Crikey intern Sophie Cousins writes: Drilling for coal seam gas (CSG) is thriving along Australia’s east coast amid community backlash over the risks involved with the industry.
The Greens have called for a moratorium on mining activities throughout NSW until an independent investigation is conducted, but Greens MP David Shoebridge told Crikey that the closure of parliament until after the election meant the issue was being put on the backburner.
“Any further parliamentary work on coal seam gas is shut down until after the election,” said Shoebridge. “The NSW parliament won’t open its doors again until early May.”
While the CSG industry is gaining momentum in NSW and Queensland, both state governments have been criticised for their lack of concern over the potential environmental and health effects.
Extracting CSG involves reaching methane trapped in coal seams hundreds of metres below the ground and while CSG has been advocated as an alternative and viable energy source, the Greens and communities around Australia have expressed concern with the processes used to extract the gas.
Those concerns are fundamentally centred on ‘fracking’—the process of fracturing rock to release the trapped gas–and around the types of chemicals that are used throughout the process.
The NSW Greens have condemned the state government for its too soft approach when granting drilling approvals and for its lack of community consultation on the issue.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the NSW government has not conducted any environmental assessment of drilling for methane gas despite increasing concern about its impact on water supplies and aquifers.
Mr Shoebridge slammed the government and the Opposition’s lack of environmental assessment on the issue and told Crikey how the industry is “highly unregulated”.
“Neither the Coalition or Labor Party are suggesting that those exploration processes should be subject to environmental safeguards,” he said.
“It’s a pick-a-box approval process from the Department of Industry and Investment, with no environmental assessments, protections or safeguards.”
Community backlash to the industry is gaining momentum around NSW and particularly in one Sydney suburb — St Peters — where in November, the state government secretly approved exploratory drilling to take place in the residential area.
A report released and acquired by the Greens in November revealed the state government had signed a deal with Macquarie Energy (Apollo Energy) to undergo drilling in the area. This decision was not welcomed by the Greens, local residents, or Sydney Council. Neither Council or residents were consulted on this decision, rather they were informed.
At the time, Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, expressed her disappointment in a letter to NSW Greens MP and mining spokeswoman, Cate Faehrmann.
“At present, the state government approves exploration licenses without any notification to land owners or Councils, without any environmental assessment via the Department for Environment and Climate Change and Water, and without any strategic plan that identifies where it is and is not appropriate to mine should exploration uncover resources,” it read.
While community action in Sydney’s inner west is just one example of residents’ outcry for stricter measures to be implemented, similar concerns are being heard throughout NSW.
The Northern Star recently reported residents in Keerrong, just north of Lismore, have also expressed distress since Arrow Energy drilled an exploratory shaft on the flood plain beneath homes.
Exploratory drilling for CSG is also being carried out in Northern NSW, to Singleton in the Hunter Valley, Gunnedah in the north-west, and around Camden, in Sydney’s south-west.
Shoebridge also said radar scanning is occurring throughout the Port Macquarie region to distinguish if there were any viable places to begin exploration.
Just a few weeks ago Leichhart Resources — a Queensland company — announced it will exploratory drill for CSG in the Bylong Valley.
While residents in these affected areas continue to voice concerns, Queensland’s CSG industry is booming, despite their attempt to recover from the disastrous floods and recent cyclone.
Only last week, The Australian reported that BHP Biliton is “considering producing and selling coal-seam gas from its big Wards Well coking coal project in Queensland’s Bowen Basin.”
It also reported that the mining giant has asked the federal Environment Department to start the approvals processes on a 55-hole exploration drilling program to whether the coalmine is feasible.
Moreover, Leighton Holdings Ltd subsidiary Thiess has won a $136 million coal seam gas upstream infrastructure contract in Queensland for early works projects in the Surat Basin.
But unlike NSW, last year the Queensland government banned the use of chemicals commonly used in the controversial fracking process — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — otherwise known at BTEX.
The NSW Greens are anticipating an enquiry into the use of these toxic chemicals sometime this month.
“The NSW government has said that they may ban some obnoxious chemicals… from being used in the fracking process and question is coming before cabinet at some point in February,” explained Shoebridge.
The SMH reported “the use of toxic chemicals in the exploration and extraction of coal seam gas is likely to be banned in NSW after pressure from environment groups and a similar decision by Queensland.”
But Shoebridge said the decision should have been made amid the Queensland government and is only “one step forward” towards dealing with the issue.
Community action groups, with the assistance from the Greens and environmental groups are hopeful that protesting and lobbying will be successful.
Late last year the NSW government — amid pressure from environmental groups — introduced new rules governing CSG exploration including “more rigorous” community consultation and “tighter” environmental controls for new drilling applications.
Action groups throughout NSW are drawing on the US documentary, Gasland, to illustrate the potential dangers with the industry.
Last weekend Sydney Residents against Coal Seam Gas action group held an open-air screening of the documentary in Sydney Park, while a packed audience in Mudgee viewed it, just a few weeks ago.
The 2010 documentary reveals the effect CSG mining has had across the US, where coal and oil exploration is exempt from the laws protecting the environment, and the Safe Water Drinking Act.
After filmmaker Josh Fox’s home in Pennsylvania was affected by CSG mining, he traveled across the country, meeting people who had suffered the ramifications as well.
The film illustrates how communities throughout the US have had their drinking water supplies affected, while some people have suffered health problems, and wildlife has died too.
Member of the action group Paul Benedek said the weekend’s turnout illustrated the community’s concern and commitment to “putting an end to it”.
“There was about 300 people who turned out in the heat — it exceeded our expectations,” he told Crikey.
While the future of the CSG industry is unknown, words spoken by John Thompson from the Hunter Valley Protection Alliance, ring true.
“We’ve got to comb our governments to remember who they’re supposed to serve. They don’t serve the multinational corporations, they don’t serve the oil and gas industry; they serve us, the people. We the people have the obligation to make sure that if we’re going to explore for resources, then we do it the right way, in the right places,” he said at a community meeting in Sydney late last year.