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Farmers, Drought and Gas Development in Australia

The impact on farmers of drought exacerbated by climate change can be mitigated by aspects of certain forms of resource extraction.  However, the Australian experience suggests that such measures involve trade-offs.  These trade-offs illustrate how our energy choices are becoming increasingly complex as we select to extract resources that are closer to where those in first world live and work.   

It goes without saying that climate change is presenting farmers with rising levels of uncertainty.  Rain that their crops need may not arrive when expected, there could be too little, or flooding could wash away valuable topsoil and disrupt careful land contouring.  Some would argue that farmers can irrigate using water from lakes, rivers, and streams as well as aquifers – this last being a key resource for many Australian farmers.  Yet, research is finding that some of these sources may not be replenished to the extent that they expect, provide the same quality of water that farmers are used to, or be available within government permit regimes.  

Impacts of drought on the world’s driest inhabited continent, Australia, can potentially be mitigated with the help of development of onshore natural gas.  This natural gas from seams of coal is being exploited by multi-national joint ventures, who are providing farmers with what some are giving the exaggerated title of 'drought proofing’.  

These operations bring saline groundwater to the surface to enable release of the natural gas.  However, the industry’s offer to farmers is not in the form of the desalinated water per se.  Rather, it is in the form of payment for access to a farmer’s land as well as opportunities for off-farm employment and income.   The access payments become a steady source of revenue from the time that a 'conduct and compensation agreement’ is implemented until the wells are decommissioned ten, twenty, or thirty years later.  Over 3,000 of these conduct and compensation agreements have resulted from Queensland’s laws about land access.  

In Australia, underground mineral resources, oil, and gas belong to the government, which leases access to extract them. In Queensland, such leases have fostered multi-billion dollar projects tapping natural gas resources.  These projects require gasfields totalling thousands of wells along with associated pipelines and shipping facilities. The construction of needed roads, pipelines, well pads, and gas compression stations on farmland causes impacts, and the government regulator requires the companies involved to compensate landholders for them.

Operating two businesses on one landscape presents challenges. Research at the University of Queensland has surfaced concerns expressed by farmers about the time required to negotiate these land access agreements and about occupational safety, with an unfamiliar industrial operation now occurring on their land.  Farmers cite a need for increased vigilance about weeds, whose seeds can be carried onto a farm by resource company vehicles accessing well sites.  Runoff patterns can change as access roads and pipeline rights of way are put in place.  Parts of fields may need to be planted, maintained, and harvested in more labour intensive ways as farm machinery must deviate from defined paths to avoid well pads.  Further, amenity can be lost, as the countryside is being perceived as less peaceful and uncluttered.  There is also uncertainty about the quantity and quality of groundwater available, given the industry’s extraction of saline water from deep aquifers.  

Farmers interviewed explained that 'co-existence’ with resource companies requires a sense of equality, candour, mutual respect, and integrity.  Research has found, unsurprisingly, that such a trusting relationship – though an aspiration among industry peak bodies - can be hard to implement in daily practice by a large, multi-national joint venture that is subcontracting with a range of different companies for much of the construction.  

Such sharing of the landscape between these first-world farmers and resource companies includes both peril and promise.  The income stream that farmers derive by enabling access to their land for resource development might help to compensate for economic uncertainties attributed to a changing climate.  However, the dimensions and practices of effective 'co-existence’ need to be articulated.  

Declaration of Interest and Disclaimer:  
The research cited here is supported by the University of Queensland’s Centre for Coal Seam Gas, which is funded by the gas industry and the University.  The views expressed in this article are the author’s, not the sponsors’ or the University’s.