Community Perceptions of the Coal Seam Gas Industry


Community Perceptions of the Coal Seam Gas Industry



Julie-Ann Ellis




Elizabeth Mitchell


Department of Journalism and Communication

The University of Queensland




The arrival of the coal seam gas industry to the Surat Basin has impacted communities, economically, environmentally and socially. This paper aims to understand the community experience of the impacts of the coal seam gas industry using a hermeneutic phenomenological approach. Wallumbilla, Queensland, has experienced, positive and negative, transformations since the introduction of coal seam gas. 

Due to the extent of impact’s affecting the town, their once identifiable, “sense of community” has diminished remarkably. It is in the best interest of governments, coal seam gas companies and communities to rectify the loss of community and to reduce the negative perceptions of the coal seam gas industry.




The aim of this study is to examine community perceptions of the coal seam gas industry. Community is defined by the Oxford University Press (2013)as a “group of people living in a particular area.” The community of this study are from the rural region of Wallumbilla, Queensland (within the area of the Surat Basin, see diagram A). Wallumbilla holds “a strong sense of community spirit” (The Hornery Institute, 2009, 35) and it is within the framework of community experience that we will discuss the coal seam gas industry.

The charming township of Wallumbilla is located forty kilometres east of Roma, and the residents are a dedicated welcoming community (Visit Maranoa, n.d.).The introduction of the coal seam gas industry to this area occurred in the early 1990’s but has been more relevant to the community in recent years, due to exploration and construction.  The impact of these phases of coal seam gas has changed the lifestyles, characters and inhabitants of the community (Higginbotham et al., cited in Hossain et al., 2013, 32).  Perceptions –(the way in which something is regarded, understood or interpreted. Oxford University Press, 2013) – of the Wallumbilla community have altered, both, positively and negatively since the introduction of the coal seam gas industry.


Background/Literature Review

The “comparative success of coal seam gas operations in the United States” (Swayne, 2012, 165) was shadowed by Australia. Cook (2011) states, “Just 15 years ago, shale gas supplies were non-existent, but recent drilling and fracture stimulation (fracking) Innovations have revolutionised the natural gas market.” Australia’s “major source” (CSIRO, 2012, 6)of coal seam gas is the Surat Basin and productionis due to the“relatively shallow depths of the lower rank coal seams of the Jurassic age” (Geoscience Australia, 2013).The “Surat Basin occupies 300 000km² of central southern Queensland and central northern New South Wales” (Geoscience Australia, 2012).



Within Queensland, the coal seam gas industry is administered by the state government.

CSG exploration is carried out under the Petroleum Act 1923 and the Petroleum and Gas (Production and Safety) Act 2004. Coal seam gas production is administered under the Petroleum Act 1923, the Petroleum and Gas (Production and Safety) Act 2004 and the Mineral Resources Act 1989 (Department of Natural Resources and Mines, 2013).


The Queensland Government’s regulatory approach is essentially “learning by doing,” the implementation of a systematic approach to continuous monitoring, evaluation and enhancement of the regulatory framework (Swayne, 2012). The “learning by doing” approach was discussed and treated with contempt by, Participant 1 (interview, October 6, 2013), Participant 2 (interview, October 6, 2013), and Participant 3 (interview, October 6, 2013).

However, at the beginning of this year, the Queensland Government’s, Department of Natural Resources and Mines released the Coal Seam Gas Engagement and Compliance Plan 2013 that outlines activities to achieve a balance between the interests of industry, rural land holders, regional communities and the environment.  The plan (Department of Natural Resources and Mines, 2013, 5) was developed to:

Proactively engage with the community, local government and the coal seam gas industry as well as respond to landholder enquiries, issues and complaints.  Through engagement, communities will have better understanding and awareness of coal seam gas activities in the region. Coal seam gas companies, through a range of industry engagement strategies, will have an improved understanding of their responsibilities to the Department and to the communities in which they operate.


