09/11/2011 - 10:46

Good message needs better management

09/11/2011 - 10:46

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Better communicating the big-picture vision is a challenge for the resources sector.

Better communicating the big-picture vision is a challenge for the resources sector.

IN preparation for this talk I have asked a number of my friends and relatives from ages 19 to 91 what they perceive are our legacies. So let me begin with a few legacies identified in my informal survey.
1) ‘You leave waste dumps all over the country’

My thinking about waste dumps has changed over the years as a result of improvements in knowledge and understanding. I now like to call these ‘yet-to-be-used resources’. I have just completed six years on the board of a cooperative research centre (or CRC) – the Centre for Sustainable Resource Processing – and this has led me to conclude there are lots of ways traditional waste can be used.  

In my mind, many of our wastes are really just temporarily stored resources waiting for a time and technology when we can use them again. A prime example is the reprocessing that has occurred of most of the old gold tailing dumps in Kalgoorlie as leaching technology and an improvement in the gold price has made this possible. 

2) ‘The resources industry has a big negative environmental impact’

I challenge this. Compared with the rest of the world, Australia has some of the strongest regulation, monitoring and controls in place for our extractive industries. 

One of my consultant friends pointed out that the resources industry has actually been responsible for gathering a lot of the detailed environmental data available for our onshore and offshore environments. The understanding of the ecosystems in Australia is best around our existing or proposed mining sites – as these sites are the most studied (at the mineral developer’s expense).  

And the resource industry has invested a lot in converting the data collected to new understanding and knowledge. 

The real legacy is the data itself, and to leverage it we need to invest in making it more accessible and useable. Much of it sits (hidden) in environmental approvals documents, annual report and closeout reports. Even enabling much of this to be located easily and cross-referenced would be a significant positive legacy for the future researchers.

3) ‘I don’t understand what the resources industry does except dig holes and ship stuff out’ 

I guess this is typical of how our industry presents itself to the public – that it is all about facts, figures, trends, and science stuff that not many can or want to understand. For years I have been arguing that we cannot expect ‘the facts’ alone to convince anyone about anything.
I notice we generally only preach to the converted, especially at conferences, about how responsible we are; but the only people who can afford to attend these high-cost conferences are industry people who already think the same, then we complain that the Australian public does not understand us. 

During the past 15 years it has been good to see more communicators being employed in the industry, and often these are women, but we are now living with the legacy that most of our countrymen and women do not understand what we do or why we do it. 

It is important we demonstrate what we do by opening our doors and letting people see for themselves.  

More site tours, open days, roadside booths, community engagement projects, interesting web-based Q&As, community consultation groups, debates, social media, TV dramas and movies are some of the communication channels we might consider. 

We also need to engage with educators, science centers, public discussions and modern media using relevant multimedia communication channels. 

4) ‘The onshore gas industry will destroy the agriculture industry’

What do we have left of the long-term legacy of a good working relationship between the freehold landowners and our industry? 

I am not an expert in this area but perhaps that relationship is now verging on fatally flawed as Queensland and NSW farmers perceive the coal-bed methane and any associated fracking threatens the most important assets they have – their land and water. 

How have we allowed this standoff to develop? What has happened to the industry being a crucial part of these rural communities? 

It appears to me that although companies such as Santos have been doing coal-bed methane extraction and some water-based fracking for more than 50 years near Roma and have put a lot of effort into doing it responsibly, there are many newcomers who I call rogues. 

How can you just rock up onto someone’s land and drill a hole without even asking and without even shutting the gates?

This part of the industry urgently needs a set of guidelines and for newcomers to abide by them. 

These guidelines also need to address the access protocols for the drilling of thousands of wells and how the many low-pressure gas pipelines, which will be needed to gather the gas from these wells, will be positioned to minimise the inconvenience to locals.  

Perhaps the most important issue the farmers need to be engaged with is the perceived threat to surficial water supplies. 

Santos has shown it can clean up the water that comes with coal-bed methane or fracking with normal reverse osmosis and then use the very clean water to either re-inject into the aquifer or to grow pasture or trees. 

In this way the company can balance a three-way challenge of minimising CO2 emissions, helping to drought-proof local pasture, and managing the underground water aquifers.  

This message that farmers and onshore gas producers can work together will now be more difficult to deliver as emotion now dominates the media and scares the affected communities.

 5) ‘The resources industry is in conflict with needs of our indigenous communities’  

It is somewhat ironic that, in a general sense, it is the mining industry that is more attuned to the needs and aspirations of indigenous communities – as we both operate in the same ‘environment’ and have to endure the same climatic and geographic conditions – yet it is often reported that the two groups are in conflict. 

There are numerous examples of the resource industry interacting positively with local indigenous communities and many see the industry as a way to extract themselves from dependency on government handouts. 

There are many, many examples of positive Indigenous Land Use Agreements that include all sorts of commitments on both sides to address predictable funding, employment, training and surveys. 

Contractors to the big resources companies now need to have active indigenous employment and knowledge transfer processes in place if they are to be considered for tenders.

6) ‘The resources industry is modern and has real technological capability’

Although we are not well known for our inventions, we are seen as innovators in applying technology.

But we seem to have taken our eye off the ball as we rush to meet the needs of the rest of the world.
I am particularly concerned that we do not seem to have a national long-term technology vision other than ‘extract it and ship it out’. We seem to have left the grassroots, expensive and often unsuccessful, research to others and rely on our ability to innovate in its application.

Over the next 30 years Australia will be one of the largest users of air/gas compressors (especially for LNG) and yet we do not make or maintain the big ones here. 

We will be one of the largest producers and exporters of iron ore and coal and yet we do not make bulk rail cars and do not seem to have a coordinated national approach to becoming a leader in new rail technology. 

There is an opportunity for us to do our business better than anywhere else in the world, creating a long-lasting legacy of a skills and knowledge node for the resources sector. 

We need to harness the research, new business investment, technology innovation, local training and skills development that is now happening. 

This will need to be via government, universities and resource industry collaborations and partnerships. 

It seems to me there are two very important factors in ensuring our legacies are positive ones – commitment for them to be so and an ability to communicate positively about our business with our stakeholders. 

Our industry has grown at such a rapid rate during the past five years no-one has actually had the time to sit down and look back at the things we have done well, and the things we haven’t done so well. 

As we venture into this next period of growth, we need to be very careful that we leverage off the things we already do well and to make time to address our weaknesses.

I believe I have shown that if we commit to optimising the big picture impact of what and how we extract and process Australia’s resources
we will see a step change in our credibility. 

The first part is how we expect our employees to think and act. The way we are organised internally within companies is often such that we reward silo attitudes and performance and do not encourage whole-of-process optimisation. 

Few people are given accountability for optimising the big, long-term picture. Perhaps our corporate strategies and employee incentive schemes are just wrong. 

We need to look at the big picture to address our waste management, our whole-of-process sustainability, the minimisation of our environmental impact (particularly water and energy use and our physical environmental impact), stewardship of the products we produce and how to best leverage our technological advantages.  

With all our baggage we need to significantly improve our communication with all our stakeholders be they our employees, indigenous and other landholders, shareholders, governments or the general public. 

• This is an extract from the recent Essington Lewis lecture, delivered in Adelaide by Erica Smyth, chair of Toro Energy, Scitech and Screenwest and a director of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.


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