CSG - Who are the best environmental guardians?

Social, legal and health issues related to air and water toxic pollution in Australia.

CSG - Who are the best environmental guardians?

Postby HVPA_research » Fri May 06, 2011 9:00 am

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Link to this page: http://forum.huntervalleyprotectionalliance.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=321
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The following essay is based on a private submission to NSW Coal & Gas Strategy Subcommittee that currently runs under the auspices of the NSW Government Department of Planning.

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Coal Seam Gas - Who are the best environmental guardians?
Friday, 15 April, 2011.

Quote: The best way to see Eastern Australia, is to see it as one giant coal mine!
An anonymous expert on ABC Television.

I have heard this quote about six month ago on the ABC TV and I would love to find out who the original author was. If this is the official line, it would explain perfectly all the environmental problems caused by the coal and gas industry in the Hunter Valley.

It is true that large tracts of the best agricultural land in Eastern Australia are located in ancient alluvial basins and that they overlay massive coal deposits [1]. Where is coal, there is also a push to mine it as quickly as possible. Where is coal, there is also methane gas and thus the land becomes a target for eager gas miners. Unfortunately, this is also the area where many people like to live and thus there is a growing conflicts between mines, agriculture and local residents. In this submission I will concentrate only on the coal seam gas industry. I live within a Petroleum Exploration License area and coal seam gas ( CSG) represents the major existential and health threat for me and for my family. I am leaving the broader question of unrestricted coal mining and climate change for others to discuss.


SCOPING PAPER

I have read the NSW Coal & Gas Strategy Scoping Paper [2] very carefully and found it full of great "motherhood statements" about "sustainability" and "compatibility". Nobody can argue against these truisms but this approach is pretty much "business as usual" and bound to fail. The paper makes a basic assumption that coal and gas mining are by definition compatible with the nature heritage values, with the agriculture and with the residential areas where thousands of NSW citizens live. The possibility that, in some situations, coal and gas mining may not be sustainable and compatible at all with the rural Australia has escaped the planners living in the distant cities entirely. Information about the real or perceived environmental, social or health threats of uncontrolled gas mining is widely available already (see e.g. [3] [4], [5], [6] ). Thousands of websites, user groups and mailing lists discuss these topics vigorously worldwide. It is very sad to see that it took years of work by unpaid environmental volunteers to bring these problems to the attention of the government regulators while the paid experts relied on the positive spin fed to them by the coal and gas industry.


DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COAL AND GAS INDUSTRIES

There is a difference between the two industries. Coal mines operate on a relatively small areas of their own land because they extract coal - a very concentrated fuel resource. Coal mines also tend to expand into rich agricultural lands or too close to residential areas and this causes conflicts. Coal seam gas (CSG) is, on the other hand, a very diluted fuel resource. It is just methane gas adsorbed in a coal matrix - in other words, it is a small amount of gas in hard rock. Because of this, CSG companies need huge areas of land and huge disruptive infrastructure for their projects to make the gas extraction worthwhile. They cannot buy most of the land in Eastern Australia so they use inadequate government regulations and/or plain deception to get naive land owners to sign one sided contracts and thus get access to operate on their land. When the land owners discover disadvantages of having CSG gaswells on their land it is too late.



TRANSPARENCY AND THE BEST ENVIRONMENTAL GUARDIANS

I have worked in agricultural energy research and coal mining for over forty years. As I see it, there may be a place for a small CSG industry in Australia for the domestic market providing that the problems and conflicts mentioned above can be satisfactory resolved. Most of the current problems stem from the inadequate regulatory transparency in the current system. All major decisions concerning CSG exploration, development and production are made between the government and industry experts behind close doors. Yet there are in fact four groups of stakeholders in any CSG project and they all need to play part. These are: Company Representatives, Politicians, Public Servants and Local Residents. At this point I should say that I do not consider any of these stakeholders evil - i.e. that they are hell bent to destroy our beautiful valley. They all simply play their allocated roles in the complex system of our society. Unfortunately, the way the current system has evolved is deeply flawed and inevitably leads to friction between the local residents and other stakeholders. The system needs to be changed. Here is why and how:

The job of Company Representatives is to get the CSG project approved, to extract and sell the gas, to make money for the shareholders and finally to get out. Environmental considerations, sustainability and compatibility, all come into the category of costs to be minimized. They like the current system of self-regulation and oppose any changes. Many companies believe that the best way to do deal with the environmental, health and social problems is to give them to their public relations departments and thus spin-doctor them out of existence.

