The results just didn’t add up.
Splashed across the front page of a regional newspaper was the declaration that, according to a new survey, there was majority local support for Santos’ Narrabri coal seam gas project.
The story, printed in November 2017, defied everything Sally Hunter had come across while questioning the proposal. The gasfield was, after all, the single most controversial major development in NSW history, attracting nearly 23,000 submissions in response to the EIS, with more than 98 per cent opposed.
The results contradicted the many meetings, the chats with neighbours, the hundreds of yellow triangle “Lock the Gate” signs that hung on fences throughout the district.
They also contradicted a 2015 survey by ReachTEL which showed 87 percent of people across the broad North West NSW region, including the area encompassing the Santos exploration licences, were concerned about CSG mining, with 63% “very concerned” and 24% “concerned”.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Mrs Hunter said.
“It just ran in direct contradiction to everything we’d been hearing from the majority of people in the community.”
Reading on, it was clear who was behind the survey, and why the results were so skewed in favour of the gas project.
The survey had been compiled by GISERA - the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance - a majority gas company-funded body attached to the CSIRO.
What’s more, it was obvious from the article that the questions presented to respondents weren’t in a conventional format.
Instead, there were three possible answers to the question that could be grouped together and classed as being in favour of the project (which the newspaper had done), and two that indicated opposition. This essentially grouped the substantial “fence-sitting” category of nearly 15% of respondents, as also supportive of the project.
Further investigations by local group, People for the Plains, raised questions with just how the 400 respondents had been chosen, with more than a quarter (26.8 per cent) claiming to have been on a tour of Santos’ operations in the Pilliga State Forest.
Santos has run monthly tours for the community since 2012 and, given Narrabri has a population of about 13,000, the random sample surveyed would indicate that 3,484 people have done a site tour.
That would then mean that of the roughly 48 tours run up until the time the survey was conducted, there must have been at least 72 locals on every tour. Most of these tours are run with Santos 4WD vehicles or mini-buses, with occasional bus tours.
Or it would mean that the survey was not conducted on a random sample of locals.
“It was all a bit hard to believe,” Mrs Hunter said.
To set the record straight, Lock the Gate Alliance conducted its own door-to-door survey in Narrabri town, which gathered data from more than twice the number of residents than the GISERA questionnaire.
It revealed a very different story about support for Santos’ project.
- Asked if they were in favour of the proposed 850 well coal seam gasfield in the Pilliga, only 28% of people said they were in favour
- More than half, 52%, of people surveyed were opposed to the gasfield and 20% were unsure
- 55% of the people surveyed said they were very or somewhat concerned about the gasfield and only 24% said they were not concerned
“It was around this point that we really started to question GISERA, and dig deeper into the organisation’s structure motives,” Mrs Hunter said.
“It is simply not an independent organisation because the gas industry has far too much say on the committee that decides on projects and oversees results. The results are just too important for our communities to not have arm’s length between the companies that contribute cash to the research and the findings from that research.”
This week, GISERA was at it again, with the release of a report that led to headlines declaring that fracking had no negative impact on soil, water, or air.
But here too, questions were quickly raised about the research.
Just six CSG wells across two properties had been used to gather the data over a period of six months.
That’s out of more than 6000 active wells and roughly 19,000 total wells that have been drilled across QLD by the industry.
The report also came at a curious time for the unconventional gas industry, with the head of Federal Government’s Covid-19 business recovery taskforce Nev Power, who is himself linked to onshore gas companies, pushing for the opening up of new gasfields.
According to The Australia Institute’s Mark Ogge, “GISERA’s latest report has fundamental problems with its methodology. It appears that the wells it studies were not randomly selected which raises serious concerns about bias. If Origin chose, or helped choose the well sites, there is obvious bias, which means the findings cannot be applied to the other 99.9% of CSG wells in QLD.
“Even if the sample was randomly selected, the sample size was so small that there is an enormous margin of error of around 40%.”
In 2018 he and others at TAI released a report of their own which carefully analysed GISERA’s links with gas companies.
Effectively, the report found the organisation, despite being linked to the hallowed CSIRO, is little more than a mouthpiece for the gas industry.
Among Mr Ogge’s key findings were:
- 5 main QLD gas companies provide more than half of GISERA’s funding.
- Gas executives sit on all the committees overseeing GISERA research projects
- GISERA’s policies to manage conflicts of interest are inadequate.
“There is a substantial body of literature that finds research outcomes are heavily influenced by the corporate funding,” Mr Ogge said.
“The gas companies that make up GISERA have billions of dollars at stake depending on whether unconventional gas development is allowed to go ahead.
“The community wouldn’t accept governments relying on the tobacco industry research into the health impacts of smoking, or asbestos industry research into the impacts of asbestos.”
Mr Ogge said GISERA was not the appropriate organisation to assess the impacts of unconventional development.
“It would be a simple matter for the government to levy the gas industry for the cost of this kind of research and distribute it to universities and other research organisations that are not dependent on gas industry funding or allow gas industry executives to be involved in the research,” he said.