact on the mental health of farmers and communities in rural NSW, a psychologist told the first public hearing of the parliamentary inquiry into CSG last week.
The hearing took place in Alstonville, a small town west of Ballina in the north of New South Wales. It provided an opportunity for the parliamentary inquiry committee — seven members of the NSW Legislative Council — to hear from people and groups affected by CSG.
Dr Wayne Somerville, a landholder in Kyogle and clinical psychologist who has worked in the Northern Rivers area for over 30 years, was among those giving testimony.
Dr Somerville provided a "compelling and thought-provoking testimony foreshadowing the personal and social traumas that the arrival of the coal seam gas industry is likely to bring," parliamentary committee deputy chair and Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham told New Matilda.
In his written submission to the committee Somerville said: "I am very alarmed at the social disruption, depression, anger, violence, and political chaos that the CSG industry appears set to inflict on Australia."
He continued: "The emotional and psychological impact of such destruction of property, lifestyle and prospects for the future will inevitably result in predictable psychological responses. For many, the loss will lead to anxiety, depression and, for some, to suicide."
The inquiry committee will travel the state, meeting communities, touring CSG operations, and holding further public hearings in order to report on the likely environmental, health, economic and social impacts of the CSG industry, as well as its role in meeting the state’s future energy needs.
The inquiry has been welcomed by both sides of the CSG debate with mining companies seizing the opportunity to win over a critical public. Communities, on the other hand, see the inquiry as a chance to have their voice heard by all sides of politics.
In the space of just over a month more than 800 submissions were lodged by hundreds of individuals, local councils, groups including the Environmental Defenders Office and the Hunter Valley Wine Association, as well as mining companies Metgasco, Santos, and AGL, who all currently hold licences for CSG operations in various parts of NSW.
Many of the individual submissions are in opposition to the CSG industry, however there are some from business groups that call for a "balanced" approach and make recommendations that include changes to improve current state government planning and regulatory mechanisms.
The NSW Business Chamber which represents more than 20,000 businesses across the state submitted its perspective to the inquiry. The organisation said the CSG industry offered "potential benefit to … communities through local employment opportunities," but noted "this potential needs to be balanced against the ongoing needs of agribusiness and other businesses operating in regions where exploration is likely to proceed".
In another submission, the NSW Irrigators Council said that it was not opposed to mining, however it held concerns about the government’s capacity to deal with the "anticipated scope" of CSG exploration and mining. "We specifically believe that industry self-regulation and self-reporting is meaningless and must be abandoned as a protocol or measure of protection, specific or implied," they said.
The parliamentary inquiry into CSG was initiated by the NSW Greens who have been calling for a moratorium on the industry. "When the community rises up, through hundreds of local groups and tens of thousands of people across the state, you have to respond," Buckingham told New Matilda.
The scale of the CSG industry is such that Buckingham describes the rollout as one of the largest industrialisations in Australia’s history. So too the scale of the struggle against it, described as one of the largest social environmental movements in decades. "It’s been remarkable, it’s a massive ground-swell of opposition and it crosses all regions and demographics," Buckingham said.
"It’s a broad constituency of people from south western Sydney, to the inner suburbs of Sydney, and then out to Illawarra, Newcastle, the Hunter, and throughout some of our key farming lands such as the Liverpool Plains, the vale of Gloucester, and northern NSW."
The concerns of these communities include the potential for CSG mining to affect underground water resources, pollute the air through fugitive emissions, and compromise future food security. These concerns will be addressed in the five remaining public hearings of the inquiry.
"It is clear that coal seam gas does not have a social licence to operate. Everywhere I go there is a local community group that has formed to try to stop the gas company," Buckingham told New Matilda.
Two of these community groups, Kyogle Group against Gas and Keerrong Gas Squad, spoke at the first inquiry hearing. Both groups raised concerns about how the CSG industry could negatively affect their communities.
The argument by the industry, however, is that CSG will mean a cleaner source of energy in the transition away from coal, and they say that CSG operations can safely co-exist with other existing land-uses and current industries including agriculture.
The inquiry committee toured a Metgasco CSG site in Casino last week. Metgasco managing director Peter Henderson said that the inquiry offered "an opportunity for us to correct a number of misconceptions about the industry".
"Ensuring that we produce gas in an environmentally responsible way is an essential priority for Metgasco," said Henderson, who insisted that Metgasco CSG operations would not impact on aquifers and would only "minimally impact" on existing landholder activities. "Metgasco works hard to maintain a good relationship with landholders and the broader community," he told New Matilda. "We aim for a win-win relationship — with only a fraction of their land being used for our operations."
The industry body also promotes the current process of landholder agreement negotiations. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) says in its ongoing advertising campaign that over 1800 agreements have been successfully negotiated with landholders across QLD and NSW.
However, Buckingham said not all landholders are happy with the negotiation process.
He said that some landholders felt they were inadequately briefed on what the phrase "associated infrastructure" could mean in their agreements with the gas companies. Buckingham said he had been told that in one case the associated CSG infrastructure was a 300-person work camp, and in another case several kilometres of pipeline.
The CSG exploration industry has experienced significant growth over the past decade under ALP-led state governments and around a third of NSW is now approved for exploration activities, with further new licences and renewals currently before the Minister for Planning.
This growth together with people’s increasing awareness of the potential risk factors associated with CSG has seen a rise in the number of people voicing their concerns and forming community groups against the industry.
"The community is demanding action and they are demanding it now," says Buckingham, "Barry O’Farrell has got to make the choice about whether he lets this genie out of the bottle and unleashes this industry on us."
The parliamentary inquiry continues with the next public hearing to be held at the end of October in Taree, with the final report due to be delivered in April next year.
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