Politicians are first of all engaged in politics and then they also make the laws and approve the projects. They operate under an enormous pressure in this world of the climate change, peak oil and disintegrated financial markets. They have no time for anything long term. They live from election to election, from one parliament session to another, sometimes from day to day. They cannot afford to become long term thinkers and environmental guardians.

The role of the Public Servants is to bring the laws and plans into reality. Therefore, in theory, they should be in the best position to guard the treasures of the environment and social well-being in perpetuity. I imagine that most people working in the public sector would love to do exactly that. Unfortunately, they cannot. The Public Service in this, and in any other country, operates under very severe financial constrains and they simply do not have the resources to do the job properly. Every budding politicians in the pre-election mode promises to make great savings by cutting public service jobs! They are the guardians without adequate resources.

So we are left with the Local Residents and with their representatives in the Local Councils. In NSW they have been completely removed from the decision making process by approving most of the gas mining projects under the Part 3a Legislation [7]. Local residents who live in a target area of the future gaslands have only very little say in the CSG exploration process and none at all once the production license is granted. Typically the consultation with the local residents means that the CSG company public relations department distributes a newsletter and/or arranges a project exhibition. The project goes ahead regardless of what local people say. The final shape of the CSG project is never revealed or discussed in advance and all technical information is kept proprietary and secret. CSG exploration and development work goes inexorably ahead, step by step, slice by slice, until one nice day people realise that they live in a gasland!

Yet as soon as the CSG exploration license is granted all people living in the target area become affected. As more and more people become aware of the downsides of the CSG industry this perception starts to affect property values. Reports from Queensland gasfields starting to show [8] that the values of rural properties in gaslands are not only diminished, but that these rural properties became unsaleable. That means that people who worked and saved all their lives suddenly find that their properties are worthless. Everyone must see what a disaster this is for an average family! There is nothing that the gas companies or the government can or want to do because this major social problem is the result of the unforeseen market forces that are beyond anybody's control.

On the top of that, the locals have also to put up with many other downsides such fracturing of the land by access roads and pipelines, traffic congestion on rural roads, noise and unresolved problems with disposal of the CSG waste water and toxic chemicals. There is also a danger of a serious health risk from the escaped hydrocarbons, diesel exhaust fumes and from photochemical ozone in the air. When all this is considered, it is crystal clear that the local residents have most to lose from the current out-of-control CSG industry. Consequently, local councils and local resident environment groups must be regarded as the best (and cheapest) environmental guardians in the long term.


WHAT CAN BE DONE

Our Politicians and Public Servants can do us a great service by instigating a complete overhaul of the whole coal seam gas legislation. They should introduce some kind of statutory accounting for water, chemicals and air pollutants associated with the coal seam methane gas industry along the following lines:

(1) Every liter of fresh water that goes into gas wells and every liter of waste water that comes out of gas wells should be recorded. The chemical composition of all CSG water should be constantly monitored and the records must show how much of the salt and /or other toxic compounds have been brought to the surface and how they have been disposed off. This should include quantities and prices of water purchased from outside or obtained from registered water wells or surface water sources. Statutory records for each well should be made publicly available on the internet.

(2) All chemicals used in drilling and fracking fluids in each end every borehole should be recorded, accounted for and published. Proprietary compounds of unknown chemical composition should be illegal to use.

(3) Data, results and reports of all scientific environmental studies dealing with water, chemicals, underground geology and toxic air emissions from whatever source should be regarded as a public property and published on the internet without delay.

(4) All records collected under (1,2,3) must clearly show the line of personal responsibility e.g. the name of the person who approved the work, who designed the fracking fluid and who and when did the actual work. These records should be archived in perpetuity so that the responsibility for any environmental damage discovered later could be properly allocated. This would make everyone concerned think twice before cutting corners!

(5) Representatives of the local community and government inspectors must be, upon request, allowed to inspect all gas mining installations, examine the statutory records, and take photographs or water samples. Reports of such inspections should be published immediately upon completion.

