Strengthening the resource industry's 'social license to operate'

Strengthening the resource industry's 'social license to operate'

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

As the world’s need for energy and resources grows, so does the need to balance the impact of energy and resource development with the needs of people and the environment. 

In a speech at the G20 Global Café in Brisbane last November, Santos CEO David Knox pointed out the world will require 50% more energy in only 15 years’ time.  Availability of this energy will directly contribute to the greatest shift of the global population out of poverty the world has ever known.

In his speech, David Knox discussed the impact of energy on global warming, and reiterated that in meeting the global energy challenge, four levers must be balanced to make sure capacity is reached without contributing to excessive emissions: 1) Fossil Fuels; 2) Nuclear; 3) Renewables; and 4) more efficient energy use.

There is little doubt that to continue the path of raising the population of developing countries from poverty, in the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough in renewables, fossil fuels and resource extraction (oil, gas, coal) will remain significant contributors to the world’s energy mix for the foreseeable future.  In this mix, gas undoubtedly has an important role as a “transition” fuel in the shift toward renewables.

However, a general  lack of appreciation for the role of energy and resource production in both maintaining our living standards and raising the living conditions of those in developing countries, has fueled public concern and opposition to coal seam gas (CSG) and other resource developments.  This lack of understanding can present a barrier toward genuine progress on co-existence between resource developments and the wider community.

Source: The world's next great leap forward: Towards the end of poverty. The Economist, June 1st 2013.

A case study in meeting the needs of production, people and the environment

Produced formation water extracted from coal seams in a by-product of CSG production, which needs to be managed appropriately.

Conventional engineering approaches to managing coal seam water involved a “one size fits all solution” of desalination, regardless of its end use, which potentially and unnecessarily  produces additional concentrated brine requiring responsible management and disposal. 

Ecological Engineering Solution:
Near Injune, in southern central Queensland, Santos GLNG has successfully managed produced water by sustainably developing and maintaining 40,000 hectares of land for pastoral operations, including
more than 350 ha of irrigated legume forage crops (leucaena) as part of its water management systemThe high-quality fodder crops now feed approximately 1,500 head of cattle each year, and the forests, comprising over one million locally adapted native Chinchilla white gums, absorb carbon (approximately 6,500 tonnes each year), while providing, biodiversity benefits and a future timber crop.

These positive results were achieved through an innovative water management solution, which processes water to an optimum level for the desired outcomes.  A thorough and detailed scientific understanding of the interaction between water chemistry, soil, plants and landscape was used in designing this process.

Combined with chemical amendment (calcium and magnesium), the forest and fodder crop treatment system was designed with rigorous performance specifications as an “ecological” component of the water treatment process.  Significantly, there is no residual waste product in this approach to coal seam water management.

The irrigated forest and fodder crops are closely monitored to ensure continuing compliance within both water process and environmental performance expectations and regulatory requirements.

This project, scoped, designed and delivered by Verterra in partnership with Santos GLNG, reduced the cost of coal seam water management and allowed high-quality fodder crops to be irrigated.  It reduced the project’s carbon footprint by both avoiding energy use required for desalination and by sequestering carbon in trees and soil.

The project established a model for managing produced water and provided an alternative to the conventional route of a hard engineering and resultant infrastructure, by ensuring that water can be delivered at the appropriate quality in a sustainable manner through a much lower carbon footprint.

Pic: Irrigated hardwood plantation on Santos GLNG’s land near Injune

Ecological Engineering – environmental best practice with social and financial benefits

Ecological engineering is a relatively new and very exciting field and embraces the concept of sustainable development and minimising waste.  It involves the “design, planning, construction and management of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both”.  

It combines basic and applied science from engineering, soil science, ecology, economics and other natural sciences in a healthy and sustainable blend of ecology and technology.  It has the potential to be used in all aspects of restoration and rehabilitation, construction and ongoing management of any risks to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

In our highly technological society, we have come to consider hard engineering solutions as the primary approach to managing most industrial, resource and urban development problems.  The potential of lower-energy and lower-impact ecological engineering solutions to offer superior outcomes at a lower cost, while delivering co-benefits for the environment and community, is often not appreciated.

Much is possible when agriculture, industry, business and natural resource managers start to integrate ecological engineering principles into their project lifecycles.

Ecological engineering means, in essence, that solutions to environmental concerns don’t have to be a decision between the environment or the economy.  It presents solutions to issues of human impact in a growing world in a way that can reduce risk, reduce cost and add value, for companies, communities and the environment.  This is in turn is an important element of establishing and maintaining a social license to operate.


William Mitsch and Sven Jørgensen (2003).  Ecological engineering: A field whose time has come.  Ecological Engineering 20 (2003) 363–377.

Santos CEO, David Knox presentation to the G20 Global Café, Brisbane, 2014