Communities are concerned with the associated impacts with coal seam gas mining, “Impacts on water and the environment, impacts on farms and food production and also the social and economic impacts” (Douglas, 2011). 

Local environmental and social impacts are critical risk factors that should not be taken lightly. An adverse community reaction may result in protracted disputes and delays with real financial impacts on the success of projects, as well as damage to corporate reputation and a diminished social licence to operate (Locke, 2010, 2).

Therefore, it is the community who has the ability to maintain successful coal seam gas production.

“It is evident that individuals living in rural communities face life circumstances and unique ecologies which differ markedly from populations living in urban centres” (Hegney, 2007, 3) and it is this uniqueness that has been compromised by the arrival of the coal seam gas industry. Swayne (2012) believes, landholders are impacted through disruption of land use practices, surface impacts, air, water, soil contamination, and other social and economic impacts.

And it is within the area of impacts, that the following research questions were posed:

RQ1        To what extent and in what ways do the community perceive their “community spirit”?

RQ2        To what extent and in what ways has coal seam gas altered the environment, economic, local infrastructure and services within the community?

RQ2        How have community perceptions altered since the introduction of the coal seam gas industry?



The hermeneutic phenomenological research method will be used to understand the “everyday life and meanings of rural experiences” (Panelli, 2006, 70), concerning the coal seam gas industry. “Phenomenological approaches are good at surfacing deep issues and making voices heard” (Lester, 1999, 4). The adaption of the original psychological term (devised and developed by Husserl (1983), and Heidegger (1961), Merleau-Ponty and Giorgi) is an inductive, descriptive and meaningful approach, “an interpretive and qualitative form of research that seeks to study phenomena that are experienced” (Flood, 2010, p. 7). In other words, to understand what the experience is like from the point of view of the participants.

The participants were purposively targeted on the basis of their residence status and snowball sampling was used. All interviews were face to face, with the exception of two group interviews (with two participants each) and all were digitally recorded. The questions posed to the participants were regarding the issuesand experiences of community.

The interviews were transcribed and the following steps were taken (Giorgi 2012):

  1. The complete set of data was read in order to get a sense of the whole.
  2. While rereading, the data was broken into meaningful units.
  3. The data was then transformed into expressions of what the subject said, and was made explicit from the phenomenon.
  4. The direct expressions were then reviewed and essential structure of the experience was written.
  5. The essential structure was then used to clarify and interpret the raw data.

Common threads of individuals’ experiences and meanings were clarified using essential structures (or relationships) of change within Wallumbilla.



Ethical clearance for research involving human participants was granted on the 19th of September, 2013, by The University of Queensland’s Behavioural and Social Sciences Ethical Review Committee. The primary ethical consideration within this study relates to the potential disclosure of commercially or other sensitive information by interviewed participants. Unintended disclosures have been eliminated by removing identifiers from the raw data.  Identification of participants in the study has remained confidential and it is the aim of the researcher to not display a direct quote that will essentially identify a participant.

Other considerations, included, potential indigenous participants (a representative from the Mandandanji people was approached but no aboriginal people reside in the area), and “gatekeeper’s” or “permission-giver’s” permission (media liaison’s from Santos and Origin were approached and they both declined my invitation).



Eleven people were interviewed; two people held professional positions, seven were farmers, and two were truck drivers. Resident longevity varied from three to seventy years, and a variety of ages was included (see Appendix A.). 

Saturation of change caused by the coal seam gas industry became apparent through the experiences of the community. Elements of the experiences of community members include; environmental concerns, activism, economic transition, sponsorship,concerns over increased traffic and the quality of the roads, and general perceptions of the coal seam gas industry. The change of community experience was mostly of a negative nature but positive experiences did occur.



