Coal seam gas campaign fires up

The campaign against coal seam gas (CSG) mining has accelerated across small towns and rural areas in NSW and Queensland. An investigative documentary, The Gas Rush, aired on February 21 by ABC TV, has spurred anger at mining companies, revealing an industry that is fully backed by state and federal Labor governments.

Three hours west of Brisbane in the town of Tara, which was featured in the Four Corners documentary, residents on March 14 began a blockade of the Tara-Chinchilla road in attempt to stop the Queensland Gas Company building a pipeline.

Meanwhile, public events and protest meetings about CSG mining continue to draw large crowds. On February 25, a screening of the US documentary Gaslands packed out the community hall of Keerong, in northern NSW. In the town of Kyogle, dairy farmers and graziers packed the town hall in a meeting of 120 people on March 18. Around 500 people rallied in Lismore on the following day against companies Metgasco and Arrow Energy, which have plans to explore, drill and pipe methane gas to Ipswich in Queensland for liquefaction and export.

Speakers at the Kyogle meeting included farmers, local councillors and local campaigners, who explained that the CSG industry is not just a couple of wells here and there, but up to 3000 wells in the area covered by a standard topographical map. Representatives from Keerong and Nimbin explained that this is a fight about land use; that corporate Australia is “greenwashing” by claiming that CSG is a clean fuel and that no harmful chemicals are used in the extraction; and that even the Australian government’s own Water Commission acknowledges that there is a risk to rivers and water tables, with millions of litres of water turned to waste in the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process.

Aware of the damning publicity that the Gaslands documentary gives fracking, companies are now saying they are “stimulating” coal-seam beds to release methane gas. They are also claiming that their business is highly regulated and protected by government legislation, but an activist at the Kyogle meeting pointed out the similarities with the highly regulated and policed uranium mining industry, in which even the “toughest regulatory regime in the world” cannot protect against disasters like the Fukushima reactor partial meltdown in Japan. The best insurance policy regarding CSG mining is to leave it in the ground and instead adopt alternative energy solutions. It was also pointed out that methane could be harvested above ground alongside existing beef, dairy, pig and poultry farming and of course human waste.

At the Lismore rally, Marion Lloyd-Smith from the National Toxics Network spoke of the volatile compounds released when methane is extracted from underground coal. She said, “Companies might claim they won’t be using BTEX chemicals [benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes] in the mining process, but BTEX-type chemicals are released once you begin disturbing the coal beds”.

The National Toxics Network website states: “... despite industry claims that fracking chemicals are ‘only used in small quantities’ and are all ‘food grade chemicals used in household chemicals’, NTN has discovered that hazardous chemicals such as ethylene glycol, formamide, naphthalene, ethoxylated nonylphenol and sodium persulfate are commonly used in fracking mixtures ... To give you an idea of the quantities involved, in one QLD proposed coal seam gas operation it was reported that 18,500kg of additives were to be used in each well during the fracturing process and that up to 40% (i.e. 7,500kg or 7.5 tonnes) of the fracking fluids would remain in the formations. That’s a very large quantity of chemicals and they have to go somewhere. Whether they stay underground or they are bought back to the surface and placed in evaporation ponds, there are significant risks of pollution to waterways, the atmosphere and surrounding communities.”

An environmental engineer from Monash University, Gavin Mudd, explained to the Age newspaper on October 19: “The large amount of salt and chemicals, like naphthalene, aren’t easily biodegradable in the environment. Also, the process of drilling and fracking is making the chemicals more mobile than they normally would be. Often these impacts are cumulative; some of the chemicals can slowly build up in the food chain in the long term.”

The Lock the Gate Alliance, which organised the Tara blockade, has signed on at least 63 local campaign groups. It has produced a comprehensive suite of questions for gas companies. The 50 questions focus on legal, health and environmental accountability that so far remain unanswered. The questions cut through the claims made on the Four Corners documentary that the CSG industry is adopting a smaller “environmental” and “safety” footprint.

Lock the Gate asks: “Is your company, its employees and all contractors working on behalf of your company aware of the fact that: a) saline water contamination of productive farmland changes the soil structure to the point where the soil productivity will be lost? b) irrigation of productive farmland with (treated water) also destroys soil structure by dissolving and stripping out the minerals present in the soil?

“There are thousands of documented cases around the world of aquifer depletion, aquifer contamination, dam and stream contamination by migrating methane, fracking chemicals and coal seam water contaminants. Will you please detail what your company or any company acting on your behalf intends to do in the event that your gasfield developments on our land: a) deplete our aquifers, b) contaminate our aquifers, c) cause methane to vent into our aquifers and/or dams and/or streams?”

At the end of the Lismore rally on March 19, the crowd was asked: “Are we going to believe the corporate greenwashing?” To which they replied, “No!” “Are we going to be blackmailed by the coal seam gas industry?” “No!” ”So let’s stop this industry before it starts!”

The struggle against coal seam gas mining will not be won just through letter writing, motions or internet campaigning, so these first steps in taking it to the streets are steps in the right direction.