A War of Attrition: Coal Seam Gas and the Right to say No

“I have seen CSG produced water spills in the Pilliga Forest, spoken to landholders in Queensland who have lost their ground water, met with women from three different gas fields (Camden, Tara and Chinchilla) whose children have had bleeding ears, noses, dizzy spells, headaches etc. [sic], I’ve seen spill water that was black after fracking. I’ve met a husband and wife from Coonamble who have been arrested one after the other [for] being locked to a drilling rig and have had long conversations with a farmer who killed himself about the loss of his bore water and the fact [that] the gas company could not fix it and wanted to buy him out to ‘make good’. I could go on…”

In rural Australia a battle is being waged between communities and energy and mining conglomerates. The fight is over the right for miners to explore for resources such as natural gas, coal deposits and coal seam gas holds on someone’s land. In Australia, while a landowner has the rights to what is above the soil, the Commonwealth owns what’s underneath. 

As the government and rural communities butt heads over the extent to which the state may take these resources, one of the most public of these fights is that over coal seam gas mining. This has been a highly controversial issue that encompasses everything from exceptional profits and economic stimulus to irreversible environmental damage. Coal seam gas represents much of the fight around the world between making a quick buck and ensuring long-term sustainability.

What is coal seam gas?

Coal seam gas mining. Source: Australian Science Media Centre
Coal seam gas mining. Source: Australian Science Media Centre

Located primarily in Australia’s eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland, Coal Seam Gas (CSG) is methane that is held within a coal seam by water pressure within the system that was formed from the decay of organic matter over time. In order to extract the gas the system must be de-pressurised by removing the water. This is performed by drilling a vertical well down towards the seam and pumping out the water within.

When the flow of gas is insufficient the coal seam gas may be fractured, a process which increases the permeability of the coal and allows the gas to flow more freely – also known as ‘fracking’. Hydraulic fracking, involves pumping large volumes of a fluid such as water at a high pressure down the well which can cause the coal seam to fracture for distances of up to 400 metres. Much controversy has surrounded the chemicals that are added to the Fracking liquid in order to aid the drilling process and while those that have been proved most harmful have been banned in both Queensland and New South Wales other chemicals are used in their place.

The Environmental Impacts of Coal Seam Gas:

The most notable environmental impact of coal seam gas mining is not within the process itself, but the use of the gas afterwards. Studies have shown that the coal seam gas industry could produce as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the cars on the roads in Australia, including as much as 34.7 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (more than coal production).

Comparing the carbon dioxide emissions from CSG
Comparing the carbon dioxide emissions from CSG. Source: ABC

These emissions are one of the reasons many are citing as to why the coal seam gas should stay in the ground, it is one of the un-burnable fossil fuels that Australia and the world must wean themselves off in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions to curb runaway climate change.

However, others (including many state and federal Australian politicians) argue that coal seam gas is in fact a ‘greener’ energy choice. Origin Energy has claimed that substituting natural gas for coal in energy production could reduce Australia’s 2007 emissions levels by as much as 13.7%. However, there is strong opposition both in the industry and the scientific community to these arguments as many believe that these figures do not encompass the total emission from the entire life-cycle basis of coal seam gas compared to coal.

The environmental risks of coal seam gas do not stop at our atmosphere and future climate. Water, the most precious resource for sustaining life and an extremely valuable commodity for rural and urban Australia is also potentially under threat due to coal seam gas mining activities. The impacts to water from coal seam gas fall into two categories: contamination and supply. A report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney has found that ground water supply can be contaminated by the water and chemicals from the fracking process and when toxins within the cracked coal seam. While waste water from coal seam gas mining is treated, some chemicals may still remain in the treated water including boron, silver, chlorine, copper, cadmium cyanide and zinc. These chemicals, at the concentrations present in the treated waste water, are toxic to many aquatic organisms and can be detrimental to human health if a build-up occurs.

During the first six months of 2011 there were 23 spills of waste water; four uncontrolled releases of waste water and three breaches of waste water storage during floods at coal seam gas wells. According to the National Water Commission these incidents can alter natural water flow patterns, impact water quality and river and wetland health – not to mention that of local residents. In 2010, two incidents of water contaminated from the banned BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene) chemicals were reported in Australia, although the companies involved said they did not utilise BTEX chemicals in their fracking fluids. There are issues in legislation in regards to monitoring the threats and impacts of water contamination as environmental water quality standards apply to the water in the overall environment post-release, rather than what is in the water that is being released.

An infographic of the predicted water usage by CSG mining. Source: ABC
An infographic of the predicted water usage by CSG mining. Source: ABC

The second issue related to water use in coal seam gas mining is where the water is sourced from. Conservative estimates suggest that coal seam wells may draw up to 300 gigalitres of water from the ground each year. One of the main areas where water is currently being drained for the purposes of coal seam gas mining is the Great Artesian Basin, an area where by the end of last year the Australian government had spent nearly $150 million enacting the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative which included practices such as capping bores and fixing pipelines to conserve water. While the Queensland Government has stated that if coal seam gas mining causes groundwater levels to drop below specific ‘trigger’ points then companies must ‘make good’ to other affected water users, though there is doubt as to how this would be enacted in practice.

Furthermore, salt may also rise with the water from the drilling process, creating masses of waste salt that, if not treated and removed effectively can have detrimental impacts to the land.

