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Coalmining and agriculture - co-existence or conflict?

By Ted Christie - posted Tuesday, 1 June 2010

[The proposed commercial coal seam gas development for Felton] would be a massive assault on agriculture, the environment and the region’s rich cultural history. Endangered native grasses and animal habitats were in the mining zone. Aboriginal bora grounds would be destroyed and a tailings dam built perilously close to Hodgson Creek…at the very headwaters of the Murray-Darling. “Heartland gives miners coal shoulder”, Des Houghton, The Courier-Mail, April 10-11, 2010

Well, what I'm assured about is that the processes that they employ [chemicals that are hydraulically rammed into the well to fracture the coal seam and release the gas] are appropriate processes for the extraction of that coal seam gas. Stephen Robertson, Minister for Mines and Natural Resources, 60 Minutes, May 16, 2010

[Western Downs Regional Council mayor said] Dalby’s population has gone from 10,000 to 14,000 in four years. We’re expecting an additional 43,000 people for the mining sector in our region in the next seven years. “Position of power”, Ann Arnold, The Sunday Mail, May 16, 2010

[Prime Minister Rudd said] that Australia had to take advantage of rising commodity prices and develop resources to their full potential but also to ensure  "our mining success doesn’t excessively impede other sectors of the economy’". “Taxing times”, Stefanie Balogh, The Courier-Mail, May 1-2, 2010

The above statements identify some of the environmental issues related to a proposed coal seam gas development project in the Western Downs and Surat Basin in Queensland. Uncertainty over these issues has created an impasse in the region that is controversial, difficult and awkward. These issues need to be addressed before any decision for project approval is made.

Co-existence between coal seam gas development and agriculture is one possible future land use scenario for the Western Downs and Surat Basin. To be, feasible, a balance between coal seam gas development and agriculture in the Western Downs and Surat Basin must be found that secures as much available value for all sectors holding competing interests.


Global understanding of conflicts over the environment and development recognises that the problem does not arise solely because of the people whose interests might be affected by development. Problems arise because of limitations in the processes and procedures, applied traditionally, to resolve conflicts.

In the past, Commissions of Inquiry were used by Government to resolve resource exploitation problems. Recommendations arising from the Inquiry became the springboard for government policy. The Commonwealth Commission for Inquiry into Shoalwater Bay, Capricornia Coast, in 1993-94, was the last public interest environmental inquiry held in Queensland.

Litigation does not resolve the underlying cause of an environmental conflict. Litigation produces a winner and a loser. The relationship between the parties involved, in most instances, declines.

Other alternatives exist to resolve the coal seam gas/agriculture conflict. Lobbying government is an option. A moratorium to deliver answers on the potential adverse environmental impacts is another.

If co-existence in the region is sought by both miners and farmers as their goal, then contemporary directions for resolving environmental conflicts - other than these options - should be considered. Global trends are now moving towards shared responsibility and joint action in processes for finding solutions for conflicts.

The option of an effective public participation process is yet to emerge. The role provided to participants in the process is a decision for government. The participants may be restricted to making written submissions - or their role may be extended to making recommendations on the final decision, or being involved in joint fact-finding and problem-solving or negotiating solutions.


One accepted conflict resolution principle is the need for the parties involved to have an adequate basis of power to be able to participate effectively. There are many sources of power available for effective participation. Miners would have advantages over the community in their resources (“financial”) power.

However, knowledge power of legal rights and scientific/technical facts enables the citizens in the communities where the problem occurs to counter-balance the resources power of a developer. Used strategically, knowledge power of legal rights and facts may also act as a stimulus for government in deciding the format of a public participation process and the role for the participants.

What legal rights might be considered as a source of knowledge power for effective public participation in the coal seam gas/agriculture conflict? A review of legal rights related to the loss of agricultural land from the proposed development is the starting point. For, example, specific Federal, then State, legislation to preserve agricultural lands was introduced in the United States, commencing in 1981.

In Queensland, the protection of cropping land is expressed through a 1992 State Planning Policy under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009. However, mining development is exempt from regulation under this Act.

There are other legal rights for the community to consider as a potential source of knowledge power. The Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld) (“the EP Act”) requires all new mining projects to apply for an “environmental authority” to obtain approval before being undertaken.

Examples of environmental authorities for “mining activities” that may be authorised include an “exploration permit”, a “mineral development licence” or a “mining lease”. A single application is required for “mining activities proposed to be carried out as a mining project”.

The EP Act imposes a legal obligation on the government agency decision-maker, when considering an application for an environmental authority, to ensure that the decision “best achieves the object of this Act”. The object of the EP Act is “to protect Queensland’s environment,” while “allowing for development” in a way that maintains “ecologically sustainable development (‘ESD’)”.

The significance of sustainable development for the coal seam gas proposal is acknowledged in a recent statement made by Stephen Robertson MP: “Development cannot come at any cost. The development of that [coal seam gas development] industry … must be environmentally sustainable (The Courier-Mail, May 9, 2010).”

If an environmental authority is sought under the EP Act, the seven "Guiding Principles" for ESD which provide the legal meaning for ESD in this Act must be considered in the decision-making process, to ensure the object of the EP Act is achieved. The ESD principles include:

  1. Decision-making to effectively integrate both long and short-term economic, environmental, social and equity considerations.
  2. Using a precautionary approach to deal with risk and scientific uncertainty.
  3. Developing a strong, growing and diversified economy that enhances environmental protection.
  4. Maintaining and enhancing international competitiveness in an environmentally sound manner.
  5. Decisions and actions to provide broad community involvement on issues that affect them.

In relation to the last of these “ESD Guiding Principles”, the challenge for government is to implement a public participation process that will lead to finding a solution for mining and farming to co-exist in the region, in both the short and long-term. The solution should ensure that the environment is protected and that mining and farming can proceed now, and in the future, sustainably. Trust in the process is absolutely vital.

Should a successful outcome emerge from an effective participation process, litigation costs would be avoided, legal standards of environmental protection would be complied with (voluntarily), and public trust and confidence in government would be enhanced.

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About the Author

Dr Ted Christie is an environmental lawyer, mediator and ecologist specializing in resolving environmental conflicts by negotiation and is the author of the cross-disciplinary (law/science/ADR) book, Finding Solutions for Environmental Conflicts: Power and Negotiation (Edward Elgar Cheltenham, UK). Ted Christie was awarded a Centenary Medal for services to the community related to education and the law. He was the Principal Adviser to Tony Fitzgerald QC in the “Fraser Island Commission of Inquiry” and a Commissioner in the “Shoalwater Bay Commission of Inquiry”.

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