Community Spirit

The phenomena of community experience before coal seam gas, was; “good” (Participant 8, interview, October 7, 2013), “caring, and spirited” (Participant 1, interview, October 6, 2013), “neighbourhood watch, and peaceful” (Participant 2, interview, October 6, 2013), “sleepy, and quiet” (Participant 11, interview, October 9, 2013).  Participant 2 (interview, October 6, 2013) describes the Wallumbilla community before the introduction of coal seam gas.

We used to have a peered feeling of peace and security. We were familiar with practically everyone in the community. Everybody had knowledge of each other. Some people had a lifetime of knowledge, there were generations of knowledge. If someone had a different personality it was accepted, you know them, you know their circumstances, you know what’s happened in their past life, and you know what’s happened in the present. So you can identify strengths and weaknesses with all that.


Community Perceptions

The once unified community is feeling divided and that there is no sense of identity. There is mistrust because most of the coal seam gas agreements are confidential, so, people don’t talk (Participant 2, interview, October 6, 2013).

The “degeneration” (Participant 1, interview, October 6, 2013) of the sense of community is demonstrated through Participant 11’s (interview, October 9**, 2013) experienced impacts,

In the short time I have lived here, the change for Wallumbilla has been quite clear and quite pronounced. The increased traffic, the increased number of orange shirted people that you see in the community, the decrease in our mobile phone reception and 3G connection, the increase number of people in the hotel on virtually any night of the week. All those, are things that have had an impact.


The recurrent trend of transformation within the communities through each category is related to the “extent of the work force who are coming in” (Participant 1, interview, October 6, 2013). Participant 2 (interview, October 6, 2013) has experienced the decline of the community’s central hub, “Locals don’t even like going to the pub anymore due to the influx of coal seam gas miners.”


Environmental Concerns

“People realise Australia needs mining and that they have no choice in the expansion but there

are concernsof what we will be left with environmentally” (Participant 1, interview, October 6, 2013). Concerns of environmental change resonated with all the participants.  Particularly, that of the Great Artesian Basin.

In contrast,“If they can get as much scientific data and monitor, monitor, monitor. Look at it and see what’s going on. What can you do, apart from monitor it and look for change?”(Participant 7, interview, October 8, 2013).


Local Economic transitions

Several economic transitions (housing, local businesses, and jobs)were considered to be both, negative and positive.

The current event of affordable housing was perceived negatively by four participants. “There’s an improvement for investors only” (Participant 1, interview, October 6, 2013).

The experiences for local businesses is“a two edged sword.”Participant 7(interview, October 8, 2013) said,

“Some small businesses have turned into huge businesses over a couple of years. They have gone from employing 5 men to employing a hundred men.Then, you have the other guys. For example, the smash repairs in Roma lost all of his staff. He works under insurance claims, someone will hit a kangaroo, the insurance company comes out, and the assessor will assess it, and says “Yes, three grand is what you are going to get paid to fix it.” He can’t put his rates up. He spent twelve months trying to get 4 to 7 employees, on visa’s out of the Philippine’s.  He could only pay them what he could afford to pay them, the award rate. He got hit hard but once he was able to get some visa workers in, away he went.”


The coal seam gas industry does hire locals first and this has provided younger members of the community with the opportunity to stay in the community.  However, “Normal locals that are not working within the resource companies or not on big wages cannot survive under the current economic conditions”(Participant 1, interview, October 6, 2013). The general consensus is that there are two different prices, “normal prices and gas prices”(Participant 10, interview, October 8, 2013).


Concerns over increased traffic and the quality of the roads

Increased traffic was a shared event experienced by all participants.

I sit on my veranda in the afternoon (between four thirty and six o clock) and all you can hear is vroom, vroom, vroom. A constant parade of trucks. When I arrived here three years ago that was not the case. The trucks that were on the road were generally local agricultural vehicles, cattle trucks and property trucks. Nowhere near the volume. That to me, is in your face, presence of change (Participant 11, interview, October 9, 2013).


