Coal seam gas drilling has been a hot topic in Australia over the past couple of years, interest fuelled by the US documentary Gasland.
The land on top of the coal arc stretching from northern Queensland down to the southern Highlands of NSW is being slapped with exploration licences that progress to pilot wells at an alarming rate, especially in rural New South Wales.
In NSW, there is no specific legislation covering coal seam gas, and yet exploration and wells are going ahead.
The gas companies operate under the Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991, which doesn’t mention coal seam gas or any of the methods used to extract it.
Coal seam gas extraction processes are relatively experimental, but we can gauge from projects elsewhere that hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has disastrous effects.
As information about the dangers of fracking spreads, more anti-coal alliances and action groups are forming in response.
The growing state of unrest has sparked media releases from some coal and gas companies assuring us their method of extraction is different to fracking and far safer.
Eastern Star Gas, which wants to expand coal seam gas extraction in the Pilliga forest in central-west NSW, said in North West Magazine in June that it will drill between 500 metres and 1 kilometre below ground, well below farming aquifers. It also said it will drill horizontally, thus keeping the gas in the coal seam.
Dart Energy, which has interests in the Hunter region and suburban Sydney, made a similar claim in a June 13 ABC article. It defended the method known as “surface in-seam wells” (also know as “directional drilling” in the US.)
Dart CEO Robert de Weijer said: “The way the wells work is that they're double cased, so a steel pipe [goes] into it and then there’s cement all around it just to make sure that the aquifer is fully isolated from any other layers.”
However, we should not just accept these claims and give companies the go-ahead, especially without any legislation covering coal seam gas. That means there is no legal provision to ensure safe management.
Blowouts occur, as happened in May at a coal seam gas rig near Dalby, Queensland, and so called “safe” wells can go bad.
There is very little information on the method of surface in-seam wells, other than the biased websites of coal and gas companies and advertisements for drilling and boring equipment.
Friends of the Pilliga spokesperson Jane Judd asked Eastern Star Gas some important questions in a letter to the Coonabarabran Times on June 7.
Even if the surface in-seam wells do go ahead, Judd said she wanted to know why they are building a gas pipeline to Newcastle and an export facility if the gas is supposed to fuel gas plants in NSW?
Why are they running pipelines across fertile agricultural land? Is it so they can extend their operations along the pipeline?
How can they be sure that once their steel and cement wells age, they won’t leak into the intake beds of the Great Artisan Basin and other aquifers?
What will be the effect of lightening strikes on metal wellheads, considering methane gas is highly flammable and that the Pilliga landscape is fire-prone?
Groups in Sydney and Wollongong have organised impressive numbers at anti-coal seam gas demonstrations, such as the 3000-strong protest and human sign on Austinmer beach in May that drew much media coverage.
However, activist groups in rural areas such as the Pilliga, the Liverpool Plains, Moree Plains and the Hunter Valley may have fewer, smaller resources and risk fading to the background.
Pilliga’s plight was highlighted in early July by activist Warrick Jordan, who climbed a coal seam gas rig and hung suspended from it for 16 hours in protest. But still too few people are aware of what makes the area so worth protecting.
The Pilliga Forests, near Narrabri, Baradine and Coonabarabran in central-west NSW, have more than 300 native animal species and 900 plant species. Many of these are endangered and the forest is renowned for its diverse array of wildflowers.
The Pilliga is the largest continuous stretch of semi-arid woodland in temperate NSW, a habitat to more than 200 species of birds, many of which are also endangered.
Yet, Green Left Weekly said on June 16, Eastern Star Gas has proposed to clear thousands of hectares of scrub to hugely expand its coal seam gas rigs.
The Liverpool and Moree Plains — millions of hectares of highly productive farmland between Moree, Gunnedah, Narrabri, Quirindi, Werris Creek and Tamworth — are also in danger.
The black, nutrient-rich earth is used for grazing beef cattle and sheep, as well as crops.
