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Thursday, 17 January 2013

Fracking in the 'burbs? All this started years ago

A gas well.
Environmentalists are up in arms again this year as plans for coal seam gas development near existing suburbs in southwest Sydney emerge. And AGL, a major gas supply company, is shown up in the media having gone back on earlier promises not to explore in the area. This year's protest effort has so far been mild compared to the outcry that occupied our attention last year, before people forgot about the issue as they went on holidays. It all seems a bit cyclical, and somewhat futile considering the enormous stake held by the federal government in ensuring that gas development continues in Australia's eastern states. Not just the federal government, either. State governments want to realise royalty payments. And in the case of Queensland there is the added weight being applied by the humungous export-facility construction boom in Gladstone, and the already-signed commercial supply contracts that underpin those large investments. Gladstone is gearing up to start sucking gas out of the eastern states market (Qld, NSW, Vic, SA, Tas) starting in a year's time, or thereabouts. Nothing, bar nothing, can stop Gladstone from going ahead. Nothing, bar nothing, will prevent the Queensland government from enabling the free supply of gas from wells already producing, or planned for production, in the eastern states. The federal government has made it quite clear that it will help to ensure that those supply contracts are honoured. States like NSW and Victoria are faced with the prospect of gas shortages as Gladstone vacuums up gas into its refrigeration plants, and companies like AGL are well aware of the reality of shortages. It's a veritable steamroller with government and business firmly on the same side. It will happen. All of it. Resistance is futile.

So how did all this start and why weren't we told? You'd have to go asking questions of the federal department that gave Queensland the green light to start construction of the Gladstone plants. The federal government of course knew exactly what would happen once Gladstone started to take shape, and it also knew that gas prices in the eastern states market would eventually rise as a result of Queensland linking our gas market to the global gas market via those refrigeration and export facilities. They knew all of this. There would have been white papers, studies, regulatory changes, a whole slew of activity in Canberra leading up to the decision to enable Gladstone to go ahead. But the media knew nothing about it or, if they did know, they did not give it the prominence it deserved.

The current suburban development fracas is nothing compared to what is going to happen once prices start rising in the eastern states, especially in places like Victoria where the winters are very cold and where gas heating in homes is common. People were warned, but the mainstream media did not pick up on the signs - which started appearing in June with a story I wrote for The Global Mail, and which have been echoed in New Matilda and, briefly, in The Age, since - and promulgate them adequately. Three stories by three different journalists over a period of six months or so. Winter is still far off, but that's when the outrage will start to become audible. Some of it will be aimed at the carbon tax, but the carbon tax is not the issue here. The issue is the extraordinary industrial development underway in the small Queensland seaside town of Gladstone, a mechanical nipple on the body of eastern Australia through which gas will pass on its way to energy-hungry Asian markets.

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