Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What Seams to be the Problem?

Yesterday there was a rally against the government's position of Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining.
Photo from SMH
News reports said that there were 4 000 protesters (or "just enough to cover the front of parliament house", acccording to one government tweeter).  There were speeches, sign-waving, booing and heckling, and one government minister who wasn't smart enough to just ignore someone shouting at him.
You would think a member of the Legislative Assembly would have had more practice than any of us at not taking the bait.

The CSG issue has been rumbling somewhat below the surface since before the election.  The website has been the centre of a campaign against any expansion of CSG mining, but O'Farrell and Brad Hazzard (Minister for Planning in Infrastructure) haven't really seemed very interested in what they have had to say.

What I wanted to do, if you'll allow it, is have a think about the obstacles that the protestors are going to have to overcome if they want the NSW government to take a different course.

The Issue

The biggest problem is that many people don't really understand what CSG mining is. If you're one of those people, have a look at this page.

The problem is compoundedby the fact that the gas produced is not the same as the natural gas that we use in our homes and our barbeques. People don't have any real understanding about how this gas is obtained, and with that barrier it is difficult to convince people to engage with the issue.

This is not assisted by the fact that the CSG issue is being somewhat crowded out by the constant drama out of Canberra, not the mention the Star Inquiry, as well any number of other state issues that, let's face it, are a whole lot easier for journos to write articles about.

The Problem

Even once people understand what CSG mining is, many more will not understand or appreciate the alleged dangers. There is some basic information about the dangers of CSG mining available here.

There is no doubt that the chemicals that can and usually are used in CSG are dangerous. Many have big scary names, and others are better known are certainly chemicals that no sensible person would want in their body.

The difficulty is that most people are unclear as to how these chemicals are supposed to enter our system. There is a lot of talk about water security and the water table, but for someone who hasn't lived on the land or worked in agriculture, these claims can all sound a little academic and "Chicken Little".

The Care-Factor

The fundamental difficulty for the campaigners, once the issue is understood, is that the problem really is someone else's problem.

It's not pretty, but most people are at their core pretty self-interested.  This is overwhelmingly an issue that (primarily) affects only rural people.  Of course it quickly becomes a problem for everyone once the water table is compromised or once farms start going out of business and food prices sky-rocket, but of course that is one steps further along the chain - if it doesn't affect people directly, they probably aren't going to care that much.

This is demonstrated when you see who Herald reported attending the rally:
It is a rural issue, and action isn't going to be taken until it becomes an issue that people is urban areas care about.

It's the same as the problem that Climate Change Campaigners have faced over the last few years.  "Sure, the earth is warming up, whatever, but how is that going to affect ME?"

Unfortunately, the answer in both cases is "Directly, not at all."  Of course, the indirect effects could be devastating, but that is a step too far for many people.

The Law

The final issue is that the precise position of the government entirely opaque.

We know that the Greens think CSG is bad.  Apparently the Coalition doesn't mind it so much.  Labor seems against it, but no one is so clear about precisely how or why.

As it happens, Labor did nothing about the issue until the final months of their time in power. As Hazzard has quite rightly said previously, every single CSG licence in NSW was granted by Labor with precious little regulation or control.  They seem to have suddenly discovered the issue once it became politically expedient to be against it.
From the SMH
The Liberal's have a new draft Strategic Land Use Policy that (campaigners say) is light on actual oversight and is far too deeply enmeshed in the political process.  This is a difficult objection to communicate to an audience, especially one that remains sceptical as to the actual dangers of CSG - "It's not what they have done but what this laws allow them to do" is a difficult sell.


The above 4 problems are, I suspect, going to make it extremely difficult for the campaigners to force any action from the NSW Government. Even if the campaigners were able to build some opposition to the new land use plan, it would most likely be one of those issues where people didn't really care that THAT much - certainly not enough to change their vote or write to their local member.

I strongly suspect that O'Farrell and Hazzard are very aware of this, which is precisely why they have been happy to make law without regard to the people protesting yesterday.

And that doesn't look likely to change any time soon.

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