In the Roma region, five hours west of Brisbane, Santos is the largest operating gas company.
Santos support the local business of the year awards, sponsor sports teams, and host tournaments. They also deliver school education programs, educational pathway programs, and STEM-sponsored degrees. Their name can be found scattered throughout the region on monuments, buildings, all kinds of events and businesses.
For the youth in town, Santos represents a guaranteed well-paid job close to their rural home. The environmental debates about coal and mining activities are largely ignored here and not brought up for “fear of rocking the boat.”
17 year old Sarah* in Roma.
“Everyone knows someone employed by them. They are not just in the businesses and community… They sponsor a lot of schooling events and also go in and provide environmental talks about what the industry is doing,”
Sarah has a family member who works for Santos, so she preferred to use a fake name. Most interviews in the town seemed to follow this pattern of anonymity. When asked what her town would be like without the Coal Seam Gas industry, she replied “half of Roma would shut down.”
“It will negatively impact Roma, money to spend locally will decrease, and jobs would decrease. There aren’t enough other industries in the region,” Sarah said.
She acknowledges there could be a relationship between the coal industry and climate change, but says “we also need fossil fuels in our lives.” Questioning whether climate will actually affect future generations.
This sentiment is echoed by Sarah’s friend, who agrees the community and social aspects of the mining industry are “generally positive.” As support for mining dwindles around Australia, frank conversations about their impacts and future are avoided in this quiet country town.
Coal Seam Gas is touted as a cleaner alternative to standard coal: it is easier to store and emits half the amount of carbon dioxide. The Sunshine State holds a disproportionate share of Australia’s coal and gas resources, with “82 percent of CSG wells located in the Surat Basin alone, the locality in which Roma sits.”
Gas has been an integral part of Roma’s history and has shaped the town into what it is today. Before the turn of the twentieth century, Romanites began drilling down in search of water to supplement their annual 600 mm of rainfall, instead discovering gas.
Five years later, in 1906, the streets of Roma lit up under the glow of gas lamps – an Australian first. It took ten nights for the lamps to grow dim and die out, but this had birthed a new era in our search for energy and years of exploration and growth.
In 1969, the market was expanded directly to Brisbane via a 450 km gas pipeline. Now, the area is responsible for roughly 70 percent of the total east coast gas supply.
New developments are in the pipeline as the Queensland Government announced plans last year to move towards “achieving 80 percent sourced renewable energy by 2035.”
Angus, a Griffith electronic engineer and youth delegate to the COP27, has been studying energy in remote and rural communities. He points out that our renewable resources in Australia are unparalleled and have the capacity to make us a global renewable superpower. In 2021, our renewable growth rate was the highest in the world, with an “18.5 percent rise, almost doubling the global average.”
The Queensland Government last year promised $62 billion towards their clean energy plan, which features the world’s largest pumped energy storage for hydrogen, as well as wind and solar farms, several of each being approved for the Surat region. Angus believes that educating the youth about energy demands would accelerate our change to renewables and build resources that serve the community.
“At the forefront of youth minds should be climate and disaster resilience,” he said. “During the Brisbane floods last year, 54,000 homes were without power just because some cables got wet, we need to focus on building systems that can withstand the incoming challenges.” Rural communities have the same issues but with longer disaster periods, slower response times, and more complex recoveries.
Yet in the Surat Basin where Roma sits, the tides are slowly turning. In 2022, 34 large-scale renewable projects were underway, representing almost “30 percent of all projects in Queensland.
Views of energy in Australia are also undergoing a massive shift. Scientists are issuing a ‘code red’ and urging governments and citizens to take urgent action on climate change. Former treasurer and Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously brought in a piece of coal for question time, which divided Parliament and brought attention to the former government’s non-commitment to renewable energy.
Now, we look back on his stunt and laugh at the brashness and irony of committing to an industry that is slowly killing us. The debate between fossil fuel and renewables has now been settled in the far-away offices of parliament, as the Queensland government vows to stop using CSG by 2037.
The push towards a greener future happens more functionally in rural communities, where workers live and operate these large industries. Youth in Roma are caught in golden handcuffs. Sarah explained the tension that young people are facing: that the CSG industry could “in the long run be highly damaging to the climate, but then we also need those fossil fuels in our lives … there are not enough other jobs in the Roma region.”
18-year-old Gabby* has left the Roma area to attend university. She still visits her hometown during the school break, where she works in town during the holidays. “We don’t really talk about it,” Gabby said when asked if her friends share similar views on climate change.
“Because of the community, a lot of people don’t believe in it. Honestly, I think talking about it is a start and that way people can actually have their say about what they want to do about a lot of things.”
“I think we need to start talking about it before anything.”Gabby, 18, Roma.
Without the town being able to speak practically about the changes the area is undergoing, the direction is left to outside players.
The future of these rural towns depends upon the employment market outside of farming and agriculture, and it is unclear what Roma would look like without Santos. But we now have the resources and capacity to become a renewable energy superpower, and our direction should be decided with those it will affect most in mind – the next generation.
*Names changed for privacy reasons.
Story original published on Voices of the Maranoa.