Ten out of eleven participants discussed the quality of the roads and believe that it is the increased traffic that has caused the deterioration of the roads. “There is a lot more traffic on the roads, our poor old road is just getting holes in it with all the traffic” (Participant 5, interview, October 8, 2013)

Yet, Participant 5 (interview, October 8, 2013) positively identified the experience of roads, “They are not too bad, they keep them up to scratch.”




General perceptions of the coal seam gas industry

Negative sentiments of “miscommunication”(Participant 6, interview, October 8, 2013) and“consuming”(Participant 2, interview, October 6, 2013) were experienced when dealing with coal seam gas industry organisations. Participant 3 (interview, October 6, 2013) said that it is unfortunate for some companies because we have several companies on our case at one time, and we throw them all in the same basket and hate the lot of them.

They are dishonest, disrespectful and have no sense of communication. They don’t want to tell you the whole picture, they bombard you with bits and pieces like a jigsaw puzzle so you have to fit the pieces together. They are invasive because they don’t care what they are doing(Participant 1, interview, October 6, 2013).


Positively, Participant 7, explains the coal seam gas companies’ experiences, when dealing with Land holders:

Everybody is different, everybody has a different set of values and beliefs.  This land holder wants a phone call every time someone’s coming on his place and the next one couldn’t give two hoots. They need to have different agreements with landholders but try and get that across to five thousand workers. You have to let us know when you go into that place, but don’t worry about that one. It wouldn’t work.


Other Outcomes, Sponsorship

Participants agree that sponsorship occurs within the Wallumbilla area, however, most believe that it only occurs for public relations purposes. However, “The football clubs, the races, the shows, the camp drafts, all of those community events are very well supported by all of the big guys. A lot of them don’t want recognition, but the companies are always forthcoming” (Participant 7, interview, October 8, 2013).

Wallumbilla State School has benefited from sponsorship;

We organised left over poly pipe that cost Santos time and money. We had to get oversize trucks in, to bring these big, long, lengths of poly pipe in, so that we could put new drainage in.  Little things like that, if the school was to get Q-build to do it, it would have cost them twenty fifty grand, easy (Participant 7, interview, October 8, 2013).

The value of the work was significant to the school.  These “in-kind practices” have occurred a number of times but “It is something that would have happened anyway.  If it hadn’t been Santos equipment, it would have been locally owned equipment” (Participant 11, interview, October 9, 2013). The gestures from community members towardsthe school has enabled the coal seam gas organisations to grant sponsorship. 

Additionally, the school has received “some minor sponsorship towards camps, excursions, and music programs,though, to be fair that is because the school has not chased the coal seam gas organisations intensively” (Participant 11, interview, October 9, 2013).  


Other Outcomes: Activism

One third of participants hold a pro-active stance, one third are not bothered by coal seam gas at all and the last third are thrilled with their situation. The pro-active participants displayed non-intrusive forms of activism, in their personal and business dealings with the coal seam gas companies.  The disgruntled participants clearly don’t believe in “Lock the Gate” but are particularly concerned with their own personal rights.

The mission of the Lock the Gate Alliance is to protect Australia’s natural, environmental, cultural and agricultural resources from inappropriate mining and to educate and empower all Australians to demand sustainable solutions to food and energy production (Lock the Gate Alliance, n.d.).


Participants who were “not bothered” or “thrilled,” raised concerns with the potential impacts of the Great Artesian Basin, and the amount of traffic and the condition of the roads.  These concerns are expressed within the corresponding categories. It is interesting to note, that the Wallumbilla community holds varying activism perceptions and experiences, however, all of the participants agree (within different levels) on the transformations of the Great Artesian Basin and traffic problems.




 Before the arrival of the coal seam gas industry” community” was highly valued by the 262 (The Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011)residents of Wallumbilla. Cohen (cited in Panelli, 2006, 75) explains the position of community within this paper, “The ‘community’ as experienced by its members does not consist in social structure or in ‘the doing’ of social behaviour. It inheres, rather in ‘the thinking’ about it. It is in this sense that we can speak of the ‘community’ as a symbolic, rather than a structural, construct.”

