AT the height of the controversy over coal seam gas, residents of Gloucester and Fullerton Cove – among other parts of the state – fought pitched battles to stop their backyards from being checker-plated with gas wells of the sort that were already commonplace in Queensland.
Now, with a new political debate under way over how best to cope with looming energy shortages, attention is again turning to the domestic production of gas, either as an energy source in its own right, or as fuel for gas-fired electricity generators.
At his emergency meeting on Wednesday with gas company executives, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was focused on the fact that Australia exported far more gas than it used domestically. Australia’s black coal and iron ore industries are similarly export focused, but in neither case does the overseas sale of these minerals threaten the supply side of the local market.
But having signed big and lucrative contracts – with correspondingly damaging penalties for failing to meet them – Australia’s big gas exporters stand accused of robbing the domestic market to help ensure they meet their international obligations.
If the gas industry is to co-operate with the government by effectively ensuring adequate supply for domestic consumption, then it will likely require a corresponding commitment from Canberra. Indeed, it may have already received this, with Mr Turnbull saying he wants an end to what is effectively a moratorium on “onshore” gas development by both the NSW and Victorian governments.
In NSW, “onshore” gas development can really only mean coal seam gas. And to push again for renewed gas exploration in this state can only put Canberra at odds with the Coalition state government, which recognised the problematic nature of coal seam gas with its 2014 NSW Gas Plan, which effectively stopped the industry in its tracks and included a multi-million-dollar buy-back of gas exploration licences.
Whatever Canberra does from here, compromises will have to be made. There are no silver bullets and no easy solutions but if there is a positive side to this unfolding energy crisis it’s that all sides of politics finally have a serious problem to rally around. Energy security cannot be dismissed as a “first world problem”. We’re a first world nation, but we are confronting an issue more usually associated with the third world.