A striking feature of the debate over coal seam gas (CSG) is that most of the key issues involved are not unique to CSG, but arise to a greater or lesser extent with all kinds of mining, and particularly with other fossil-fuel industries such as oil production and coal mining.

The biggest issues involved with CSG, as discussed in Robert Merkel’s useful introduction are:

  • Conflicts over drilling on private land, usually farmland, centred on the fact that Australian law theoretically vests ownership of mineral resources in the state, and in practice assigns miners rights to mine anywhere they can find resources;
  • Damage to and depletion of groundwater supplies;
  • “fugitive emissions” of methane and perhaps other pollutants;
  • A potential economic cycle of boom and bust;

The issue of property rights is common to all kinds of mining, but has arisen more acutely in relation to CSG than for other resources, which are more commonly mined on public land. Where private ownership rights have been involved, they have commonly arisen from native title or Aboriginal land claims.

Damage to and depletion of groundwater is similarly a problem with all kinds of mining and drilling. Although the process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing to create fractures in rocks and rock formations by injecting fluid into existing small cracks) has aroused a good deal of concern, it is not unique to CSG, and there is little evidence that fracking as such is more damaging than other drilling techniques. As this piece by Chris Mooney in Scientific American indicates, problems in near-surface drilling and groundwater disposal appear more serious.

The issue of fugitive emissions is contested but the same problem arises with coal, which also emits far more carbon dioxide when burnt. In addition, particulate emissions from coal mining are a major threat to human health and to the natural environment.

Finally, the boom-bust cycle is a characteristic feature of mining, and not specific to CSG.

From a public policy perspective, therefore, the best approach to the problems raised in the CSG debate would be to address them separately, and to aim for consistency in the treatment of all mineral resources. This seems particularly important in relation to the rights of land owners, where the current debate intersects the dispute of mineral resource rent taxation and questions of indigenous land rights.

Similarly, fugitive emissions fall naturally within the ambit of pricing schemes for carbon, where we have already seen a vigorous debate over the treatment of emissions from coal mining, and water quality issues related to mining are part of a much larger debate, encompassing such questions as irrigation-related salinity, groundwater extraction by farmers and so on.

However, the public policy perspective is not the only one to be considered. Politically, it is obviously easier to mobilise people around opposition to a new and intrusive activity such as CSG than to challenge the long-standing practices of coal miners and farmers. But a campaign that is based on demonising one industry for practices that are common to many others is doomed to failure.

The question is how the political energy surrounding the CSG debate can be mobilised to achieve reforms that would promote more sustainable use of land, water and mineral resources. The CSG debate has highlighted some of the problems with our existing policies, in particular, the privileged status given to miners as opposed to other stakeholders and the public in general. Reforms in this area are sorely needed and the CSG campaign provides an opportunity to promote them.

*FAQ Research writer Professor John Quiggin is a Federation Fellow in economics and political science at the University of Queensland

Peter Fray

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