The ideals of peace and security of this little but thriving town has been jeopardized by the arrival of the coal seam gas industry.The transformations of external factors created by the coal seam gas industry have caused various shifts of community perceptions. It is not only the cosmetic changes that have affected the community, it is the “loss of familiarity” (Participant 2, interview, October 6, 2013) of community that has largely impacted participants.

“Mining in the area has resulted in a change to the community structure and this is one of the major issues affecting the mental health of community members”(2010, Hossain, et. Al., 33). In a recent study titled, Impact of the mining industry on the mental health of landholders and rural communities in southwest Queensland, the authors’ (2010, Hossain, et. Al.), found that, the coal seam gas industry has directly impacted on the mental health of landholders and associated communities.

The mental health impacts have been studied extensively in North America,“whereby rapid economic and demographic change associated with large-scale resource development was understood to lead inevitably to social and psychological dislocation and a breakdown of established community structures” (Tonts and Plummer, 2012, 19).

Lessons learned from other regional areas within Australia and internationally suggest that rapid growth in mining activity can result in significant environmental, social and economic impacts on the local communities (Queensland Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, 2011, 6).

The Queensland State Government acknowledges its key role is to strengthen social impact assessments (Queensland Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, 2008), so that affected communities’ will gain better outcomes.

Swayne’s (2012), fore-mentioned “learning by doing” approach, is present within thegovernment’s environmental policies and legislations.   In Queensland, “the environmental impact assessment procedures require developments to address cumulative impacts” (Franks, Brereton, & Moran, 2010, 305).  “Cumulative impacts are the successive, incremental and combined impacts of one, or more, activities on society, the economy and the environment” (Franks, Brereton, Moran, Sarker, & Cohen, 2010, 10).

In Queensland, cumulative impacts are not specificallymentioned in either the Environmental Protection Act 1994 or the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971… While no definition of cumulative impacts is provided, the generic terms of reference does provide some guidance by stating that cumulative impacts ‘must be considered over time or in combination with other (all) impacts in the dimensions of scale, intensity, duration or frequency of the impacts’ (QDERM, 2010). Evidence of collaborative management is also required(Franks, Brereton, & Moran, 2010, 305).


In Managing the cumulative impacts of coal mining on regional communities and environments in Australia, Franks, Brereton, & Moran (2010, 307), address the assessment methodologies relevant to project-level impact assessments that have the potential to address cumulative impacts, including forecasting, scenario analysis, impact pathway analysis and modelling.  Or in other words, the authors have made suggestions of “management and assessment approaches” (Brereton, & Moran, 2010, 310) foruse, by the; coal seam gas industry, government and community.

Impacts of the Surat Basin and personal water bores, was of great concern tothe Wallumbilla community (along with traffic/roads),which is under the jurisdiction of the new entity, the Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment.  Their strategy is to monitor and collect data on water levels and quality in the Surat Basin, “on an ongoing basis” (Department of Natural Resources and Mines, 2013), which mirrors the comments of Participant 7.

The findings of affordable housing, within this paper, are confirmed byother studies conducted on the Bowen Basin region.

The increased use of local temporary accommodation has caused intense community conflict and significantly reduced the amount of low-cost accommodation for existing residents and other non-mining residents to the region(Morrison, Wilson, & Bell 2012, 484).

Carrington,& Perira(2011, 5), found, Seventy five per cent of respondents felt the impact of housing availability and seventy nine per cent on housing affordability was negative.  “Housing and the lack of accommodation is a persistent problem; high demand and speculative behaviours in some instances has driven up prices, often marginalising those in the host community who cannot afford the high rents”  (Measham, McKenzie, Moffat, & Franks, cited in Rolfe, Miles, Lockie, & Ivanova, 2007, 189).

