Portrait of a Gasfield Workforce – The Jobs Myth

One of the gas industry’s cruelest and most poisonous false claims – that it will generate a jobs boom for Australia – is now threatening to undermine the good work of countless groups, individuals and business owners in moving towards a more sustainable future.

In NSW, a jobs boom for Narrabri is being promoted by gas supporters as a benefit of state significance and threatens to drown out the prohibitive problems arising from coal seam gas (CSG). This includes the gas industry’s inability to fulfill the NSW Chief Scientists’ Recommendations to provide security against groundwater interference, pollution and lack of insurance (to name a few).

Under the new leadership of Jodi McKay, NSW Labor will hold the key to a vote on a moratorium, a move by Justin Field MLC (Ind) to (a) impose a moratorium on the prospecting for, or the mining of, coal seam gas in New South Wales, and (b) to reintroduce the public interest as a ground for certain decisions relating to petroleum titles.

Mining coal seam gas is not a panacea. The Million Jobs Plan put forward by Beyond Zero Emissions is being supported by many forward thinking tech and economic experts.

Inflated employment figures are made and promoted by coal and gas companies who understand how difficult it is for politicians and bureaucrats to turn down the promise of jobs, especially in struggling regional towns.

Portrait of a gasfield workforce – what’s in store for Narrabri

A study of workforces in the Queensland coal seam gas industry makes it clear that at a local level, no one gets employment on drilling rigs. Tier 1 contracts are granted to big contractors with buying power and the critical mass to fulfill gas companies’ procurement policies. Even entrepreneurial locals have difficulty getting a slice of the pie, although well-known Narrabri Shire Councillor Ron Campbell has expanded his trucking empire around servicing Whitehaven’s coal and Santos’ gas.

A Namoi Wastecorp employee empties a low point drain in the Pilliga forest

The gasfield workforce is different. How many of these jobs will be for Narrabri locals?

On the rigs the first stage is exploration. It has a light-weight workforce with minimal staff, a rig manager and geologist, usually from Brisbane and an in-house engineer, also from elsewhere. The next stage is production, which can include fracking. Thereafter, “workover rigs” are assigned to revisit each well for just 2-3 days of remediation work drilling out the well to repair failed pumps etc.

Staff on rigs are brought in from outside Narrabri, often from Brisbane and overseas, the workforce is predominantly male and aged between 18-45. Gas companies do not train workers. They employ skilled labour and pay more than other industries, driving up costs for manufacturers and other industries and displacing jobs across the country. The gas industry is highly mechanised and therefore employs fewer people relative to other industries and has no net increase in spillover jobs in retail or manufacturing.

Skilled FIFO construction workers are expected to be housed in a camp outside Narrabri (Westport Workers Accommodation). A typical mining camp has a canteen, gym, bar and other facilities so occupants don’t end up supporting local businesses. However, council rates are likely to increase to supply extra water and waste services and unless the camp has private medical facilities they will rely on local healthcare services. Staff on rigs are all brought in from outside, often from Brisbane, which is equidistant to Roma and Narrabri.

Savannah Energy workers image from Signing Your Life Away by David Monk

A Real Estate agent from Miles in Queensland, referring to the initial presentation from APLNG (Australia Pacific LNG, Origin Energy’s joint venture with ConocoPhillips and Sinopec):

“They said they would need accommodation and infrastructure built, and feeding and entertaining. They said we will live locally and buy locally. So the town went wild. The banks lent us all money — the council spent $30 million in Miles alone on water sewerage and waste management.” 

David Sweetapple, Miles Real Estate Agent

Local desk and field jobs will include environmental health and safety (this includes security detail), procurement, land liaison and administration.

Qualifications to work on gas rigs are based on the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) Gasfield Operations Competency Profile training modules. Those with these qualifications follow the rigs and are known as Fly In, Fly Out workers – FIFO’s.

Around a dozen companies operate drilling rigs for the coal seam gas industry, familiar names like Halliburton and Schlumberger, also unheard of names such as Easternwell, Saxon, Savanna Energy and Ensign. Santos used a company called Wild Desert when they last conducted workovers in the Pilliga.

