The gas industry is rapidly increasing its scope in the Australian energy market as, state and federal government approve drilling sites across the nation with little community consultation and relaxed environmental safeguards.
Natural gas will account for 33% of Australia's primary energy consumption by 2030, compared with 8% from renewables, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE).
The approval process for major gas projects has come under scrutiny from the Greens. NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann referred to the NSW planning department's process of application approval as a “rubber-stamping exercise”, said the November 19 Sydney Morning Herald.
Applications for gas exploration in NSW can be approved without an environmental impact statement. These are required only if the planning minister deems them necessary, given the minister’s powers under the Part 3A law.
The Part 3A law was passed in 2007 and grants the planning minister complete control over all aspects of the approval process for projects such as gas drilling. Breaches of environmental and heritage laws can be disregarded and there are no grounds for legal challenges.
When Frank Sartor was NSW planning minister in 2007, legislation was also changed to allow petroleum and gas exploration in state conservation and drinking water catchment areas.
Ironically, given his record, Sartor has since gone on to become the minister for climate change and the environment.
Similarly in Queensland, applications for major project gas work are submitted to the Department of Infrastructure and Planning (DIP) where the coordinator-general decides if an environmental impact statement is needed.
This is comparable to the loophole that exists in the US whereby natural gas drilling does not have to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act under an exemption granted by the Bush administration in 2005.
In Queensland, there are eight projects awaiting approval from the DIP, including proposals for the liquefaction of coal seam gas to produce liquefied natural gas.
In NSW, 16 gas projects are currently lodged with the planning department and 12 gas projects have been approved this year, including expansions and amendments to current projects.
In the Illawarra region of NSW, 15 coal seam gas bores for commercial production were recently approved under Part 3A. Nearby residents were not told and three bores have already been drilled.
The NSW department of mineral resources requested that the 2009 Local Environment Plan rezone Sydney Catchment Authority lands west of the escarpment to permit coal seam gas production.
The unelected state government-appointed administrators at Wollongong City Council complied.
A confidential letter between Apex Energy and Peabody Metropolitan Coal was leaked by community activist Natasha Watson. It detailed the plans for the 15 bores, and to build a gas-fired power plant.
Watson found the letter online, buried in an indexed series of more than 100 planning documents and approvals across the Illawarra.
None of the plans had been disclosed to residents, so Watson leaked the plans to inform the community.
She told Green Left Weekly: "Approval was also sought and given by the Sydney Catchment Authority and Wollongong Council, however while Apex's Part 3A was displayed for one month on the Department of Planning website. Their only consultation with the region's community was the Darkes Forest land owners who's approval on leases was required.
"Coal seam gas mining, with its insidious threat to the aquifers of our land, wide land clearing and the hideous required infrastructure, will be disastrous.
"The government state and nationally appear to be racing to approve and extract as much gas as possible before the foretold environmental risks and destroyed farmland are actualised."
One document, dated August 6, showed that Apex Energy and Peabody Metropolitan Coal colluded to begin mining for gas under the Sydney water catchment.
The letter acknowledged that damage to the environment from coal seam gas mining was anticipated and that public attention was unwanted.
“Peabody”, the letter said, “would rather not be directly involved with any surface problems which may be brought to the attention of the Sydney Catchment Authority or other Landowners, and that any public attention not be to the detriment of their underground coal mining activities.”
The letter details an agreement to keep Peabody's name out of potential bad publicity.
It went on: "Following the public scrutiny of the application for extension of the Metropolitan Colliery (now approved), and the problems they have had due to surface water disappearance and land subsidence, Peabody is very sensitive to having their name associated with any further resource development project ... lest it attract unnecessary attention and further aggravation.
"Apex’s preferred position is also not to have Peabody (Metropolitan) directly associated with the gas extraction / commercialization operations."
