Rapid expansion of the coal seam gas (CSG) sector in Queensland has fuelled debate on the sector's contributions to community sustainability in a rural economy dominated by farming of food and cotton, cattle grazing, coal mining, and a modest level of tourism. For example, will the impacts of CSG extraction on surface and groundwater have sustained negative impacts on the growing of grain, and if so, what should be expected of the CSG industry today?

The intensity of debate has been accompanied by an array of operating conditions placed on CSG projects by the state government, extensive media coverage, and a focus on what it takes to maintain a ‘social license to operate’. Such a context is a challenge for resource companies committed to sustainability principles and to contributing to the social, economic and institutional development of the communities in which they operate as well as to the conservation of biodiversity and integrated approaches to land use planning.

In this context, our research has explored perceptions of the social and environmental impacts in two local government areas of rural Queensland. We surveyed and interviewed stakeholders affected by – and/or influential in – decision making and management of mining, CSG extraction, and agriculture in these areas. We asked their views on the state of the environment, the economy, social fabric, human capital, and local infrastructure, comparing today to five years ago. Their responses reveal how this contested arena harbours ‘wicked’ problems: issues that are hard to formulate in simple terms and where every potential solution has irreversible consequences. Our findings suggest further that successful co-existence of multiple industries and a social license to operate for CSG companies depend on effective management by resource companies, and by regulators, of operating practices, off-site impacts, and the distribution of benefits.

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