(6) Government authorities should device a system of environmental bonds to cover full rehabilitation of gasfields at the end of gas mining projects.

(7) Gas companies, that obtained the original gas production license, should be responsible for any environmental regeneration work for the whole life of the CSG project. For example, during the life of a project it should be made illegal to transfer the ownership of the production mining lease to another company structure that has no financial means to complete all outstanding regeneration work.

(8) Gas companies should be made ultimately responsible for any financial losses in property values in the area they operate. This should include the situations when a particular landholder may not be able to sell their property because nobody is interested to move into an existing or future gasfield. Potential erosion of the property values may be the most troublesome problem for the CSG industry yet because real estate market forces are beyond anyone's control (see [8] ). It should be noted that the coal mining industry, because of its much smaller land footprint, is able to solve this problem successfully by purchasing neighboring properties at pre-production prices.

(9) The current 200 meter buffer distance of CSG installations from principal residences, stipulated in Petroleum (Onshore ) Act 1991 [9] , should be revised significantly upwards. The present legislation does not even say if this distance is measured from the well head or from the extraction boundary. This statutory buffer is completely meaningless when the fracking zone of a vertical gaswell extends as far as 400m or as far as several kilometers for horizontal wells.

(10) There should not be any drilling what-so-ever under residential properties or under rivers and streams.


POSTSCRIPT

I am aware that these radical proposals will not meet with the approval of the CSG industry. They will see them as unnecessary additional burden and red tape. However, I feel that fresh water, clean air, healthy land, wholesome food and thriving rural communities are far more important then easy life for the gas companies. They spend a lot of money to publicise how environmentally responsible their gas mining operations are. If they are so sure about their facts, they should welcome the opportunity to publish all relevant data and account for all the water and for all toxic chemicals in a transparent manner. They will have nothing to lose! They should also not mind lodging environmental bonds big enough to cover all potential damage to the land, water, air and communities that they operations may cause.

Unfortunately for the gas companies, it is no longer possible to get into a new area so to say "under the radar". No matter where they go an environmental group of the local citizens opposing their plans will be formed within days. This is because the CSG industry, under present regulations, has nothing positive to offer to any local community. Thanks to the GASLAND documentary [6] , ABC TV Four Corners program [11] and numerous newspaper articles, far too many people are now aware of the environmental downsides of the un-conventional gas mining. This is the problem the CSG industry has to tackle if they want to prosper. I am sure that the heavy-handed police operations such as those we are currently witnessing in Tara residential estate [10] in South Queensland is not the answer in a democracy.

After all, most people believe that the industry is there to serve the mankind and not the other way around!

Jorge Tlaskal


DISCLAIMER
The author of this submission is a member of the Hunter Valley Protection Alliance (HVPA). However, all ideas and proposals presented in this submission are entirely his own and do not represent the official view of the HVPA.


REFERENCES

[1] Petroleum/ Energy Projects & Exploration Highlights in NSW, April 2010.
http://huntervalleyprotectionalliance.com/pdf/Gov-NSW1500Petroleum_Projects_2010B.pdf

[2] NSW Coal & Gas Strategy Scoping paper.
http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=nyJQKwkDr6c%3d&tabid=495&language=en-AU

[3] Concerns About Coal Seam Gas Industry.
http://huntervalleyprotectionalliance.com/hvpa_concerns.html

[4] Why Natural gas is not the Answer.
[url]http://www.un-naturalgas.org/index.htm
[/url]
[5] The Endocrine Disruption Exchange
http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/home.php

[6] Gasland Australia
http://www.gasland.com.au/

[7] Review of NSW Part 3A Legislation
http://forum.huntervalleyprotectionalliance.com/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=236

[8] CSG ripples felt in rural property
http://qcl.farmonline.com.au/news/state/agribusiness-and-general/general/csg-ripples-felt-in-rural-property/2085883.aspx?storypage=0

[9] Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991 No 84
http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/xref/inforce/?xref=Type%3Dact%20AND%20Year%3D1991%20AND%20no%3D84&nohits=y


[10] Peoples Blockade of Tara Estate
http://westerndowns.group-action.com/

[11] ABC TV Four Corners - Dirty Business
http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2010/s2867659.htm

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