Energy solution so close, yet so far away

One the conundrums of eastern Australia’s energy story this decade is how a major new gas export industry has been developed at the same time that domestic gas supply is being undermined by vehement opposition.

The Academy of Technology & Engineering has made a useful recent contribution by urging pursuit of sound policy and public acceptance based on fact, not fear.

Its bi-monthly publication has focused strongly on this issue – which has seen coal seam gas and fracking become fighting words, says Professor Craig Simmons, a South Australian groundwater scientist – and has presented the case for environmentally responsible development leading to significant societal benefits.

How far Australia’s nine jurisdictions, the upstream petroleum industry, regulators, scientists and engineers can go in 2016 to resolve the “myriad complex social, economic and environmental factors at play” (Simmons again) is not a small question.

It is significant not least for more than four million gas customers in eastern Australia, including some 100,000 commercial and industrial businesses, and most importantly in economic terms for manufacturers who employ many of a million Australians working in factories.

That we should be at the present pass in the most populous states (New South Wales and Victoria) – whose ability to manage the issue could at best be described as dispiriting – says very little good about government skills. That some governments overseas also have a miserable record is no comfort.

While acknowledging legitimate public concerns about the impact CSG and fracking could have on human health and the environment, Simmons points out that the long list anti-development activists have produced about things that could go wrong is “both unhelpful and unscientific”.

He adds that the list articulates many possibilities, but says nothing about probabilities. “We need to be much more quantitative and scientific about this contentious discussion,” he declares.

The key point made by ATSE – that, provided best practice is followed, unconventional gas can be produced safely – should be the guiding principle for governments and should be used to fast-track resolution of the present impasse, but it is hard to see immediate grounds for optimism that this will occur.

This situation is the more vexing when it is considered against the parallel debate about a roadmap for closing down older, emissions-intensive power generation on the east coast (where 90 per cent of electricity needs are sited) and replacing it with efficient, affordable, reliable and
low-emitting new plant, including renewable energy such as wind farms and utility-scale solar.

The trio of national upstream petroleum industry associations – the Energy Networks Association, Australian Pipelines and Gas Association and Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association – rightly point out that combining large-scale solar and gas generation is among the more practical and cost-effective ways of pursuing carbon abatement in this country.

(This approach is not, of course, a silver bullet one of a range of energy options, which also, for example, include new high efficiency, low emissions coal technology, carbon capture and storage and enhanced energy productivity, together making up the “silver buckshot” of a renewed approach to integrating carbon and energy policies, something to which the CoAG ministerial Energy Council declares it is committed.)

We can expect the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, at present pursuing a federal government task to investigate east coast gas supply, to present some trenchant comments in the near future; is it too much to hope that this, taken with the good advice of ATSE and others, can move our governments expeditiously, even in a federal election year, to bring this sorry saga to a close?

An approach that eschews fear for fact and trustworthy oversight will go a long way towards overcoming bombardment of the community with misinformation and can help underpin the twin imperatives of good energy management and durable, effective carbon abatement that must be among the highest issues on our national agenda.

To quote the ATSE publication, the potential for further unconventional gas development here and overseas is “enormous”. Wasting it would be disgraceful.

Keith Orchison has been involved in resources and energy industry policy issues for more than 35 years, of which he spent 24 as Chief Executive of national industry associations dealing with upstream petroleum and electricity. He publishes the This is Power blog and a monthly newsletter on his Coolibah website, read by members of the energy industry, analysts, politicians and public servants.

Read more of Keith’s commentary at coolibahconsulting.com.au

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