Campus Review: University of Queensland defends coal seam gas centre

The head of a new Australian research centre says the institution is not prepared to stand idly by as a new energy source is developed. Susan Woodward reports

April 24, 2012

Global energy demands are skyrocketing and the University of Queensland made a deliberate decision to respond with a research and educational centre devoted to coal seam gas (CSG). That was the central, unapologetic message from Chris Moran, interim director of the university’s new Centre for Coal Seam Gas, when he addressed staff and students at a meeting on the university’s main St Lucia campus near Brisbane.

As reported recently in Campus Review, the university established its coal seam gas centre in November after securing an initial A$15 million (£9.56 million) commitment from energy companies Santos, Arrow Energy (Royal Dutch Shell) and Queensland Gas Company (British Gas) and contributing A$7.5 million itself. The meeting was Queensland’s response to mounting questions about the centre’s industry backing and demands that the university protect its reputation and research independence.

In an hour-long presentation on 16 April, Professor Moran acknowledged the high degree of social unrest in Australia over coal seam gas. However, through a trade and economic lens, it was a viable medium-term solution to the world’s energy woes. He said the university had a responsibility to respond to an industry on its doorstep.

“There are people who believe that renewables ‘leapfrogging’ [moving straight from the use of existing petroleum sources to renewable energy sources] is the only answer we should be looking at,” Professor Moran said. “We can respect that, but that doesn’t stop an industry starting and an industry growing, and then just standing by watching it while a series of issues that we could be researching, could be understanding, and could be improving are ignored as a result of a philosophical position. The university has not chosen the ‘observe the philosophical’ position.”

Professor Moran said Australia also had a responsibility to supply the gas that other nations required for their development. His position seemed to move away from earlier university communications that have stated that coal seam gas is a cleaner energy source than coal. In the meeting, he said repeatedly that demand, rather than lowering greenhouse gas emissions, was the industry driver.

The contention that coal seam gas can help lower emissions is the subject of hot debate in Australia, as is the new industry’s rapid expansion. As the Queensland centre aims to be the world authority, staff and students are calling on it to help settle the facts by researching the full lifecycle of coal seam gas, arguing that the information is sorely missing. “Don’t you think it’s the university’s responsibility, as a publicly funded body, to be investigating fully the justification for firstly, the coal seam gas industry, and secondly, for the centre?” asked Abraham O’Neill, spokesman for the Research Integrity Coalition, a new collective that has formed at Queensland in the wake of the controversy.

Professor Moran said such research would put the university in an unacceptable “pseudo-regulatory” position, although he softened to the idea later. “Hopefully you’ve got the clear signal from me today that while we entered this saying that emissions per se is probably not a research issue for us, I’m changing ground on that from the point of view of whether we do or don’t have a responsibility in the measurement space of that,” he told CR.

The university will soon announce the first wave of coal seam gas research it is sure to undertake through the centre. According to Professor Moran’s presentation, it is likely to be weighted towards aquifer interactions, reducing the impact of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, and other water-related projects.

At the meeting, Professor Moran went on to describe the new centre’s governing structure. A strategic advisory board of industry, government and university members will prioritise projects developed by a technical advisory group, to be made up of industry and government members, together with researchers and possibly broader community. Moran said a development board chaired by Queensland’s deputy vice-chancellor for research would ensure that the right research was undertaken. He said that Queensland researchers would be free to approach the development board if they had concerns.

Some at the meeting showed support, saying the centre would help focus and centralise the coal seam gas research that the university has been undertaking for years. But many others returned to the subject that special interests would define a narrow research agenda.

Several people questioned the centre’s governance model, especially the power of a strategic board dominated by industry without clear procedural oversight from the development board. As previously reported in CR, membership on the strategic board is contingent on a minimum A$500,000 contribution over five years. Moran explained that each A$500,000 block bought one vote on how research projects were prioritised. So far, Santos and Arrow Energy have bought one block and vote each; Queensland Gas Company has four blocks and the university two. Moran said the university would retain all intellectual property under the model.

Students pointed out that they, environmental groups and the general public lacked representation at any level. “You see how that could be seen by the community as an unbalancing of the research that gets done and potentially undermine the creditability,” one student said to Professor Moran. “I think there is something more you can do around community input and being seen to be independent,” added Julie Conway, a PhD student who said her family was affected by coal seam gas activities. “If we’re accepting that coal seam gas is happening, the community will want to have a say.”

Professor Moran responded that the centre would operate similarly to Collaborative Research Centres. Queensland was actively seeking input from community and environmental groups, he said, although it was unclear how such groups would afford the powerful membership status offered to industry players.

About 80 people attended the meeting. Students told CR that they were surprised by the presence of multiple security officers and a strong policing of attendance, which was open only to Queensland staff and students who had pre-registered. Neha Madhok, the student-elected environment officer for the National Union of Students and a student at the University of Technology, Sydney, was not permitted into the meeting room.

Mr O’Neill, the student spokesman, said the meeting had been informative but not reassuring. “The university may have a responsibility to the market, but it also has a responsibility to its stakeholders – students, academic staff and the community – to stick to what it’s committed to doing, which is to integrate sustainability into its operations,” he said.

The tone of Professor Moran’s presentation implied improving industry efficiency was the research goal, said Mr O’Neill. “While the centre will be undertaking some projects we support, we still feel its focus is misdirected. The university, as a public institution, should be focused on the big picture: undertaking a CSG lifecycle analysis, looking at the social impacts, looking at the other environmental impacts,” he said.

To that end, the collective of opponents have launched an online and on-campus petition, Keep CSG Research Clean. Addressed to Professor Moran and acting vice-chancellor Deborah Terry, the petition has so far attracted more than 600 signatures.

Professor Moran also used the meeting to explain the current state of play for coal seam gas development in the state of Queensland. Over the next five to 10 years, the industry intends to increase the number of gas wells in the state from 1500 to as many as 40,000, feeding up to eight liquefied natural gas plants. He said the Centre for Coal Seam Gas was attempting to form research linkages with universities in the US, including the University of Wyoming, Texas A&M University, Colorado State University and the Colorado School of Mines. Additionally, the university was exploring new undergraduate and postgraduate coursework on coal seam gas to supply the industry’s workforce, Professor Moran said.

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