Gas and resource companies prevail over common good

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QLD Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, Dr Anthony Lynham, with students in Darling Downs (screenshot via Facebook).

The Government has prioritised the interests of resource companies over rural communities and the environment, writes Shay Dougall.

THE QUEENSLAND Regional Planning Interests Act 2014 (RPI Act) has loopholes they are driving drilling rigs through and there are major lessons for Lake Eyre Basin and others that should be learned from the experiences on the Darling Downs.

As seen recently within days of each other in early February of this year, there were numerous news articles relating to strong concerns over the Queensland State Government’s approach to planning in regional and rural Queensland generally, but in particular, concerns relating to areas such as the Lake Eyre Basin and Wide Bay resource activity proposals and a new map showing the percentage of the State with conflicting land uses. 

These concerns are certainly valid, but the points that these articles appear to miss are that these issues are not new and statistics alone are not enough to remedy the problem. The major problems with the RPI Act were raised in 2013 at the introduction of the Regional Planning Interests Bill in detailed submissions registering concerns to the committee investigating the 2013 Bill.  

Frustratingly, their fears as detailed, have indeed come to pass in the intervening years since the enactment of the RPI Act.  

The recent calls for a "review of the legislation" and renewed concern over poor consultation are potentially missing the opportunity to use real examples of failure in the foundation and purpose of the RPI Act and failures to address significant issues in 2013 drafting and enactment of it.

Doing so would ensure these issues are not repeated and real and successful changes are made that will actually achieve the needs of these stakeholders instead of allowing a continuation of the relentless, repetitive roll out of the same rhetoric by this Government that ultimately results in them giving primacy to resource companies over environmental and agricultural areas. A position that is reinforced by the Queensland Audit Office recent report.
The RPI Act does not need superficial review. A complete reset is needed to correct flaws right down to the RPI Act’s very foundations to be able to genuinely deliver its supposed purpose:

'The Queensland Government’s Regional Planning Interests Act (RPI Act) will deliver on the government’s commitment to protect prime agricultural land and provide greater power to landholders in negotiating with resource companies.'  

The Darling Downs has already suffered as a result of the deficiencies of the Act.

The foundations of the RPI Act go down to the Regional Plans. In October 2013 when Jeff Seeney (the then LNP Deputy Premier and Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning) took the strategic opportunity to develop the Darling Downs Regional Plan and embed the Government’s planning reform agenda in it.

Establishing priority agricultural land and gas industry coexistence criteria enabled the formula for similar plans to be rolled out across Queensland in the years to come. The Darling Downs Regional Plan (closely followed by the Central Queensland Regional Plan) was a road map for the introduction of the Regional Planning Interests Bill 2013 that was introduced the following month in November 2013 and the regional plans to follow.  

Unsurprisingly, the Darling Downs and the Central Queensland Regional Plans happened to be the focus of the developing coal seam gas (CSG) export industry and these new regional plans were blatant in their paving of the way for the gas industry at the expense of other planning scenarios that should have been considered.

Since 2013 on the Downs, there are have been many instructive examples of how what was feared (and detailed in those early submissions), has come to pass, directly as a result of the RPI Act. The harsh experiences of the Darling Downs would be instructive for the Lake Eyre Basin, Agforce, Lock the Gate and the east coast regions such as Wide Bay to use in protecting themselves from the same fate as the Darling Downs and Central Queensland. 

Until recently, on the Darling Downs, the expectations of the families and small agribusinesses required to host the gas industry (like those in the Lake Eyre Basin, Northern Territory and New South Wales) would have been that the Government would make decisions on legislation that would protect the common good such as the future of food and water security, and areas of environmental and cultural significance.

On the contrary, these residents have found themselves subject to gas industry imposition with nearly no rights, remedies or protections in place as a direct result of the RPI Act and other resource-related legislation.

Communities, landowners and business owners facing recent industry proposals and plans would benefit from investigating and using as evidence today what the past has shown as a failure of government.

The re-engineering of the regulatory environment around the development of the gas industry has meant that directly by design of the RPI, that these farming families find themselves living within a few hundred metres of heavily industrialised gas infrastructure such as compressor stations, salt dumps, water treatment facilities, electrical substations, battery banks, carbon injection and storage trials, and solar farms. 

Further, these planning changes have led to a softening and removal of the accompanying regulatory protections.

The biggest lesson of all is that the experience of the Darling Downs farming families and communities is the end result of continuing to allow the Government to set the agenda and narrative whilst relinquishing control and final decision making to self-interested ministers and political parties and lobby groups. 
The community laments that, despite the time and energy spent writing submissions detailing concerns, what was warned of has come to pass.  

Let the experiences of the Darling Downs be used to bring to light the failures and ensure history does not repeat itself in Lake Eyre Basin, Eastern Queensland, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

Shay Dougall is a safety professional with 20-years experience in providing health and safety support across a range of industries in Australia, UK and USA.

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