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I was watching Hustle on Friday night on the ABC. I actually enjoy that show and can’t understand why it is screened at an hour that kids are in bed (9:30 – 10:30). It is quite sweet and innocent and funny, great stuff for family watching. To get to the point, last night’s episode involved, inter alia, the stopping of a demolition due to “endangered frogs (or toads, the Hustle team was not sure)” The underlying axiom of all environmental management is the precautionary principle: If we are unsure about the effects of an action than we should err on the side of caution. In planning this generally means that a project should be limited, stopped or changed. This has resulted in critique as it can (as the Hustle episode showed) rapidly stop any development depending on how the laws are written. Is this critique valid?

My thoughts went to a recent public meeting in Sydney where the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association admitted that damage to water supplies as a result of coal seam gas extraction was inevitable. So from a precautionary principle, this would support the call to ban all coal seam gas exploration until more long term studies have been carried out. This type of assessment seems to be supported by a University of Queensland scoping study from 2008. This report highlights under limitations (page 14) that there is insufficient hydrogeological information available to do any in hydrodynamic study. This is echoed in the conclusions (page 48) and it is asserted that this lack of information is the main reason that risks with coal seam gas extraction cannot be managed effectively.

So based on such conclusions and comments and using the precautionary principle, it is clear that we should ban all coal seam gas extraction. In fact most state legislation incorporates some form of the precautionary principle. For example, the federal government, NSW and Qld seem to have adopted the following terminology: “If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation”

It is therefore quite easy to argue for any project not to go ahead, as the team from Hustle also showed. As I have argued before, there is always a level of uncertainty about all natural processes and our human impact upon this. So, no progress can be made as all human activity impacts the environment and the ultimate effect of this impact on the environment is uncertain (think climate change).

The question I am pondering is whether this is therefore a problem with the precautionary principle, and that this in fact limits the effectiveness of striving towards sustainability. If environmental regulation is only obstructive rather than cooperative than it misses the point. This is not too say that we should not accept that the precautionary principle is a good first step in a environmental negotiation process. However, I feel that human impact on the environment is inevitable, the more important question is whether we can shape the environment, or work with the environment to minimise our impact or create other environmental opportunities.

I have used coal seam gas as an example in this blog post, but this is in fact not a very good example. It has a known impact on the environment (in the form of a saline water waste product) in addition to all the unknown impacts to the hydrogeology. A better example is a better negotiated time to screen Hustle. Surely it is only the precautionary principle that moved that program to the 9:30 timeslot?

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  • Willem (Hydrology Research Laboratory)

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Aimed at generating discussion on water research and water management in Australia

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