Wild Desert perform a workover in the Pilliga forest in late 2015

Scheduling a rig for a job can take some time, a company may have to wait 6-12 months for one. As the industry is post-boom, work opportunities have declined and wages offered are now more cut-throat. It’s a dangerous industry, the company Shell attempted to have workers submit to blood tests to check if they are at risk of heart attack, high cholesterol and other conditions.

Linked to the Narrabri Gas Project is the Wilga Park gas-fired power station, owned by Santos and Energy Australia. There are only two permanent staff at Wilga Park, an electrician and a mechanic. The ground team fills out data and production information which is sent to Brisbane for assessment etc. The power station is monitored remotely, with local staff checking electronic readings of the plant and equipment. Santos conduct the majority of their operational matters in Brisbane far from their gasfields. The industry recognises the field is not a safe workplace and aims to have minimal staff on the ground.

Renewables trumps gas

The numbers of ongoing jobs and benefits flowing to other businesses from the Narrabri Gas Project will be limited compared to the development of renewable energy projects which would not risk water and land. Jobs in renewable energy endure while gas projects have a limited life. Renewable Narrabri: Solar and wind versus gas in North West NSW shows that Narrabri has enormous potential to build local opportunity as part of a renewable energy future.

Role of AWU in pushing coal seam gas

Dan Walton, National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), is also a member of the newly formed Manufacturing Taskforce which advises the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission and is a vocal supporter of the coal seam gas industry.

Walton’s union represents FIFO workers and not the locals who think they might get jobs on the rigs. Walton has consistently said that objectors to the gas industry are a “noisy few” and that the industry promises “real employment of tens of thousands of manufacturing workers”.

This is a reference to the Perdaman ammonia plant, which has been linked with Santos since the two companies signed a heads of agreement, 20-year non-binding deal for the sale of gas from the Narrabri project in 2019.

Promising an unbelievable 700 construction jobs and 200 direct and indirect ongoing jobs (all unsubstantiated claims) it is questionable how many of these jobs would go to Narrabri locals. Inflated job modelling is something regional communities have experience of, and the town of Boggabri is surely a perfect example of promises made and not kept by fossil fuel companies. There, the pattern of construction boom followed by a lengthy bust period played out after construction of the Maules Creek, Tarrawonga and Boggabri coal mines.

Walton traveled to Coonamble in July 2019 at the community’s request. Four hundred community members had signed the Coonamble Declaration pledging to block Santos’ pipeline contractor APA, the proponent who was to construct the proposed pipeline from Narrabri to Moomba.

He made it clear his organisation was a supporter of the onshore gas industry but also said:

“As far as the Chief Scientist’s recommendations go, all the AWU commentary around the project has said that if they can’t be fully met then the project shouldn’t go ahead.”

Dan Walton, AWU

Walton is now on the Manufacturing Taskforce, his respect for the Chief Scientist’s Recommendations seems to have evaporated and the FIFO representative is silent on the fact that the gas industry, together with the NSW Government has been unable to fulfil the Recommendations.

Hard questions need to be put before Dan Walton. Paying lip-service to the community on the issues of water security and environmental standards is not acceptable. Is the AWU aware the Chief Scientists safety recommendations are unimplemented?

Questions should also be asked about Perdaman Global Services involvement with overseas workers and whether this would preclude regional jobs in any factory built by the same company.

Santos workers take soil samples at a spill site in the Pilliga forest in May 2017

Boom-bust economy will cost local jobs

Not only are the jobs promised by Santos, Walton and the pro-gas lobby illusory, but to add to the pain, any local jobs come at the price of existing employment.

The Narrabri gasfield would destroy jobs in other local industries. For every job created in the CSG industry in QLD, 1.8 jobs were lost in agriculture and 0.9 jobs lost in the service sector.1

The primary industry sector will lose service providers such as electricians and mechanics to the mining industry, forcing up costs and diminishing agricultural productivity. Sustainable long-term jobs will be sacrificed to the extractive industries at the expense of local primary industry jobs.

