Guluguba graziers Paul and Majella Erbacher have shared with the GasFields Commission their first-hand experiences, insights and lessons learnt dealing with the onshore gas industry in Queensland's Surat Basin following the construction of a major gas pipeline through their cattle properties.
This is the first in a series of insights stories aimed at helping to inform and assist other landholders and continue to improve understanding between the rural and onshore gas industries in Queensland.
The Erbacher family have been operating their cattle business for close on 35 years and have three properties where they breed cattle for the feedlot trade. The five kilometres of pipeline which dissects two of their properties carries gas from the Surat Basin to the LNG facilities in Gladstone.
When the Erbachers were first contacted about the proposed pipeline back in 2010 they discovered the alignment would cut across the main mustering route to their cattle yards and so actively sought to assist the proponent and contractor to help minimise disruptions to their cattle business.
However, for the Erbachers the 'blanket approach' to constructing the pipeline and lack of effective communication by the proponent and contractors proved to be among their greatest frustrations and learnings in dealing with the onshore gas industry.
Majella Erbacher says gas companies needed to be more flexible - one size doesn't fit all because every property and rural business is different - a 'blanket approach' is not appropriate.
She says they only looked straight down the pipeline ROW (right of way) and didn't seem to comprehend the importance of gates, water and tracks for the landholder on either side.
"They could have taken greater advantage of landholders' knowledge of their own property and avoid pitfalls and additional costs. For instance, when the contractor was putting bell-holes under our fences, we offered to empty those paddocks and pull the fences down but they chose not to.
Better communication needed
Majella says there needs to be better communication between the proponent and their own contractors especially in relation to issues that impact on the landholder.
"It's not the responsibility of landholders to manage pipeline contractors, that's the gas company's responsibility to manage their own contractors. We talk to the gas company's land access officer and they are meant to convey our issues or concerns up the line.
"Unfortunately, part of the communication problem was that we dealt with about 12 different land access officers throughout the course of the four years of this pipeline project. Each time we developed a rapport with one person they were moved on and we had to start from scratch again.
"There also needs to be more honest and open communication with landholders about construction timelines and when there are problems or delays that also needs to be communicated clearly so the landholder can manage their operations around them.
Paul says this lack of effective communication added to the stress and uncertainty for landholders trying to run their own business alongside the pipeline project.
That difference in communication approach became more obvious when it came to dealing with another gas company about a test well on their property.
Paul says they found the other gas company did communicate more effectively and whatever their land access officer told us happened and seemed to have the authority and connections within the company to raise and address our concerns.
"They also had good protocols for their staff and contractors when they were on our property and they knew who was coming and going from their project site," he says.
Be firm and gather your facts
The Erbacher's advice to other landholders who might be dealing with the onshore gas industry for the first time is to be firm, don't take it to heart, gather your facts and stick with them.
Paul says gas companies and their contractors often had little or no understanding of their rural business but he says their existing Cattle Care accreditation was one piece of paper they could understand and which set out many of the requirements of their cattle breeding operation.
He says landholders also need to consider all the things that could possibly go wrong - for example if gates are left open and cattle are mixed what's your plan to deal with that? It's not a case of if it will happen, it's a matter of when and being prepared.
"They also must show willingness to understand our business. We know of neighbours who had a lane system for watering their cattle and no matter how many times they were told the gates have to be kept a certain way, it never sunk in and there were incidences of cattle left without water.
"We didn't ask them to come onto our property but they should have done their homework before they came," he says.
Setting timelines and expectations
Another piece of advice for landholders from the Erbachers was the importance of setting timelines.
"We don't sign any contracts now without a timeline and a penalty clause if the company fail to meet it," says Majella, "and we need the government to ensure those penalties are enforced."
She also suggests that there could benefits in having separate conduct and compensation agreements for the different stages of a gas pipeline project.
"The first agreement could cover the surveying, the next one construction and rehabilitation, and even a further agreement to cover the long term operation of the pipeline.
The Erbachers say the turning point for them came when the easement was finally fenced off but that only happened after prolonged negotiation and some assistance from the government's CSG Compliance Unit. There was an interim compensation agreement reached in 2011, however, the final compensation agreement wasn't signed until September last year.
"We would like to see an improvement in the timing of compensation payments – even if they paid all the compensation up front it might incentivise the company to finalise their work," she says.
Little things count in building trust
When it comes to building trust and understanding between landholders and the onshore gas industry, the Erbachers say it's the little things that count.
In an area where mobile phone communications are limited, Majella says they faced regular problems with contractors using the same UHF channel as the family and local community.
"They knew we were on Channel 10 and we advised them from the start, but they still continued to use it from daylight till dark.
"Paul is the local fire warden and if there was an accident on the highway or other incident it would have been difficult for the police or others to contact him via the UHF.
"We know the channel is there for public use, but it's not their private channel either.
Living with a pipeline easement
The Erbachers expect there will be limited activity along the pipeline easement during the now ongoing operational phase with inspections every three months.
"There shouldn't be a lot of vehicle traffic as they do a lot of their inspection work using helicopters, but we will need to continue to monitor to ensure washdown certificates and gates are closed.
The fenced pipeline easement is now incorporated into their cattle business and is used as one of their mustering lanes when moving cattle around their properties.
Majella and Paul conclude the whole experience of the past four years dealing with the onshore gas industry has changed them personally.
"I think we are harder and wiser negotiators than previously," Paul says.