NSW Coalition Premier Barry O’Farrell has been accused of lying about his pre-election promise to protect farmland and drinking water catchments from the burgeoning coal seam gas (CSG) industry.
The government finally released its Strategic Regional Land Use Policy on September 11. It outlines how the government will manage the CSG industry. After 18 months of promising to protect sensitive areas such as farms and bushland from the new industry, the policy revealed that no part of NSW has been ruled out for CSG mining and exploration.
On the same day, the government lifted the freeze on fracking that had been in place since July last year. It also offered to renew 22 exploration licences in NSW covering 5 million hectares.
Stop CSG Illawarra, a community group campaigning against CSG, has described the changes as “nothing short of a betrayal”.
Jess Moore from Stop CSG Illawarra told Green Left Weekly: “Essentially this is an enormous ramping up of the industry. It’s the government saying, ‘We want you to explore, and we want you to develop this industry’.”
One of Stop CSG Illawarra's biggest concerns is the protection of water catchment areas.
Moore said: "O'Farrell promised to ban exploration and mining in the drinking water catchment. This was, quite clearly, a lie."
There are five water catchments in the greater Sydney area that supplies drinking water to two thirds of people in NSW, or 4.3 million people. Each of these catchments are covered or encroached on by CSG exploration licences.
Land around the catchment dams are designated Special Areas and are important buffer zones that prevent anything entering the dam that could affect the quality of water. The public are not allowed to walk in this area and can be fined up to $44,000 for doing so. But, remarkably, these same areas are open to CSG drilling.
Despite assurances from the industry, there is a risk that underground water systems will be contaminated. When a CSG well is drilled, a cement lining is inserted to stop gas escaping into water systems. However, research from overseas has shown that this cement degrades over time, half would break down in 30 years, allowing gas to escape into water systems.
Drilling into complicated underground water systems can have unintended consequences. In Queensland this year, surprised locals took video footage of the Condamine River bubbling with methane, something they had never witnessed before a CSG well was drilled a kilometre away.
An equally important concern is the disposal of waste water. All CSG drilling involves drawing contaminated water to the surface to release the gas. This water is high in salt and methane, and can contain toxic and radioactive compounds and heavy metals.
In 2010 in the NSW Pilliga forest, CSG company Eastern Star Gas released 10,000 litres of this toxic water into the surrounding environment, killing trees and wildlife. Now owned by Santos, this site has still not been rehabilitated.
But Prime Minister Julia Gillard has focused on the “huge opportunities” of developing coal seam gas, despite its many health and environmental risks. The government wants it to eventually replace coal energy, and is helping the industry establish in every state and territory of Australia.
There is an alternative. Australia has abundant renewable energy resources, which research has shown can replace fossil fuel energy. Large-scale solar thermal power plants, combined with wind power, can meet Australia’s energy needs, providing power 24 hours a day.
Federal and state governments are delaying the development of the renewable energy industry, and preferencing the continuation of fossil fuels, even while pledging commitment to a low carbon future. For example, new anti-wind farm laws in Victoria allow anyone to veto a wind farm development within a kilometre of their home. Unfortunately, the same provision doesn't exist for a coalmine, power station or CSG well.
There are thousands of people determined to stop CSG companies from setting up in their community. After campaigning on this issue for years, through writing submissions, presenting evidence to ministers, holding public rallies and town hall meetings, these people are frustrated and angry. They have come to the realisation the government is not making policy in the interests of ordinary people.
Moore said: "Communities are furious about the new policies. We've had cases of farmers who are choosing to lock their gate, even though they don't formally have the right to say no to coal seam gas mining companies coming onto their land, they're doing it because they need to."
These communities are taking on the CSG companies and have organised a Week of Action over October 13-21.
"It's not just about individuals locking the gate, communities need to have the ability to lock the gate on coal seam gas mining companies too."
Moore said that after the week of action, Stop CSG Illawarra would continue to expand the campaign in the Illawarra. "Starting with five suburbs, we're going to knock on every door and ask people what they think, because the government failed to ask us whether we want CSG development. This is important in terms of democracy, deepening the campaign and strengthening community resolve."
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