Source: The Australia Institute

The alternative – The Million Jobs Plan

Think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions has launched a new national jobs initiative called #MillionJobsPlan which objects to the current thinking in the Morrison Government that only a gas-led recovery is possible post COVID-19.

According to Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE):

“the Million Jobs Plan will propose nation building, transformative projects that can upgrade our economy, modernise our industry, reskill our workforce and deliver a bright and vibrant future – economically and socially. Our early research shows clearly that this is entirely achievable.”

Unlike the gas industry’s proposals for North West NSW, which is based on a FIFO-dependent workforce, and a highly polluting extractive industry that is unable to insure against long-term environmental risks like aquifer interference, the Million Jobs Plan is based on the premise of Australia as a renewable energy superpower.

Australia can not compete with cheap Qatar LNG and US methane, our costs are too high. This is not, as the industry is pressuring us to believe due to “Green Tape”. This is a structural difference in the cost of production that no amount of deregulation of necessary environmental conditions can change.

The jobs mantra is a difficult one to argue against. NSW Labor must staunchly support job creation in a way that no LNP Government ever could. However, Labor also must safeguard itself against taking a non-evidence based approach pushed by vested interests outside its supporter base.

Contrary to Walton’s spin that a “noisy minority” opposes coal seam gas and the fracking industry, in fact a vast majority of the NSW population opposes the Narrabri Gas project and supports a ban on coal seam gas. This includes groups like the Country Womens’ Association of NSW, and nearly all shires potentially affected by Santos.

The Queensland experience is a profound lesson for NSW. The divide between locals and FIFO’s is blatantly evident everywhere you go in the agricultural and gasfield towns of the Darling Downs. Locals vs FIFO sentiment is fueled by the fact that locals are left suffering the ill-effects of the coal seam gas industry, while FIFO workers “go home to their flash digs” as highlighted in this video by Kogan filmmaker David Monk, “Signing Your Life Away”:

“… these blokes are here earning the big bucks and then going back to their flash digs in Brisbane or wherever else with not even a sideways thought about us living out here.”

Wayne Walker

The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission

The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission may have been formed under the pretext of reducing “red tape” and “green tape” to stimulate the Australian economy, but it is clear that the Commission is stacked with gas industry representatives (5 out of 9 members) who instantly jumped to the conclusion that gas pipelines, and forced approvals of new gas fields like Narrabri are our only lifeline to the future, post pandemic.

However, what the NCCC regards as “low hanging fruit” is a poisoned apple that promises pain and destruction to affected communities. This is clear from the Queensland experience.

The potential damage to the Great Artesian Basin poses irreversible risks to hundreds of towns in north west NSW, their communities and economies. “Jobs, jobs, jobs” will mean nothing if those communities are allowed to decline and perish at the hands of the gas industry and its supporters.

Santos claims that its 850+ well Narrabri Gas Project  will generate 1,300 jobs during construction and 200 ongoing jobs. Our analysis shows a different set of figures (see image below). The project will bring only 94.5 full-time equivalent jobs for locals over 20 years.

The people of Narrabri need the truth about the coal seam gas mining industry’s record to date on providing stable local job opportunities.

1.  David A. Fleming  Thomas G. Measham. Local economic impacts of an unconventional energy boom: the coal seam gas industry in Australia. Australian Journal of Agricultural & Resource Economics. January 2014.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Barry Richardson Reply

    Good, though disturbing read. What action is being done to bring pressure on NSW State Labor regarding the moratorium? Don’t forget that the jobs mantra perfectly fits into the adage that if you tell the lie often enough, it becomes the truth. Keep up the good work.

  2. sjaan Reply

    Labor betrayed Territorians overturning the moratorium. Because all the underwriting had been done, they pretended to have a scientific inquiry into the risks of fracking. Then they ignored Traditional Owners and undermined the entire democratic system in Australia by getting the Feds to blackmail the NT Gov by refusing to handover GST for essential services. In other words, the real problem is corruption of every level of Australian government officials.

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