Many farming families in the plains have worked the land for generations and boast crop yields of more than 40% above average. They grow barley, chickpeas, sorghum, soybeans, wheat, maize and cotton.
These plains are under threat from the expansion of coalmining by BHP at Caroona. The Chinese mining company Shenhua also recently spent $213 million buying farmland in Gunnedah.
Eastern Star want to run its pipelines from Pilliga under the plains, and now Santos intend to drill for gas there too.
Members of the Caroona Coal Action Group are fighting the coal companies in the Liverpool Plains. But the going is tough for small communities against billion-dollar companies whose projects are being quietly fast-tracked.
The June 18 Sydney Morning Herald said another company, Planet Gas, is working hard at securing a coal seam gas exploration lease in the Moree Plains.
The company approached durum wheat farmer Doug Cush twice, with high hopes for drilling on his land.
But Cush stood firm against the company. Coal seam gas mining will not only pose a threat to his own wheat production and pasta export, but will also affect surrounding areas.
Cush joined 300 other angry locals at a community meeting in the small town of Bellata.
In June, Moree Council voted for a 60-day moratorium on coal seam gas mining. The state government also passed a 60-day moratorium as part of a “transitional period”. But communities don’t feel this is enough.
The Hunter Valley is another area at the forefront of the coal seam gas boom. The rolling green hills, forests rich in biodiversity and productive vineyards have long attracted visitors and provided a peaceful haven for residents and wildlife.
However, coal seam gas exploration leases granted across most of the Hunter, and the government’s approval of wells in the Gloucester basin earlier this year, put all this at risk.
AGL is carrying out seismic exploration for gas, is drilling core and chip holes and has created two pilot test wells.
The licences run from the outskirts of Newcastle, south to Cooranbong, and all the way to Merriwa and Scone in the north.
Dart Energy also plans to drill at Fullerton Cove, with licences expected to be passed in near future.
The Hunter Valley Protection Alliance, along with other environmental protection and community action groups such as the Hunter-Bulga Gas Action Group, the Barrington-Gloucester-Stroud Preservation Alliance, Rivers SOS and Wollombi Valley Against Gas Extraction are fighting these plans.
A petition against coal seam gas mining in the Hunter is available at huntervalleyprotectionalliance.com
Hunter Residents are angry that they are expected to trust AGL and other coal seam gas companies, despite the discovery in September last year that AGL had pumped 120,000 litres of toxic water onto pastures near Bulga.
Photographs on the Hunter Valley Protection Alliance website show the unlined ponds of murky water. The water was independently tested at Hunter Water Laboratories, which said it had high salt levels and chemicals associated with drilling machinery.
In March, more than 200 people filled the Gloucester Soldiers Club for a meeting organised by the Barrington-Gloucester-Stroud Preservation Alliance.
Citizens fired their questions and concerns about coal seam gas directly to AGL representatives.
The meeting began in uproar as the moderator said AGL had refused to accept any media presence at the meeting.
Naturally the question was asked, what does AGL have to hide?
If its 100-plus proposed wells pose no threat, why aren’t they being transparent across the board?
Lance Beatty, who lives close to a coalmine near Mudgee, told Gloucester residents to prepare for the impact of “infrasound” from coal seam gas drilling, said a July 4 ABC article.
“Infrasound is sound in the very low frequency range and all heavy diesel machinery will produce infrasound,” said Beatty. “That hum that’s inside the head is what you will be aware of infrasound as being, that hum cannot be eradicated.”
The Just Transition Tour, a busload of activists who toured NSW coalfields in November 2009, promoted a safe transition to 100% renewable energy, raised awareness of the risks of coal and coal seam gas mining and offered its support to struggling rural communities.
Perhaps it’s time we follow up with a sequel to this tour, to remind rural areas they are not alone in their fight, and to remind the rest of NSW and Australia that no matter where the wells end up, in regional or urban areas, the effects will ultimately touch us all.