|CSG companies under growing pressure|
‘Pilot production’ wells and water treatment dams in Bibblewindi State Forest, north-west of Tamworth. Photo taken in May 2010 by The Hunter Action Group
As the high-profile Senate inquiry into coal-seam gas continues, Queensland has announced new restrictions on drilling close to towns and a New South Wales parliamentary probe has opened for submissions.
With industry and its supporters in government strongly defending the safety of the drilling process known as fracking, cracks are beginning to appear in the campaign to sell the booming industry as a clean green alternative to traditional coal mining.
Could impact aquifers
The National Water Commission last week restated its warnings there was an important lack of information surrounding the long-term impacts of coal-seam gas extraction and its risks to water systems.
In December last year the Commission had previously reported that massive water use and the ‘dramatic de-pressurisation of coal seams’ could affect water availability, that waste water could pollute streams, and that fracking had the ‘potential to induce connection and cross-contamination between aquifers, with impacts on groundwater quality.’
Two weeks ago, a senior figure representing the industry confirmed to a public meeting that drilling could impact on aquifers to varying degrees.
He reportedly told the Sydney Morning Herald after the meeting: ‘I’m wanting to ensure that we are not seen as saying there won’t be any impacts during the process.
‘It is a matter of monitoring and managing those impacts.’
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association does not concede that extraction will inevitably contaminate aquifers, but says coal-seam gas drilling ‘will reduce water pressure’, and the ‘extent to which this process affects other aquifers – if at all – is determined by geological separation…’
Meanwhile, as farmers and others have shared their concerns at the Senate inquiry hearings across Australia, companies are expressing differing views about whether they would move onto land against the wishes of landowners.
Gov owns minerals beneath top soil
By law, governments own the resources beneath the topsoil, and mining companies can force entry to property if a court grants permission.
Two weeks ago Opposition leader Tony Abbott backed the right of farmers to say no, but later retreated, saying his comments only applied to prime agricultural land.
Here in the Byron Shire, the company controlling vast exploration rights told The Echo earlier this year it would not explore on land without the owner’s agreement, but the company now says it won’t rule out resorting to court action if needed.
In a statement sent to The Echo last week, Arrow Energy said: ‘Our aim is to always negotiate voluntary land access agreements with landholders… however, we support both landholder and the CGS companies retaining the right to access legal processes, in the interests of both parties.’
Offshore company has 15 wells locally
Arrow, which has already drilled 15 exploration wells in this region, is jointly owned by PetroChina and the Dutch company Shell, currently facing criticisms of its own over a major oil leak still flowing in the North Sea near Scotland.
While gas is increasingly promoted as a clean alternative to help fight climate change, in recent days the Greens leadership has very publicly questioned widely used assertions that gas produces only half the emissions of dirty coal.
The science surrounding these estimates is complex, uncertain and changing, and the calculations depend very much of the way the resource is extracted, transported and delivered.
But if gas is not as green as previously believed, and coal can clean up its act, the differences between the two energy forms will start to shrink, and the comparison with renewable energy will look even starker.
As an example of the changing science, the United States government very recently revised upwards its estimates of highly polluting methane emissions associated with some forms of gas extraction.
While leaks from wells using fracking were a key culprit, important caveats include the fact that gas has been more commonly extracted from shale in the US rather than coal seams, and that technology may be more modern and regulations tighter in Australia.
In Queensland those regulations were tightened last week, as the government announced new restrictions on companies exploring within two kilometres of towns with 1000 or more people.
In New South Wales the parliamentary inquiry is briefly taking submissions, though they close in the first week of September.
And nationally, the activist group GetUp is collecting a petition to stop coal-seam gas mining, visiting northern New South Wales recently as part of its intelligence gathering for the campaign.
While an informal alliance of farmers and environmentalists is driving much of the community protest, it’s unclear what impact an increase in compensation to landholders – or improvement in regulation – will have on the strength of opposition.