Deciding to support the coal and gas industry is not just about climate change. It is also about whether or not to support sustainable agriculture and tourism — because you cannot have both.
Water is life: but that is only true if the water is clean.
Fugitive methane emissions from the coal seam gas (CSG) industry have now gone from streams of bubbles to churning spa-baths coming up like volcanoes through the Condamine River, in the headwaters of the Murray-Darling Basin.
If methane is visibly coming up through rivers (as it is also coming up, invisibly, from soils) so is the waste salt and carcinogenic benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX) chemicals released from coal seams by the industrial process of pumping water through fracked coal to extract the gas.
A dump for 5 million tonnes of waste salt and BTEX poisons, by-products of CSG mining, has been approved at Chinchilla, 50 metres uphill from a Condamine tributary at the top of the Murray-Darling Basin.
Five million tonnes of salt is the estimated amount of waste from Queensland CSG wells. However, the dump has been approved for 15 million tonnes of salt waste.
The Queensland government’s recently-released CSG brine management action plan, for the next decade, confirms that the science does not offer a safe storage method.
Instead, it proposes to use the cheap method of drying the salt in evaporation dams, then storing it in plastic-lined holes in the ground. Salt does not break down, but plastic liners do, and the plan admits this is only a short-term solution until a better method can be found.
We have seen the enormous fish kill at Menindee, from toxins washed down by floods. This will pale in comparison with the death of fish, wildlife and vegetation if 5 million tonnes of salt washes down the Condamine into the Murray-Darling Basin.
Salt is extraordinarily difficult to remove from environments — much more difficult than oil spills in low permeability heavy soils.
Coal holds numerous carcinogens and other poisons, and mining coal allows those toxins into the water. In floods, coal mines fill with water. This contaminated water is then allowed, by governments, to be pumped out into our catchments, where it ends up in the waterways that supply communities. This was allowed after the 2011 floods.
Wastewater for coal and CSG mining gets pumped into storage ponds that then overflow in floods. If the ponds are lined, the plastic lining breaks down after 20 years and leaches into groundwater.
Reverse osmosis filters, used to remove toxins from CSG water, are then stored, filled with poisons, in landfill. All landfill leaches into groundwater.
During droughts agriculture is increasingly dependent on artesian water. Our catchments feed our artesian basins. We are poisoning the Great Artesian Basin and we don’t even know how the basin works. We certainly don’t know how to clean it of poisons that get into it.
Because water moves so slowly underground, by the time monitoring bores pick up contamination, it has already become a massive problem.
Economically, we can stop mining coal and gas. Engineer Saul Griffith’s book The Big Switch explains how we can 100% electrify Australia and create far more export dollars by using renewable energy to smelt the mineral ores already being produced and make 10 times the income for a far smaller volume of exports.
We could lead the world in the supply of clean green steel and aluminium.
Labor now governs every state, except Tasmania. It could take the big step to reject mining industry donors and ban these filthy fossil fuel industries that are killing our rivers and artesian basins and poisoning all of us who depend on clean drinking water.
[Elena Garcia is a regenerative grazier based in the Western Downs in Queensland.]