Based on the old social science dogma that lessons can be drawn for other regions from studying another, UQ, funded by the government and industry, among others, is collating and analysing data from diverse sources – mobile phone calls to police infractions in selected Western Downs towns to track exactly what impact the three LNG mega-projects had during the construction boom.
It is hoped that as they move into the operational phase, communities, government, industry and conservation lobby groups alike can have a clearer understanding of how communities will be impacted.
The same could be said for future developments of unconventional exploration and appraisal in the Cooper Basin across Queensland and South Australia; or New South Wales and Victoria, for that matter, if or when their CSG industries take off.
While industry and government point to employment and economic benefits and opponents point to negative community effects, UQ seeks to differentiate CSG-driven effects from things outside anyone’s control, like floods.
“I liken it to looking in the cockpit of an airplane,” said Will Rifkin, UQ’s chair in social performance under which the Centre for CSG and Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining sit in the university’s Sustainable Minerals Institute.
“There’s a hundred different dials to engage in, which is fine if you’re well trained and know what the story is, but [in the case of CSG] if you’re somebody who’s running a small business or a government department in Brisbane or in charge of local content for a CSG company, you don’t want to have to look through all those different gauges.
“You’d much prefer the dashboard of a car, with just half a dozen dials on it that gives you a picture of how the region is going. As unemployment goes down, everybody thinks that’s good, but at a regional level unemployment has been below the state average for quite a few years.
“Then when the GFC occurred, like every other region, unemployment went back up again. But because of the CSG developments the unemployment dropped to such a low level that people who ran small businesses had a skills shortage, because there weren’t enough qualified people in the region, so they started employing backpackers.
“The level of traffic infractions that are being reported goes up, and the local police sergeant says it’s because we decided to put more police on the roads to ensure people weren’t driving too fast.
“So we’re narrowing things down and contextualising, and how does that impact on the aspirations for the region.”
Community concern over uncertainties for these aspirations was perhaps no surprise given Westpac senior economist Matthew Hassan’s comment this week that “the consumer is stuck in a rut at the moment without a comfort level about their job situation”
It could be said that this situation is exacerbated in the Western Downs, which has experienced unprecedented growth with the three massive LNG projects to go online soon but faces uncertainty, which Rifkin said stems back to geology.
“What’s happening right now with the tailing off of the construction boom is a lot of uncertainty in the community about whether there will be another boom and how much business will be brought into the area by the CSG companies,” Rifkin, who addressed the recent Queensland Gas conference, told ILN sister publication Energy News.
“When there is uncertainty, people are anxious for information. Some people are getting a strong pitch saying ‘it’s time to invest, things will be great’; others are being pessimistic.
“That’s what we’re arguing through our project: it’s great for companies to give estimates of how many people will be working in the region, but people would like to know how many will be near their town.”
So while it is clear that town-level information is badly needed, at the same time companies may not actually know because the geology hasn’t told them yet. So the geology causes one level of uncertainty, which ripples through into anxiety in the communities.
A member of Rifkin’s project team witnessed and videotaped a CSG community, which specifically addressed what’s next – is it going to be a bust or another boom? The takeaway messages from those tapes, he said, were that people were getting different messages – there were some pessimistic and optimistic ones.
That forum included people from local businesses, CSG companies and government.
Lesson one for the companies, then is to develop a strategy for more consistent messages, through continued consultations. While industry will predictably say “we’re already doing that, extensively”, Rifkin said there needs to be a stronger nexus between their technical people studying the geology and their community relations people.
“This is where our project will help. You need to nail down an indicator of industry activity – like the number of wells drilled, people employed and money spent; I’m considering the number of mobile phone calls made, which tells you the amount of people in the region, as it picks up your drive-in, drive-out and fly-in, fly-out workers as well,” Rifkin sad.
“If we can get that measure, track it back five years, then relate it to the other indicators like personal income and unemployment rates, then people can get a sense of … if the industry says we’re going to have 2000 employees in the region, then this is what our experience says is going to happen.”
Rifkin’s team aims to profile the Western Downs Regional Council area, based on data from several towns of widely varying sizes.
“We’re not trying to be comprehensive; we’re choosing small towns, big towns, really big towns – where they are on the Warrego Highway, where they are in relation to Brisbane, and relative to the gas fields,” he said.
“What we’re seeing often is the company have people in different divisions – the geologist will say one thing about the uncertainty of the gas resource, and that goes on to the people to decide where the wells go; that figure will be re-interpreted and filters down to the community engagement people.
“So in some ways it’s as much a communication issue within the companies of what are the technical people willing to say that can help the community engagement people to help people understand the range of uncertainties.
His project started two and a half years ago, and will wrap up in September next year.
The Centre for CSG is funded by the four CSG proponents – Arrow, Santos, APLNG and QGC, along with UQ.