'Gas-led recovery to cost ag jobs and increase land use conflicts'

Gas-led recovery would cost ag jobs and increase land use conflicts, Australian Farm Institute says

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For every one job gained in the gas industry, the agricultural industry loses 1.8 jobs.

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A GAS-led recovery would come at a cost to farmers by reducing agricultural jobs while increasing land use conflicts, a new briefing paper by the Australian Farm Institute says.

The federal government is pushing for the gas industry to lead the economic recovery from COVID-19, with new exploration regions, new pipelines and new gas-fired power stations.

But with most potential gas sites located in regional Australia, more gas projects will inevitable lead to more land use conflicts for farmers.

Large chucks of the nation's agricultural land is covered by Petroleum Exploration Licences, including 33.2pc of grazing land,13.1pc of irrigated cropping and 12.9pc of dryland cropping.

Report author and AFI executive director Richard Heath said a gas-led recovery would come "at a compromise to agriculture" and pointing to research that showed 1.8 jobs were lost in the ag sector for every job gained in the gas sector.

Although some of those losses can be attributed to increased automation, Mr Heath said the trend contradicts the gas industry's promise of job creation.

"Above-ground impacts can range from minimal to severe, but the potential below-ground impacts to aquifers is very difficult to measure and could be catastrophic," Mr Heath said.

"Rather than expanding gas production, we should be erring on the side of caution to protect our farm sector, especially when alternative renewable energy sources that carry much less risk for farming communities are rapidly maturing."

Charles Sturt University professor and former NSW Water Minister Niall Blair said there were plenty of renewable alternatives that were "quite complimentary to farming systems" without provoking the same land use conflicts.

"To me, [renewables] are far less intrusive, the risk is lower and they lend themselves to be integrated into farming systems, such as small-scale hydro or solar panels that allow grazing underneath," Professor Blair said.

"The debate has moved on in the last 10 years. The improvements in renewable technology, reliability and battery technology, make it a much neater alternative."

Investing in renewables instead of gas would also allow more farmers to have a second income stream, rather than just those sitting on top of a gas deposit.

"While the landholders of gas infrastructure benefits from hosting those assets, the associated risk is borne by many different farmers, particularly if something goes wrong with an aquifer," Professor Blair said.

"This is as much about looking at how land use conflict can be resolved and provide energy we need at same time."

Quirindi farmer Peter Wills found himself in the middle of a land use conflict after taking over the family farm, when he discovered the Hunter-Queensland Gas Pipeline would run through his property.

"They're essentially forcing me to go into business with them to put a gas pipeline on my farm," Mr Wills said.

"I will have to wear any long-term damage to my land value. I certainly wouldn't want to buy property with a pipeline going through it and I am being forced to own one if it ever goes ahead."

Mr Wills said a gas-led recovery will mean more farmers fighting to stop companies from building gas infrastructure on their land.

"This is not going to impact the people pushing for it the Pitt Street's of Sydney, it's in our backyard," he said.

Breeza farmer John Hamparsum has lived under a cloud of uncertainty because an expired exploration licence, or 'zombie' PEL, sits over his land and continues to exist due to a state government loophole.

Mr Hamparsum described the zombie PEL as "living with a cloud over your head", which made it difficult to justify future investments.

"A lot of decisions you have to ask yourself if it's worth doing, or how long the water is going to be here before it's under threat from gas," he said.

"You won't find much better country than the Liverpool Plains, but the whole region is under these zombie PELs.

"With the Santos approve and the government pushing for a gas-led recovery, these $2 companies are swooping in to try and reactivate the licences, prove the resource then sell it to a larger company like Santos."

Mr Hamparsum said living in constant uncertainty not only hindered investment, it takes it toll on a farmers' mental health.

"We thought the zombie PELs would be extinguished after Nationals members voted to get rid of them." he said.

"Now it looks like they'll be completely revamped. This is the problem, it causes high level of stress, because just as you breath sign of relief, the goal post move - that's one of the worst things you can do to someone."

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