Perceived environmental degradation resulting from coal seam gas (CSG) extraction and hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) was the topic of an impassioned South Australian community forum.
Representatives from environmental groups including Lock the Gate Alliance, GetUp!, River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group (RLCAG), joined by Federal Senators Nick Xenophon and Sarah Hanson Young, debated with mining group Santos over the high-profile gas extraction processes.
Chair of RLCAG, Professor Diane Bell, who hosted the Adelaide forum in October, said that the science of CSG and hydraulic fracturing is not settled, and concern over the processes, helped by prominent media coverage, has left many in the community anxious.
“We have many questions. One of them is about connectivity through the systems. How much is the Great Artesian Basin connected to the Murray Darling Basin? What’s the impact of mining of one area on another? What’s the impact of mining on the Murray Darling Basin? What is going to be the impact on the changes in the ground water? It’s really the ground water that brought the RLCAG into this debate,” Bell said.
“Our concern… is that the Water Act under which the Murray Darling Basin Plan is being prepared excludes the Great Artesian Basin; that is very, very old water. So what is going to be the impact of mining in the Murray Darling Basin? One of the things that we’ve learnt very strongly in our campaigning on the river is that the river is connected. Once you start breaking it up you break up its resilience.”
CSG activist group Lock the Gate Alliance spokesperson, Sarah Moles, said she has concerns over underground water drawn for CSG that is relied on by irrigators and for domestic use.
“CSG companies have unlimited take. Their water is not regulated under the Water Act, unlike everyone else. How much water is actually going to be taken is really not known. It depends a great deal on the eventual size of the industry: Probably around 350 gigalitres a year, and that compares with the current total GAB water use, and dwarfs the savings that have made by the GAB Sustainability Initiative over the past 10 years,” Moles said.
“Of particular concern to people like me is the fact that we know that there’s going to be an impact on water levels, and irrigators who have gone to a great deal of trouble to restructure their business are deeply concerned about their security of access to that water.”
General Manager of Energy Projects for Santos, Andrew Kremor, defended the company’s CSG water use practices.
“We’ve been operating in Queensland for the last 16 years. We know that where we operate there hasn’t been any measurable impact on the surface aquifers. That’s a fact,” he said.
Kremor showed guests a photo taken recently of a farm in Queensland that is utilising treated CSG water to grow crops that are then fed to cows.
“This has occurred after three years of research and development between Santos and the land owner. It is going to result in up to a 25 per cent increase in productivity of that farm over the next 30 years. It’s also important to understand in the area that this is done, in the Santos area, none of that water comes from the surface aquifer, it all comes from the coal seam water, and there’s no interconnectivity between those two aquifer sets.”
Saline water discharge
Questions were also raised about saline water discharge resulting from CSG extraction. Kremor says Santos manages the discharges in several ways.
“The first way, which is already occurring, is that it’s reinjected into deep saline aquifers. That’s happened in our operations in Queensland to date, and any residual salt will be put into proper registered facilities,” he said.
Moles, of Lock the Gate, whose central aim is to campaign to protect Australia’s water systems, argued that saline discharge is only part of the problem.
“My understanding is that the reverse osmosis process removes the salt, but some of the other substances that are in that water – and some of them are not anything to do with fracking, they’re chemicals that are naturally present in the coal seam and which come up with the co-produced water – the National Toxics Network is quite concerned that there has been no cumulative assessment of the interaction of those chemicals,” she said.
“What happens to them as they break down? What happens to the bi-products? What is their fate in the sediments, let alone the final fate of those substances as a whole?”
Kremor said Santos shares public information in the use of chemicals it uses for CSG extraction.
“The chemicals that Santos uses are documented and are available online. It’s also important to know that when it comes to fracking in coal seam gas 99 per cent of the fluid used is water and sand, ordinary sand. The other one per cent of chemicals used are listed in that available document. The document also shows where those chemicals are commonly found. You’ll find that those chemicals are found in everyday life. All those chemicals are approved by government. They’re all regulated by relevant authorities,” Kremor said.
Hydraulic fracturing recently received international exposure by the independent US documentary Gasland. Moles raised concern that hydraulic fracturing – a process that uses chemicals to extract methane gas within the coal seam – risks contamination to underground water aquifers.
“The real unknowns are the risks are of connecting adjoining aquifers, and the risks of hyper-saline water, or gas, or the fracking chemicals, contaminating water sources that other people are using for either household or stock or domestic or industrial uses,” she said.
“And of great concern are the 50 or 60 or so chemicals that are being used in hydraulic fracturing in Queensland: Only four of those have ever been assessed by the national industrial chemical regulator. So there is no known guideline level about safety for exposure to people.”
Kremor defended the gas giant, stressing that it follows regulatory obligations.
“The process of fracturing the coal, which is only used about five to 10 per cent of the time now – we don’t use it in NSW because of the geological features of the coal seam – is regulated by government and Santos obviously adheres to that regulation,” he said. “So in terms of their impacts on the coal seam, there’s no known impact.”
Calls for legal reform
Moles said she is concerned that CSG is not protected by the Queensland Government’s 2011 proposed mining environmental laws.
“About 23 per cent of Queensland is covered by petroleum exploration permits, which includes gas… Queensland Government has mapped areas as our ‘prime farming land’, our strategic cropping land. That covers a total of about four per cent of Queensland. That area, when the legislation goes through, will be protected from mining but it will not be protected from coal seam gas,” she said.
GetUp! Campaigns Director, Paul Oosting, weighed into the debate, saying that issues around farmers’ right of refusal to mining exploration titles requires legislative reform.
“There’s little protection for people and the land. Farmers have no right to stop the gas companies coming on to their property. I suggest that’s playing on people’s minds when they’re signing these [mining exploration and extraction] contracts,” he said on behalf of the community advocacy group.
Also present during discussions was South Australian Independent Senator Nick Xenophon. He backed the calls for reform, citing unusually high levels of public concern over farmers’ rights.
“The fact that you have [2GB’s] Alan Jones, GetUp!, [politicians] Bob Brown, Bob Katter, Barnaby Joyce, all saying similar things, it’s pretty weird really,” he said.
“We need to bring about change really quickly because we’re running out of time. We need to have some equality of bargaining power in terms of the long-term impact on our farming land, because farming land is forever, and this stuff isn’t.”
South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young agreed, calling for further tightening of CSG and hydraulic fracturing rules.
“There are a few stages in terms of federal regulation that I think we can be looking at: The idea of giving farmers and landholders more rights over how their land gets used,” she said. “We need a moratorium on any new CSG expansion or wells, until we know what the health impacts are; until we know what the impacts on the groundwater will be; until we know really the impact of these chemicals that are blasted in the ground.”