Much has been written recently about CSIRO's rejection of CSG industry body APPEA's ad claiming that groundwater is safe with CSG; and Santos' underhanded ad filming on a coal seam gas opponent's farm. Santos' latest campaign has largely slipped under the radar: it's a series of ads that pose and answer questions about CSG and its effects on health and the environment.
One of the ads poses the following question: "Couldn't CSG threaten our water supplies?". The answer? "CSG is not a threat to this essential commodity."
This claim cannot be substantiated. It ignores toxic spills, the findings of several scientific studies and even advice from the CSG industry itself. In a public meeting in Sydney last year, APPEA spokesperson Ross Dunn admitted, "drilling will, to varying degrees, impact on adjoining aquifers. The extent of impact and whether the impact can be managed is the question". The CSIRO has found that: "groundwater levels will fall as a consequence of coal seam gas extraction. In some places this could see aquifer levels subside by tens of metres for tens of years; in others it is likely to reduce aquifer levels by several metres for several hundred years."
In fact, Santos has played a role in the history of CSG industry mishaps in this country, such as the toxic water leaks in the Pilliga Forest that saw arsenic, lead, chromium and petrochemicals found in water samples.
I was surprised that Santos would make such a blatantly misleading statement in its advertising; in particular given that APPEA had already been admonished for making this very claim just two months earlier. Yet there it was, taking up a half page in the Sydney Morning Herald, on a television commercial and repeated online.
Armed, naïvely, with the expectation that there would be some legal recourse, I turned to the agencies that govern advertising and communications in Australia. They are the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
I contacted the ASB as their Environmental Claims In Advertising And Marketing Code states (pdf) "environmental claims shall not be misleading or deceptive or be likely to mislead or deceive". And I lodged my complaint.
The ASB rejected it.
Not because Santos weren't deceiving the Australian public, but because they deemed the ad to be "political" and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the ASB.
The ASB also told me not to bother with the ACCC or the Office of Fair Trading: "Under normal circumstances, we would refer you to either the ACCC or your relevant State/Territory Consumer Affairs/Office of Fair Trading as these are the organisations which deal with claims of false and misleading advertising. Their jurisdictions, however, are limited to matters involving trade and commerce and also do not extend to political advertising. It is possible the ACMA may be able to assist with your complaint."
So, what about ACMA?
Their charter to regulate radio and television content also extends to the Internet, though for advertising they point the public back to the ASB. Got a sinking feeling yet? It gets worse. ACMA explicitly states it is "not responsible for determining whether an election or political advertisement is misleading or untrue." and they go on to suggest "you can complain to the ACCC and/or state Departments or Offices of Fair Trading if your concern is about truth and accuracy in advertisements." Yes. That's the same ACCC whose rulings do not extend to political ads.
The upshot is that the CSG industry is free to make any claim it chooses.
What about the scientists at CSIRO? Would they be concerned to see their findings ignored again and the public so willfully misinformed?
I contacted Tsuey Cham, listed on the CSIRO website as the Environment Group Communication Advisor. He was the person responsible for the CSIRO's rebuke of APPEA just two months earlier. I made it clear that, after my experience with the three regulatory bodies, there seemed nowhere else to turn. I asked if the CSIRO would be prepared to make a statement.
When Tsuey Cham's response came, his title was not "Environment Group Communication Advisor", but "GISERA Communication Advisor". GISERA is the separate research unit set up by CSIRO in conjunction with — and part funded by — Australia Pacific LNG, holder of the country's largest CSG reserves. GISERA's stated aim is to "ensure our research is informed by and of benefit to the broader community and industry."
I had essentially asked Cham to bite the hand that feeds him. His response: "I understand your concern and frustration... The [APPEA] advertisement was taken off the air after the media statement was issued and therefore CSIRO decided that there was no need for further media statements on this issue". Cham concluded by providing some links to GISERA's research, the bulk of which appear due for completion in mid 2014.
Meanwhile, not only is CSG being rolled out as fast as possible, but when research shows that CSG poses risks to land, water and communities, both the industry and government work to discredit the researchers.
Last month, Southern Cross University (SCU) researchers found huge quantities of methane and carbon dioxide were leaking undetected from Australia's biggest CSG field. Instead of welcoming their findings or prompting further investigation, Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson launched an extraordinary attack on the scientists, telling them to "Conduct yourself in a professional way and focus on the outcome, not short-lived media opportunities."
CSG is being treated as a business opportunity without real consequences. But development poses risks to food, water and air. Indeed, for a growing number CSG has become very personal and deadly serious. The realisation that every institution has failed them — that there is no recourse to the law — is driving those most affected to desperation and, potentially, desperate acts.
Some of those living in the gas field studied by the SCU scientists have provided insight into their world through Facebook. In November this year Dayne Pratzky posted:
"Please spare a though to us who wake wondering how barium, boron, silica and strontium get into your rainwater tank, why the air around my home has propanol, 1,2,4-trichlorobenzene and ethanol in it? This is the reality of living in a gas field. I didn't move into a gas field they moved one on top of me... I fear that one day it will all become all too much."
Brian Monk and his family are among those suffering symptoms consistent with gas exposure, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, rashes and even seizures. In August, he posted:
"I have no expectations of help, no expectation of justice, just want to do something for our little Jace and the littlest, Luke, who may be displaying the start of the same symptoms ...we are finally done for, we know it, just want people everywhere to realise that they intend to drill the earth, if you don't stop them they will."
Several Queensland Australian Medical Association doctors have raised concerns about presentations of similar symptoms from those living near gas fields. This is hardly surprising, given the fugitive emissions findings in the same area from the SCU researchers. But which scientific body is looking at the connection between emissions and health? What results have GISERA got to show for their $14 million in funding?
Both the industry and government have turned their backs on Dayne Pratzky, Brian Monk and others affected. Meanwhile, the industry is allowed to continue deceiving the public via multi-million dollar ad campaigns across print, television and online. That's the kind of democracy being protected by ad regulation.
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