In response to these statements Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre, told the September 23 SMH: “The company admits its longwall mining plan in the protected Sydney water catchment was controversial and then moved to disguise its involvement in gas drilling.”
Angel also pointed to a broader exclusion of the public.
“What makes it even worse is that the Department of Planning was complicit in agreeing to remove the gas drilling from the Metropolitan mine impact statement which protected the company from bad publicity.”
New planning minister Tony Kelly told the September 23 SMH: “The department understands Apex had discussed the matter with Peabody prior to arriving at this decision. However, this was entirely irrelevant to the department's assessment of either proposal.”
There is community concern that a controversial technique known as “fracking” could be used at a site near Warragamba Dam, now under application from Apex Energy to begin drilling in early 2012.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves blasting a mixture of water, sand and other chemicals deep into the ground to fracture the bedrock and release coal seam gas.
Fracking to extract coal seam gas has been associated with contaminated drinking water in the US. But the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) dismissed the threat on October 26, saying “the risk of contamination of groundwater is minimal” and fracking “has been used safely around the world for more than 50 years and in Australia for several decades”.
Fracking is now carried out in Australia in places including a Camden site run as a joint venture between AGL and Sydney Gas Limited, sites near Mackay run by Arrow Energy and in the Bowen basin at sites run by Bow Energy.
Origin Energy in the Surat Basin in Queensland has also used the technique.
Despite concern from the community, environmental groups and the Greens, the NSW department of industry and investment has not stopped fracking. It recently allowed fracking at a site near Lismore, run by Metgasco.
The current approval process for gas projects must be overhauled and a ruling must be made against fracking, or concern will only intensify as gas is used more as a fuel to generate electricity.
Mining companies, and local, federal and state governments, position it as a cleaner energy source than coal.
Some environmentalists consider it to be a “transition fuel”, while we develop renewable energies.
In an address to the Bow Energy Limited AGM on November 22, company secretary Duncan Cornish said: "Putting a price on carbon is high on the political and social agenda worldwide, including Australia, and this will result in increased demand for lower carbon emitting fuels such as natural gas.
“This is already resulting in gas-fired electricity generation trending from supplying peaking demand towards intermediate and ultimately base-load electricity generation.”
Carbon emissions from burning natural gas are lower than coal, but it is still a non-renewable fossil fuel.
Emissions and damage to the environment can’t just be measured at the point of power generation.
Watson told GLW: “Drilling, stimulating more methane production, and the huge waste of potable water, and then the resultant toxic waste water is far too great a price for the power produced.”
In addition, methane comprises 87% of natural gas, some of which is released into the atmosphere during mining and transportation. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, 20 times as potent as coal.
Climate science shows that the world needs a new approach to stationary energy — one that acknowledges the science and uses society's resources to give us a chance at a safe climate future.
A recent report from the German Advisory Council on Global Change revealed that, to have a 67% chance of keeping global warming to less than 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels, the US would need to move to zero emissions or below in 10 years. The same follows for other rich countries with high per-capita emissions, like Australia.
In Australia, transitioning with gas comes with unnecessary risks, damage and emissions. The technology exists to make an immediate switch to 100% renewables.
Research by the University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute and Beyond Zero Emissions shows Australia could meet all its stationary energy needs from 100% renewable sources within 10 years.
Burning gas creates carbon emissions, and expanding gas as a fuel source means building outmoded infrastructure that commits Australia to another carbon polluting technology.
Josh Fox, director of Gasland, a documentary about the impact of coal seam gas mining in the US, told the November 13 SMH: "So when you burn the gas, sure, it’s cleaner than burning coal. But when you look at the life-cycle of developing it, you’re on a par with some of our dirtiest fossil fuels.
“They’re trying to say natural gas will save the world, when in fact it’s the opposite: natural gas is trying to destroy renewable energy by being its principal competition. This is fossil fuel, and fossil fuel is of the last century. This century’s job is to make sure that’s not what we’re dependent on going forward.”