Growing opposition to coal seam gas mining

Gasland, an explosive documentary exposing the dangers of coal seam gas mining in the United States, has shocked audiences as it toured film festivals and country towns facing the same “hit-and-run” industry in Australia. Packing such a punch with its first-hand account of family farmers and rural residents suffering diseases and disorders linked to the chemicals used in gas mining, the documentary is a harbinger of a potential new front for the green movement here: farmers fighting coal and gas mining.

Coalitions of farming communities such as Liverpool Plains (NSW) and western Darling Downs (Queensland) have been vigorously opposing the exploratory phases of coal seam gas (CSG) mining through “official channels”: writing submissions and responding to environmental impact assessments, parliamentary inquiries and public consultations.

Tired of bureaucratic roundabouts, some have taken their own forms of direct action, the most recent being a one-person picket by a resident locking himself to a gate to stop trucks moving mining machinery around near Tara in Queensland. Farmers at Caroona in the Liverpool Plains south-west of Tamworth have maintained a protest camp with a caravan and information centre since 2008, using an old car to block access to properties where coal and gas prospecting was taking place. According to a 7.30 Report story on November 9, 2010, there are nearly 4000 CSG sites across rural Queensland with “the potential for this to increase nearly tenfold”.

The shift in opinion among farmers against CSG mining has now registered with the NSW Farmers Federation, whose president wrote in the Land newspaper on January 6 calling for a “halt on new licences for mining and coal seam gas exploration and production until a strategic planning approach and regulatory reforms are adopted”. In northern NSW, the Lismore City Council on December 14 unanimously endorsed a moratorium on CSG mining in NSW. The mayor later commented in the local newspaper, “I have serious doubts about the safety of this energy source, as water is our most precious resource”. The motion was inspired by a local action group that formed after discovering that Arrow Energy was undertaking exploratory drilling in the Keerong Valley, north of Lismore. Arrow Energy is already implicated in a benzene spill at its Moranbah gas plant near Rockhampton.

Fracking

Mining coal seam gas, or methane, involves a highly disruptive and destructive form of extraction based on a combined chemical-hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) of coal beds, to capture and pipe methane to the surface. Most of the methane planned for extraction in Australia is being sought for overseas energy markets, while the electricity generators in Australia remain coal powered.

In itself methane can be a useful fuel, producing 40% less greenhouse gas emissions than coal-fired power. The problem lies in the extractive process. The research for Gasland discovered at least 596 chemicals used in fracking by US companies. The worst of these are from the highly carcinogenic BTEX group (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene), traces of which have been found in current Queensland and NSW CSG operations.

As a result of extensive publicity and debate generated by Gasland, the NSW Labor government issued a press release the week before Christmas saying: “BTEX chemicals are not currently used in any hydraulic fracturing activities in NSW - but the idea of banning these chemicals is certainly something that we are investigating”. But even without BTEX chemicals, the waste water from CSG mining is highly saline and contains other hazardous chemicals released from the coal seam.

Agricultural land

CSG industry players in Australia claim that they are “moving to greener chemistry” using sand, salts, polymers and water to extract the methane. But they don’t mention the millions of litres of water needed for the process and that contamination of surface water and underground aquifers is hard to contain. In the case of one Gladstone project, 90 million litres of water from drilling wells need to be “managed” each day. On top of the rivers needed to feed the fracking, CSG mining is being proposed on existing agricultural land, better used for food production.

The irony of mining for methane on prime agricultural land is that methane can easily be produced  from cow, chicken, pig or vegetable waste. Small biodigesters are already in use in countries like India and China where methane is constantly harvested for household cooking and heating. Large methane plants also exist in the US, such as at sewage stations (San Antonio) and landfill sites (Kansas City).

A new alliance launched in Brisbane called “Lock the Gate” aims to build support for farmers and residents taking action against CSG mining. Lock the Gate has a six-point program including the elimination of fast track planning for coal and gas mining companies, the introduction of groundwater preservation requirements under existing environmental protection legislation and the prohibition of coal and unconventional gas mining on productive agricultural land.

Lock the Gate is planning a national convergence in Tara, one of the mine communities, on May 1 to 5. For more details see the Lock the Gate Alliance website.