Gas rush prompts rural-city opposition

March 26, 2011
Protest against coal seam gas mining in NSW, Sydney December 2010. Photo: Peter Boyle

Coal seam gas exploration is becoming a key political issue in NSW. The Labor and Liberal parties are pushing for a huge expansion in gas mining, including coal seam gas.

But farmers, regional communities and city-dwellers are becoming increasingly worried about the health and environmental consequences of the gas rush.

The NSW government recently approved energy company AGL’s bid to drill 90 coal seam gas wells and build a pipeline and processing centre near Gloucester, north of Sydney.

Four hundred people turned up to a March 9 public meeting in the town to quiz planning minister Tony Kelly about it.

Two days later, more than 450 people filled the Singleton Civic Centre to have their say about the NSW government’s coal and gas strategy.

The same day, the NSW Farmers Association hosted a meeting at Spring Hill, near Orange, to inform farmers of their rights in relation to gas companies seeking to drill for gas on their land.

In Sydney on March 9, Lock the Gate Alliance hosted a public forum with professionals from the health and environment sectors. The Alliance is a growing group of residents and organisations calling for a balanced and rigorous regulatory approach to police the development of the coal and unconventional gas mining industries in Australia.

John Thompson, a former industry insider, is active in the Lock the Gate Alliance. At the meeting, he called for NSW communities to unite to stop the coal seam gas industry before it really got going.

Other speakers at the forum agreed. They included: Dr Linda Selvey, Greenpeace CEO and former public health advocate; Dr Helen Redmond from Doctors for the Environment, Australia; respiratory expert Dr Dick van Steenis; and Dr Tuan Au, a Singleton-based GP who is conducting his own study on the possible link between cancer clusters and coalmining.

Van Steenis explained the health threat caused by small particle dusts generated by coalmining, processing, transport and coal-fired power plants.

He said the most dangerous particles are those smaller than 2.5 microns, of which the mining process produces billions.

The tiny coal particles get into the lungs and can lead to chronic lung disease and cancer.

He said a growing number of peer-reviewed studies and health statistics coming out of the Hunter region — an area dominated by the coalmining and transport — back this up.

The high number of cancer clusters in Singleton convinced Au to begin to test his patients after trying in vain to get the state government to do its own study.

From his studies, Au said he is convinced there is a link between the high number of cancers and respiratory problems caused by the coal dust.

Last year, he found that one in six children in Singleton had less than 80% lung capacity — compared to one in 20 nationwide.

Redmond warned against the government-industry rush into coal seam gas mining. He said the regulatory framework had not been established and that there was already enough evidence to show that people’s health and the environment would be the casualities.

She said that the gas rush was forecast to double gas exports from 18 to 41 million tonnes a year by 2015. “We stand to lose food production, export industries, tourism and thriving communities as well as a stable climate if we allow the CSG industry to take off,” Redmond said.

Just before the NSW Labor government moved into caretaker mode before the March 26 elections, it approved the drilling of 110 new coal seam gas wells in the Gloucester basin and the Hunter Valley.

Apollo Gas has already been given the rights over most of the Sydney area including in the inner city suburb of St Peters, where a gas well is being built on an old industrial site.

Redmond demolished the myth that fracking — a gas extraction method that uses thousands of megalitres of water, salt, sand and a toxic cocktail of chemicals — is not dangerous.

She said the NSW government’s promise to consider a ban on the use of BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene) if the drilling was close to a water table was “not good enough”.

In Queensland, where there are some 4000 wells and 40,000 more planned over the next 20 years, the toxic water from coal seam gas mining is now endangering rivers such as the Condamine.

Redmond also warned of the air pollution caused by methane leakage and said that no studies had been done on the long term impacts of fracking on workers in the coal seam gas industry who are exposed to methane and other chemicals.

Redmond also disputed the push towards gas as a “cleaner” fuel.

She pointed to a 2010 study by Cornell University scientists, which found that the gas industry’s greenhouse gas emissions were similar to emissions from coal-fired power stations.

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