On June 16, the Victorian Upper House voted on legislation to lift the moratorium on onshore gas development from June 30, 2021.
This is a heartbreaking outcome as the moratorium was the only protection communities and the natural world had from conventional onshore gas drilling.
But the fight is far from over.
Companies will not be able to apply for exploration licences until July 1, 2021. Then there is the approvals process, which takes time. We are likely at least two years away from any serious activity happening.
Community opposition will not go away.
It was the community of Seaspray that forced the Napthine government to enact the moratorium in 2014. This is because they were resolute in the face of attempts to drill for tight gas in their area, and they threatened peaceful protests and even a horse ride up Bourke Street to parliament.
Community members in Gippsland are still reeling from a delayed consultation process which took place just two weeks ago, and two months after the official report from the Victorian Gas Program was released. In Western Victoria the Protect the West Alliance, made up of farming communities, environmental groups, and locals concerned about the disruption of land water and communities recently released this statement in opposition to the lifting of the moratorium.
With all we know about climate science, the prospect of drilling new sources of gas looks like a worse decision than it was back in 2014.
Community resistance will happen when and where companies seek to develop onshore gas reserves. Friends of the Earth will be there to support them.
The community campaign to protect Victoria from gas drilling
The community campaign to win the moratorium on onshore gas drilling was long and powerful. It started in 2011, with the ‘CSG roadshow’ through western Victoria, achieved a moratorium on all onshore gas drilling in 2014, and culminated with 75 regional communities declaring themselves gasfield free, and onshore gas drilling becoming a major issue in the 2014 state election.
After one term in power, the Coalition lost government at the November election. There were large swings towards anti-coal and -gas parties and candidates in key areas of southern Victoria. The ALP announced that it would keep the moratorium in place and initiate a state Inquiry into the unconventional gas industry. This was a great testament to the power of the community campaign.
The inquiry led to the creation of a permanent ban on fracking (hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process by which unconventional gas is released) and an extension of the moratorium on all onshore conventional gas drilling.
The moratorium put a stop to all onshore gas exploration and drilling since May 2014.
However, on June 16, the Victorian Upper House voted on legislation that will lift the moratorium from June 30, 2021.
Sadly, only four parties opposed lifting the moratorium: Andy Meddick (Animal Justice Party), Clifford Hayes (Sustainable Australia Party), Catherine Cummings (Independent), and The Greens. In the Lower House, only The Greens and independent Ali Cupper voted against it.
The Nationals, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, Liberal Democrats, Reason Party, Transport Matters and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers parties all voted with the Labor government to lift the moratorium.
Bad policy all round
There are so many reasons that this is a bad outcome that it’s hard to know where to start:
Gas is not a transition fuel. Many MPs, in their speeches, argued that gas is a necessary transition fuel which is either required for peaking capacity or to allow more renewables to be built. In its announcement on the legislation, the government said ‘Gas will continue to play a role in supporting Victoria’s transition to a cleaner energy future’. This is an outdated concept that is simply no longer true. Continued investment in gas now plays an active role in hindering the transition to renewable energy.
It won’t bring prices down. A regular claim made by MPs during the debate was that lifting the moratorium will reduce prices for consumers. Yet even the government’s own report - which it used to make its decision about whether to lift the moratorium - admits that this is not the case. In the Executive Summary of the 4th report from the Victorian Gas Program Research Committee, admits that ‘The expected amount of new gas would not be a large enough volume to impact gas prices or gas demand in the state’.
It fudges the figures. In lifting the ban on onshore conventional gas exploration, the Andrews government said it could create as many as 6,400 new jobs across regional Victoria. But according to think tank The Australia Institute, this figure is overblown by a factor of more than 100.
The Victorian government has relied on modeling completed by Ernst and Young and included in its latest gas program progress report for the 6,400 jobs figure, which was split between 4,336 direct and 2,059 indirect “equivalent” jobs “over the lifetime of production”.
However, the same report suggests that the number of actual positions that may be created by a ramp-up of gas exploration may only number in the hundreds, creating a maximum of 242 positions in a best-case scenario and could little as 78 under a minimum scenario.
It underestimates the climate impacts. Analysis by The Australia Institute shows that the Victorian Government’s key report used to approve onshore gas mining appears to have underestimated the greenhouse gas emissions from new sites by up to 88%.
The Victorian Gas Program Research Committee Progress Report #4 does not count emissions from the ultimate combustion of the gas, emissions from methane leakage, or the lifecycle emissions from gas processing. Methane is a very potent greenhouse warming gas, and small amounts of leakage can have a large impact on overall emissions.
It appears the Victorian Gas Program Research Committee may have simply ignored combustion emissions which are by far the main source of greenhouse gas emissions from gas.
It is unpopular. The campaign that won the moratorium was wildly popular across regional Victoria. As part of the review carried out by the Victorian Gas Program, polling was done via phone calls. The reporting on this ‘community engagement’ overstates support. The report says ‘Across South-West Victoria, 79 percent of people indicated they would tolerate, be ok with, approve, or embrace onshore conventional gas development in the region.’ But by clumping all these responses together, you get a misunderstanding of actual community views: only 11% would ‘embrace’ it, while 21% would ‘approve’ of it.