Inquiry finds no rules and no answers for coal seam gas

Anger against coal seam gas (CSG) mining, which has erupted into significant street protests over the past six months, has now spilled into parliament. A federal Senate committee accused company representatives of “wordsmithing” their way around difficult questions and coming to the conclusion that “there are no rules” and “there are no answers” about how to deal with intractable waste problems caused by CSG mining.

The Rural Affairs and Transport Committee’s inquiry into the impact of mining coal seam gas met during July and August over five days in towns most affected by CSG — in Roma and Dalby in Queensland and in Narrabri, NSW. At Narrabri, where Eastern Star Gas is building gas pipelines and wells in remnant native forest, at least 50 locals packed the public hearing armed with protest placards.

Transcripts of the inquiry are revealing, showing the great environmental damage posed by CSG operations and the threat to food and water supplies. The only promises coming from the CSG industry are that any waste produced will be “manageable” and that they intend to “make good” any affected water supplies regularly used for drinking.

The submission by Cecil Plains resident Ruth Armstrong summarised the situation farmers face in Dalby (Qld), where the CSG industry is aggressively developing infrastructure with the full backing of the state Labor government. “The petroleum companies have unfettered access and are able to take or interfere with unlimited quantities of groundwater during the course of gas extraction … It is anticipated that the coal seam gas industry in the Surat Basin will extract in excess of 100,000 megalitres of groundwater every year, most of which is salty to varying degrees. As yet, the CSG industry does not have suitable solutions for dealing with this water. It has been recognised that the draw-down in groundwater levels across the Surat Basin will be unprecedented, greater than anything ever previously seen worldwide”, she said in her opening statement to the inquiry on July19.

“My water is drinking-quality water. It is plumbed into my house. I drink it; my children bathe in it. I will not feel very comfortable accepting treated CSG water to substitute for my impaired bore given that I use it for my domestic water supply. The CSG industry is going to be around only until 2045. Where will my substitution ‘make good’ water come from after 2045, when the industry is not here any more but my bore is still impaired?”, asked Armstrong.

When another farmer appeared at Roma the day before and mentioned that he was licensed to draw only a maximum of 160 megalitres of water from the Great Artesian Basin, the chair of the inquiry asked rhetorically: “Would it disturb you to know that there is a plan to draw 300 to 400 gigalitres, which is 300,000 to 400,000 megalitres, with no licences, for coal seam gas extraction? … Would it worry you if some of that salt water, treated partially or totally, was reinjected into the aquifer?”

No solution to  waste

When the CSG company Queensland Gas Corporation (QGC) faced the committee on the last day of hearings on August 9 — who were by now well versed in the nature of the industry — became more pointed with their queries:

Chair: What will you do with the brine?

QGC: We did address that issue of the salt in our formal submission.

Chair: Please do not waste time repeating — this is question time.

QGC: We said in our formal submission that we expect to produce about 4.6 million tonnes of salt over the next 20 years. This is made up of sodium chloride, sodium carbonate or soda ash, and sodium bicarbonate.

Chair: We know that. Everything that is written, we read and we take in. What are you going to do with it?

QGC: Australia has markets for these products and, as we said in our formal submission, we are investigating technical and commercial opportunities and this may spawn a new industry for Queensland.

Chair: But at this present time, given the environmental approval that you have — and congratulations on that — there is no solution for that. We do not have an end use for it or a solution?

QGC: We do have a solution.

Chair: Store it?

QGC: What we are doing, directly with others — storage is a solution.

Chair: Thank you, very much. That is all you need to say.

While the inquiry exposed some important home truths about CSG mining, it was limited in its capacity to make recommendations or impose any form of bans on the industry.

Meanwhile in NSW, the Greens have successfully pushed state parliament to run a separate inquiry into coal seam gas, looking at the economic, health and social implications of mining in NSW. With or without the NSW inquiry, however, the fundamental “right” to underground resources has already been given to mining companies via legislation such as the NSW Petroleum (Onshore) Act — which is why campaigners need to look beyond parliament to a strategy that doesn’t get delayed or detoured while the industry is busy putting in place infrastructure and agreements.

Ban it now!

As part of a Sydney Morning Herald reader poll titled “Is coal seam gas worth the risk?”, Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham wrote: “... the community must decide whether to grant [CSG mining] a social licence, if it is satisfied that the facts and risks are known”. But the salient facts and risks are now known, thanks to the recent federal parliamentary hearings and the expert evidence available, such as papers produced by the National Toxics Network.

At stake is up to  $1 million a day per gas well (with 25% of NSW mapped for gas extraction), so it is unlikely that any adverse findings by a Senate committee are going to be heeded by the fossil fuel industry thirsting for its next source of superprofits.

When 200 people protested outside the Minerals Exploration and Investment conference in Sydney on August 18, the NSW mines minister, Chris Hartcher, was there to give assurances that the coal and CSG industry would be fully supported and were “fundamental” to the state’s economy.

With battle lines drawn and the impact of coal seam gas extraction (at least in Queensland) now documented through one elementary inquiry, now is the time for campaigners to demand, not a moratorium, or to wait for the findings of another committee,  but an outright ban on coal seam gas mining.

A national day of action against coal seam gas is planned for October 16. For details check lockthegate.org


Protest against CSG at mining conference in Sydney, August 18.