The GasFields Commission Queensland is an independent statutory body formed to manage and improve sustainable coexistence among rural landholders, regional communities and the onshore gas industry in Queensland. Late last year,   Partner,   Ewan   Robertson and  Associate,  Rachel  Austin  met with its Chairman, John Cotter, to discuss the Commission and the industry in Queensland.

“John, can you tell us a little about your own background and how you came to be involved?”

“I came from a rural big producer background but I have done a few other things as well including spending a fair part of my working life as a member of government authorities or government boards. I was also at one stage responsible for disaster management in Queensland which gave me great insight into running large organisations. For someone from up country, that is a useful skill when you are working in downtown Brisbane!”

“Go back to 2008 and the on-shore gas industry was in strife. They had moved from an exploration stage to a development stage and much was unknown; there were huge vacuums where there was no information and these vacuums were being filled by all manner of rhetoric. I was president of a rural group in Queensland at the time and I made a choice to leave and took on an informal role in trying to bring the industries together for the then government. When the [last] government came to power, they committed to giving a degree of more formal  authority.”

“And the GasFields Commission was formed?”

“Yes, as a statutory body. What I believe is most significant is that the Commission is totally independent in that it reports to Parliament, it doesn’t report to a Minister. I’ve had a lot of legal and other people shake their heads and say how did any government give an independent body that much power. There is no other body in this country that I’m aware of that can overview legislation in the way that we can.”

“Can you tell us a bit more?”

“Well, we can request and acquire information from many parties. For example, we can write to you as a law firm and request information about a particular issue. We obviously have to take into account privacy and commercial confidence but with that caveat, we have the authority to require information. However it usually never gets to the stage of requiring information because we can engage successfully with the various parties. I think another important factor is we have the authority to bring parties together to negotiate.”

“What sort of “buy-in” have you had from the landowners? Obviously you are an independent statutory body but is there any perception that you are seen as just another arm of Government?”

“There was, and there was a lot of criticism, and with me also being a landowner, I copped it from both sides! The landowners said I had sold out and the companies said, hang on, you are on their side - you are a landowner! That was probably a good thing however and I think our results have talked for themselves.

I mean how much do you hear these about the onshore gas industries that is only negative - very little. You hear about them as much for the things they bring to the economy, the balances and the benefits. Along the way we have, I believe, helped guide the industry to having a much better social license to operate. I know that’s an overused term, but it is probably the best description of having good relationships between the two industries.”

“What do you think companies could be doing better?”

“Well some don’t believe they are doing anything wrong, they are doing what legally allowed to do but the reality is it is about people. The moment you step onto those places, you are stepping into their homes, their land is their home, and it is that first impression that makes the difference. The thing is there is often an opportunity for enormous economic benefits if they have good relationships.”

“In what way?”

“Landowners can be a real asset or a real detriment - it is about how companies get that relationship with landowners, and the early days is what can really do the damage. In the early days many turned up on the front door and said “Here is my notice of entry, I’m going to do XYZ” and the landowner would say “Well alright I will find every way I can to make it hard for you”. You go out there now and companies turn up and say over the next six months we would like to sit down and develop a relationship on how we can do business together. To me, that is the term which sums it up - how we can do business together.”

“What is your view on films like “Gasland” (which was nominated for an Oscar) and social media and how it is used, particularly by those opposed to the gas industry?”

“The reason that and other similar films got so much traction is that the gas industry didn’t fill the void. Until fairly recently, people didn’t have an alternative source of information. That is changing and more and more information from the gas companies themselves is being made available. But that information has got to be interesting if it is to be effective – it must be filled with good science, not opinionated science but actual science.”

“It’s about real science?”

“Yeah exactly, we have poured an enormous amount of energy into educating people - we just want them to make an informed decision. We just want people to develop an understanding of the business and what’s really involved and for the companies to develop an understanding of the community issues. It’s about creating that level of understanding, that level of expectation - that is probably a key focus.”

“So we should be encouraging gas companies to talk to you?”

“Yeah companies need to keep us informed, tell us what’s going on, then we talk to the local councils and whoever. We just facilitate and keep people talking to each other. If we pick up something’s wrong, we analyse it and see if it’s a real issue. It’s just about good relationships, good flow of information, substantiated information - what are the drilling well standards for example, all of that stuff, because people’s livelihoods are potentially at risk.”

“What do you think is the biggest threat to gas companies’ social license to operate? Things have obviously improved a lot, we can see that, but what is the biggest threat going forward?”

“It’s how they interact with landowners and communities. What’s important is that good initial engagement, treating people with respect and trust, doing what they say they will do, taking guidance from the people they are dealing with. It’s being prepared to admit you do not know it all or everything that will happen, being open and transparent. I will give you an example, I have seen companies go to landowners and they will say they want to put five wells down. The landowner will say “Is that all you are going to do?” and they say yes but then in twelve months’ time, they are back wanting to put another five down. Obviously it depends on what the first five produce but it’s all about communication, being open and transparent. Companies should layout their plans, be engaging, make the landowners business partners. I think the other thing is to have that relationship with the local community, wherever it is you are operating, go and make the effort to be engaging with that community. Don’t think you can just throw money at them and that wins them over, be engaging.

One of the things that took a long time to do was to get the people in the company to be involved in things like P&C, the football club, you know those sort of things. Give a contribution to the community in kind, not just money. Help out the secretary for the P&C or the football club or race club or whatever

– these things are important to the community and allow local communities and gas companies to actually get closer and understand each other more.”

“I think it’s fair to say that the GasFields Commission Queensland is pretty unique and I don’t think there is anything truly equivalent in any other states. Do you think there is a role for a national body?”

“The reason I think it has to be state based is because the resources are state legislated so it would be very hard to have one national body.”

“Thanks John, it’s been great talking to you”

John and the GasField Commission Queensland can be contacted as below:

t: (07) 4542 7800

e: enquiries@gfcq.org.au

PO Box 102, Toowoomba Qld 4350