The rapid growth of the coal seam gas (CSG) industry — despite broad public opposition and proven risks — is bringing the gap between policy and public will into stark relief.
Research remains limited, but there is mounting evidence CSG mining poses serious risks. The industry puts huge demand on water supplies, particularly ground water, damages aquifers and produces large quantities of contaminated water that can pollute soil and water sources. It divides the landscape with roads, wells and pipelines, and can cause seismic activity and subsidence.
Mining and burning CSG also releases potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Governments and the industry claim CSG development is about cutting emissions, but even an industry commissioned report released last week shows Australian gas exported to China is little better in terms of global warming potential than coal.
People are worried about these dangers. An August 2011 Galaxy poll found that 68% of Australians support a moratorium on CSG mining until more is known about the health and environmental impacts.
The highest levels of support for a moratorium are in Queensland and NSW, where CSG production is in operation and people are living with the effects of the industry.
In spite of this, the industry continues to expand at an astounding rate — backed by state and federal governments.
In Queensland, CSG development and production is well underway. About 3500 wells were built by January this year.
And despite growing problems and public opposition, another 40,000 wells and at least eight liquefied natural gas plants are planned for the state.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and Treasurer Andrew Fraser said the state government “welcomes the establishment of a new energy industry, which … capitalises on our state’s extensive coal seam gas reserves.”
NSW is set to follow suit. Only one production field is in operation so far, but 25% of NSW is under an exploration licence. In May, the NSW minister Duncan Gay told parliament: “The government provides a number of attractive incentives to encourage exploration, development and utilisation of the coal seam gas industry in New South Wales.”
Exploration licences — under which companies seek to prove they can extract the gas in commercial quantities — have now also been issued in Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
Communities consistently find themselves having to catch up, as information about CSG and approvals reaches them after the fact. And anger — not only at government failure to show caution in the face of big risks — extends to being excluded from such important decisions, as industry profits are put before the health of communities.
Campaign group Stop CSG Illawarra put together a video of two local actions, each attended by more than 3000 residents, calling for an immediate moratorium on all CSG projects, a royal commission into the full impacts of CSG mining and a ban on fracking.
It asks the NSW government: “Who do you work for?”
The pressure of such campaigns is having an impact across Australia. In Queensland, CSG mining has been banned in dense population centres. In NSW a parliamentary inquiry is underway. And last week Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor tied their support for the federal government's resource tax to an investigation into CSG mining.
The campaign — which questions the “right” of the mining industry to profit at the expense of people and the environment – continues to grow. It is ordinary people, from all walks of life, standing together to put the health of communities first.
[Jess Moore is an activist with Stop CSG Illawarra and Socialist Alliance. Moore won the NSW Nature Conservation Council's "Rising Star" award on October 29.]