conspiracy

By Mark Anning

On 28 July 2013, the oil and gas industry peak body – Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) – issued a press release, stating: “The recent coal seam gas episode of ABC 2’s Shitsville Express was a pleasant surprise – a balanced piece of reporting on coal seam gas.”

Shitsville Express is hosted by Joe Hildebrand, who, according to his Daily Telegraph Google blurb, writes ‘opinion commentary’.

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Is Joe Hildebrand an opinion commentator? A comedian? Is he a PR man?

Or is he a journalist – as described by his Daily Telegraph bio –  bound by the MEAA journalists’ code of ethics?

The day after Shitsville Express screened, former Stop CSG Party Senate candidate Brian Monk reportedly wrote on Facebook: “At the time I felt he was a puppet, just the way he was trying to provoke us.”

On the ABC’s Facebook page, Mr Monk challenged Mr Hildebrand: “Joe, you jumped into the Condamine River above where the industry is operating – why didn’t you take the time to swim with the bubbling gas? Joe, give me a break, I told you to go to the Bubbling Condamine, you said you didn’t have time. I think this is one of the most important discussions in our country and you [told me that you] weren’t even coming out here at all because everyone was too tired. Then you changed your mind and turned up here without time to go see anything real.”

Mr Hildebrand’s comments on the ABC Facebook page, which were viewed by contributors as inflammatory and provocative, have since been deleted.

APPEA’s press release notes that Hildebrand interviewed a pro-CSG farmer, Tara Estate anti-CSG activists, Origin Energy Upstream regional manager Rob Hart and agricultural scientist Professor Stephen Raine, who also holds a government appointed position of Queensland Gasfield Commissioner.

APPEA’s chief operating officer Mr Rick Wilkinson is also a Queensland Gasfield Commissioner.

Shitsville interviewee Rob Hart’s company, Origin Energy, is the suspected source of the bubbling Condamine River. CSG expert Dr Gavin Mudd from Monash University told ABC News last year that it ‘beggars belief that there could be no contribution by industry’ to the mysterious bubbling in the Condamine. Dr Mudd said there was no evidence to support Origin’s claim that the source of the bubbles was ‘a natural phenomenon caused by a shallow coal seam’.

Lock The Gate Alliance president and Australian Environmentalist of the Year 2013, Drew Hutton drew attention to the issue in this video.  Lock the Gate says in the video’s caption: “Methane bubbling through the Condamine River in Queensland is only a part of the problem caused by coal seam gas on the Western Darling Downs. CSG activities are also causing methane to come to the surface in old uncapped holes across the region, presenting a major health hazard.”

On 29 July, the day after APPEA’s praise for Hildebrand’s Shitsville Express, it was revealed that APPEA had launched a multimillion-dollar pro-gas advertising blitz.

“For too long, vocal minorities have dictated public policy – the tail has wagged the dog,” BG Australia chairman and Reserve Bank of Australia board member Catherine Tanna told The Australian Financial Review.

In October, 2013, APPEA released a newsletter stating that Victorian Deputy Premier Peter Ryan saw a ‘need for natural gas from coal seams in Victoria’.

“With gas availability on the East Coast projected to tighten next year, Victorian Deputy Premier Peter Ryan has acknowledged this could trigger significant increases in gas prices for Victorians,” APPEA said.

The Deputy Premier’s office responded: “A story which appeared in the APPEA newsletter on Thursday contained a blatant misrepresentation of Mr Ryan’s views on coal seam gas. This misrepresentation was unfortunate and unhelpful in public discussions on this issue. Victoria has vast reserves of offshore natural gas and will not be rushed on the issue of onshore coal seam gas.”

And APPEA responded: “The Deputy Premier’s Office raised concerns about the headline and first sentence. As a courtesy, we removed it from our website.” APPEA later issued a new version of the newsletter.

This is not the first advertising campaign in which APPEA have misquoted their sources, prompting an official rebuttal.

In 2012, the CSIRO issued a media release stating: “CSIRO rejects the claim made in a television commercial aired on Sunday 2 September that ‘CSIRO [and government studies] have shown that groundwater is safe with coal seam gas’. At no time has CSIRO made such a statement, and nor do the results of CSIRO research support such a statement. CSIRO has stated on the public record that coal seam gas extraction is likely to pose a ‘low risk’ to groundwater quality through contamination. CSIRO has also indicated that groundwater levels will fall as a consequence of coal seam gas extraction. In some places this could see aquifer levels subside by tens of metres for tens of years; in others it is likely to reduce aquifer levels by several metres for several hundred years.”

According to the statement, CSIRO became aware of the advertisement produced by APPEA via a scan of social media on Friday August 31 and requested the commercial not be aired. These requests were subsequently ignored, prompting CSIRO to defend its position on CSG extraction.

In response to the mining ad blitz, Mr Hutton said: “The TV advertisements are based on a whole lot of misleading concepts such as: CSG has a minimal impact on farm land, can be conducted harmoniously with agriculture and is a clean green energy source. This multi-million dollar advertising campaign is a slap in the face to rural communities who are living in fear of the impacts on their farms, their health and their water resources … we are not prepared to tolerate it.”

Landholder group, the Basin Sustainability Alliance (BSA) expressed concerns about ‘APPEA Chief Operating Officer Mr Rick Wilkinson’s ability to be impartial in his new role as a Queensland Gasfields Commissioner when he is authorising industry advertising like this’.

BSA chair David Hamilton said: “These sorts of tactics do little to build landholder and community trust in both the industry and newly formed Gasfields Commission. There needs to be a truthful and transparent exchange of information, that is not clouded by public relations spin.”

The Queensland Government established the ‘independent statutory body’ GasFields Commission ‘to give local communities a more direct say on the responsible development of the CSG-LNG industry’.

On 6 November 2013, APPEA’s chief operating officer Paul Fennelly called on the Victorian Government to end their ban on fracking immediately, saying it would be ‘economically negligent’ to delay responding to the report until after the 2014 election. Mr Fennelly said Queensland had successfully managed to balance the interests of farmers, gas companies and local communities, partly through the Gasfields Commission. He said the Greens were ‘trying to shut down the state’.

According to Rick Wilkinson’s LinkedIn page, he ‘heads APPEA’s policy development and advocacy for Queensland, NSW and Victoria’.

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“The State Government should immediately ask Mr Wilkinson to stand down from the Gasfields Commission,” said Mr Hutton.

As revealed in the No Fibs article of 1 November, 2013, this is not the only instance of paid coal seam gas industry professionals moonlighting as ‘independent’ government advisers.

Peter Reith, chairman of the Victorian taskforce set up to advise government on their CSG policy, is also working as a lobbyist with First State Advisors for coal seam gas industry clients Thiess and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

When asked if he’d seen that No Fibs story, Peter Reith responded:

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To quote Wikipedia: “A conspiracy theory is an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more people, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through deliberate collusion, an event or phenomenon of great social, political, or economic impact. In recent decades the term has acquired a derogatory meaning, and a careful distinction must be made between the derisive use of the term and reference to actual, proven conspiracies.”

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