I recently wrote about the formation of the GasFields Commission in Part 1 of this blog series, including its role in managing the coexistence of rural landholders, regional communities and the CSG industry. Given the impending passage of the legislation creating the Commission, I thought it might be worthwhile to identify the powers which were sought by the Commission and then briefly discuss the more interesting aspects of those powers in a series of blogs. The Commission asserts that all powers sought by it are to serve its objectives, which are to manage and improve co-existence and sustainability between regional communities, rural landowners and the onshore gas industry. Those powers fall under eight “heads”, which are:
Assessing the potential for co-existence
Power to review regulatory frameworks and legislation
Powers to get information
Power to publish and communicate information
Ability to seek external advice
Of those powers, it seems to me that the one with the greatest potential for controversy is the power for the Commission to provide advice and recommendations to the Government on the ability of the onshore gas industry, regional communities and landholders to effectively co-exist within an identified area. The Commission’s Chairman, Mr John Cotter, recently emphasised that, whilst the Commission would provide advice and recommendations to Ministers and Government agencies, the ultimate decision on whether the CSG Industry could effectively co-exist within an identified area would rest with the Government of the day. On the face of it, such a power seems pretty straightforward.
However, it seems to me that the concept underlying the proposed power represents a seismic shift in the rights of landholders. As far as the landholder is concerned, the current resources legislation permits resource companies to enter onto land to explore for resources and, ultimately, to develop those resource deposits. In both cases, the landholder’s interests are usually addressed by way compensation. The result is that the resource activity takes priority and the rural activity must surrender to it. If this proposed power were granted, then it would signal an intention from Government that, where the CSG Industry cannot co-exist with regional communities and landholders, then it is the CSG Industry that must go. This would reverse the existing statutory framework and exert a new primacy for rural landholders. Whether the Government of the day would act on a recommendation that the CSG Industry co-exist in an identified area is a question for another day. However, there seems little point in granting the power as it is currently formulated unless there was a preparedness to act. To do otherwise would merely preserve the status quo, and no change is needed for that.