The impact of increased traffic (Miller, van Megan, & Buys 2012) and the quality of the roads was a shared event of individuals from the Wallumbilla community. The Surat Basin Regional Planning Framework (2011, 57)said,

The growth projections for the Surat Basin will continue to compound the issues associated with road and rail systems performance.  In response, a significant government commitment toward infrastructure rehabilitation and upgrading to support industry, to ensure the safe and efficient movement of people and commodities, and to maintain a liveable and attractive community is in place and will need to plan for longer term demands. 


Researchers (Franks, et. Al., 2012, Franks, et. al, 2010, Morrison, et. al., 2012,Miller, et. al., 2012, & Measham, et. al., 2013) believe to reduce the cumulative impacts of the coal seam gas industry, it is imperative that governments, industries and communities work together to achieve similar goals. Del Furia & Wallace Jones (cited in Lockie, Franetovich, Sharma, & Rolfe, 2012,) founded, factors which increase the effectiveness of public participation in relation to impact assessments:

  1. Seeking to involve as diverse a public as possible, including those who do not belong to self-organised interest groups and who will not actively seek out information on the proposal.
  2. Ensuring affected publics have the opportunity and capacity for genuine influence over the outcomes of impact assessment and decision-making processes.
  3. Providing opportunities for involvement early in the life of a proposal and consistently throughout the life of the subsequent project.
  4. Going beyond legislative requirements merely to take public feedback into account and instead adopting a genuinely flexible and participatory approach to planning and decision-making.


Communities are concerned with the associated impacts with coal seam gas mining, “Impacts on water and the environment, impacts on farms and food production and also the social and economic impacts” (Douglas, 2011). 

Local environmental and social impacts are critical risk factors that should not be taken lightly. An adverse community reaction may result in protracted disputes and delays with real financial impacts on the success of projects, as well as damage to corporate reputation and a diminished social licence to operate (Locke, 2010, 2).

Therefore, it is the community who has the ability to maintain successful coal seam gas production.


It is in the informed opinion of this researcher, that the changes due to the introduction of the coal seam gas industry to Wallumbilla are extensive.  The documented factors of environment, economic, and social impacts were visually obvious to the researcher when the interviews were conducted. Additionally, the loss of community spirit, of the town I once knew, is significant.  Friends, families and neighbours are now in social limbo as they individually deal (positively and negatively) with the coal seam gas organisations.  I believe that the Surat Basin regional Planning Framework (2011) needs to highlight Wallumbilla’s individual needs and that it does not align with the true “lived experiences” of the community.  Consequently, community engagement policy makers need to “get their hands dirty.”

Limitations and Further Research

 Topic discussed by participants but were not included in this paper due to limitations of word length, were the experiences of; powerlines, media coverage, and community services, including the rural fire brigade.

It is recommended that further research is conducted on the Surat Basin region and smaller towns like Wallumbilla. Too much emphasis has been placed on the “hubs” of the regions (Roma) and the smaller towns have missed out on much needed interactions.

It is the external factors that have created a “loss of community spirit” and it is recommended that the coal seam gas organisations, governments and the Wallumbilla community, open lines of communication to regain the sense of community.

Additionally, it is recommended, that precise research is conducted into the matters of community impacts.  These impacts are not researched or discussed widely enough within academic or government publications.

Moreover, I believe, it would be advantageous to the coal seam gas industry and government, to explore community perceptions state wide.



This study examined community perceptions of the coal seam gas industry. The community experiences of Wallumbilla are mostly of a negative perception.  The external impacts of economic, environment (and so on) has forced the community to change, both, positively and negatively.  The “spirit” of the Wallumbilla community has diminished since the introduction of the coal seam gas industry.  It is in the best interest of the coal seam gas industry (and government) to build and maintain solid relationships with community.


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Published by Julie-Ann Pearl Ellis

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