An infographic representing the excess salt produced by CSG mining. Source: ABC
An infographic representing the excess salt produced by CSG mining. Source: ABC

Others have pointed further to the impacts on land use – both agricultural and bush. Each coal seam gas well site takes up one hectare of land. This is particularly an issue when this is prime agricultural land or within a national park or reserve as is often the case with coal seam gas sites.

A before and after glimpse at the impact of CSG mining on a national park. Source: The Daily Bulletin
A before and after glimpse at the impact of CSG mining on a national park. Source: The Daily Bulletin

So why the push for Coal Seam Gas?

Coal seam gas comprises 27% of Australian gas reserves, which has the potential to supply at least 30% of Australia’s domestic market and 50% of that in eastern Australia. Assuming a continuing growth rate of 4% per year until 2025 the conventional gas market in eastern Australia will last for nine years, compared to coal seam gas which will last for 27. The coal seam gas market has the potential to pour billions of dollars into regional areas, creating new jobs, swelling both state and national funds and expanding foreign contracts. This potential is being tapped into rapidly in Australia, particularly in Queensland where by 2011 the total number of wells drilled in the state was 4,489 – compared to only 493 in New South Wales. The main driving factor than of coal seam gas? Simple – cold, hard, cash. Something which speaks to governments, corporations and communities alike.

In Australia; coal, petroleum and mineral resources are for the most part the property of the Commonwealth rather than the landholder. And in the case of onshore underground resources, the power to licence and regulate their development and extraction lies exclusively with the state governments. The state then effectively transfers these rights to the licence holder once a permit to explore or extract has been given.

The issue then arises as to whether the licence holder has the right to enter the land that overlies the resource which is often private property. Most commonly permission is attained through a land-access agreement whereby the landholder allows the licence holder to access and occupy their land and is compensated for any disruption caused. In Queensland a licensee may enter the land without the permission of the landholder in order to conduct preliminary, low-impact exploration activities after providing notice. The lack of the rights for a landholder to say no to a mining exploration is at the centre of the politics surrounding coal seam gas. For even if a landholder is able to refuse miners from entering their land, they will most likely face an upwards battle in a court system skewed in favour of the mining conglomerates. The results of the fight to protect land has had significant impacts on community and individuals, as was the case of George Bender.

The War of Attrition – a Stand off Between Communities and Big Buck Mining

George Bender was a well-known anti-coal seam gas farmer in Queensland. George took his own life after a decade long battle to prevent Origin Energy from entering his 2000-acre farm. Since his death George’s family has taken on his mantle and continued his fight, most notably a recent appearance by his daughter, Helen, on the ABC’s Q&A which garnered traction for her late father’s cause and support for Helen’s statement that Australia’s politicians “are not listening”.

Michael Roche, the chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council, has accused the family of ‘hijacking’ their father’s death as his cause has since been championed by both politicians and journalists. However, there is significant community support to demonstrate that George’s case was neither isolated nor uncommon.

The Lock the Gate Alliance was established in 2010 when farmers from south-east Queensland gathered in Brisbane to surround a farm gate and vowing to take a stand to protect their farms and communities from unwanted mining. The Alliance has since grown to boast over 40,000 supporters and manages 250 local groups who are concerned about unsafe coal and unsafe gas mining.

Phil Laird, national coordinator for the Lock the Gate Alliance, speaking to the media about the Whitehaven coal mine. Source: EchoNet Daily

Phil Laird is the national coordinator for Lock the Gate who became involved in community action against inappropriate mining with his family in 2010 when they discovered that the coal mines in their area had leases for 21 years. They realised that if they did not intervene in the early stages, the impacts of the mining on their lives and livelihood would soon be out of their control. Phil fights for the right of a landholder to say no to a mining company, to refuse access. As he states “How can landholder make an access agreement when they don’t have the right to disagree?”

Having personally seen the impacts of coal seam gas mining Phil’s accounts of the impacts of mining on communities and families are more compelling than any statistic could be:

“I have seen CSG produced water spills in the Pilliga Forest, spoken to landholders in Queensland who have lost their ground water, met with women from three different gas fields (Camden, Tara and Chinchilla) whose children have had bleeding ears, noses, dizzy spells, headaches etc. [sic], I’ve seen spill water that was black after fracking. I’ve met a husband and wife from Coonamble who have been arrested one after the other [for] being locked to a drilling rig and have had long conversations with a farmer who killed himself about the loss of his bore water and the fact [that] the gas company could not fix it and wanted to buy him out to ‘make good’. I could go on…”

But Phil argues that change is on the horizon, even if it is distant. He believes in the people power that saw off Metgasco in the Northern Rivers. He believes that the advances in cost competitive renewables will outweigh the expenses of coal seam gas projects. And he believes in the moral, if not legal, right of a land holder to deny access.

A Risky Investment

A wind farm on the coast of Western Australia marks the beginning of a new era in Australian energy. Source: Ausenco

It is thanks to those such as George and Phil that Australia’s water supply, farmland and natural landscapes are being preserved. It is easy to look through oil coated lenses and see only the profit to be made in drilling for gas and coal deposits – it has long since been the habit of Australian finance departments, to rely on the income of mining to sustain the nation’s economic prosperity. But long-term risks are at stake. In the coming century food, water and global temperatures will be the most pressing issues for Australia’s and humanity’s survival. Coal seam gas mining directly threatens each of these volatile commodities. And it is just one, of many industries that must hasten in their speed to adjust to 21st century ideas of sustainability before the damage is done.

Whilst the debate and battle in the courts continues, communities across rural Australia are rallying together. Whilst activism has been extraordinarily successful thus far, the far reaching effects of CSG are even shaping Australia’s music culture.

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