CSG sparks biggest land rights debate since Mabo

Posted on 1/01/2012  

While State Governments were in the past all too happy to grant prospecting licenses to coal seam gas exploration companies, no-one thought rural communities and the general public would care too much. Wrong.

The CSG story is built around insatiable demand for energy from China, India and South East Asia. New technology allows gas companies to tap into the coal seam methane reserves within coalfields. All that’s required is access to the land under which the CSG resides, drill rigs to reach the gas, somewhere to dump the saline waste water from the extraction process, and pipelines to transport the gas to the coast (where it is converted to LNG).

The anti-CSG lobby started quietly, with local media stories about farmers and communities concerned about the impact on water quality. Although CSG has been produced in Queensland in relatively small volumes from the Bowen Basin since 1997, public anxiety has grown with the intrusion of the industry into regional areas over the past five years, including productive agricultural areas and urban centres.

For example, a company operating a CSG plant near Kingaroy was recently taken to task for allegedly contaminating ground water near rich agricultural land famous for producing peanuts. That operation has been shut down and court appeals have failed.

“Lock the Gate”, a campaign backed by the Greens, has gained a full head of steam, fuelled by a US-made documentary Gasland. In an unusual alliance, greens have joined forces with farmers and ordinary people concerned about the quality of water that comes out of their taps. Farmers also became affronted to find that the law allows gas explorers access to their land without their permission.

The main concerns with CSG exploration/production include minerals exploration rights in all states which allow miners access to land to exploit natural resources, even against the objections of land owners. The infrastructure resulting from the production of CSG can leave a landscape littered with well-heads and criss-crossed with transport pipes.

The major concern is the impact of the process of extracting coal seam methane gas from underground water reserves − a process which at best generates saline waste water and which can result in water contamination from the use of chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing or “fraccing” process. (Chemicals are injected under pressure into the hard rock to fracture it and release the CSG).

This year alone The Australian has published 674 stories related to CSG, stimulated in part by a Senate Inquiry into the impact of CSG on the Murray Darling Basin.

The inquiry made damning findings against the CSG industry, recommending that expansions be halted in sensitive areas. It found that high volumes of salty and/or contaminated water produced as a by-product of gas production pose a potential threat to the long-term security of ground and surface water.

Among its 24 recommendations, the Senate Inquiry suggested that the Commonwealth fund a review of the chemicals used in fraccing, to be completed within two years.

It also found that the benefits of the CSG industry are a “relatively short-term prospect”, saying individual gas wells have a life of about 15 years, and warning that the industry must not be allowed to undermine or permanently compromise the long-term future of other sectors.

The inquiry also criticised government handling of the issue, saying approvals for developments were “given prematurely”. It said the pace of CSG development was too far ahead of scientific investigation into its lasting impact and that attempts by government to regulate the industry are not keeping pace with developments.

The committee recommended that the Commonwealth Government not give any further approvals for production of CSG in that part of the Murray-Darling Basin overlying the Great Artesian Basin, pending the completion of the Queensland Government's regional groundwater model and the CSIRO & Geoscience Australia basin scale investigation of water resources.

However, the $60 billion CSG industry was not about to lie down quietly and let the anti-CSG lobby get the upper hand. The well-heeled APPEA (Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association) and the key companies involved have employed an army of spin doctors to ensure their message is being promulgated.

An international symposium in Brisbane in 2011, funded by the industry and supported by the Queensland Government, gave the CSG industry a platform to tell the media just how responsible it was and how much it was worth to the economy. The CSG industry has produced reams of data about its value in terms of creating jobs and its claims that CSG is a cleaner fuel than coal.

The gas industry says most of the concerns in the Senate report are already being addressed by governments and the industry. APPEA’s  eastern Australia chief operating officer Rick Wilkinson says CSG already provides one-third of the gas supply in eastern Australia and has been operating “safely and responsibly”.

Meanwhile in NSW, State Cabinet is seeking to introduce a strategic land-use policy which aims to protect key farming areas from soil and water degradation which could be aggravated by CSG activities. But this policy is unlikely to appease the anti-CSG lobby in so-called non-prime agricultural sites, for example in areas close to significant urban or rural populations. 

Such is the heat in the debate a boycott campaign was started against the popular Woodford Folk Festival after someone discovered that the Dreaming Festival was being sponsored by Santos (one of the key proponents of the CSG industry).

On the other side of the debate, some farmers seem happy enough to feature in Santos television ads about the benefits of sharing their land with CSG explorers and producers. The Courier-Mail recently interviewed a Condamine farmer, Simon Drury, who told reporter John McCarthy he thought CSG was wonderful for the region.

“We have not found a downside yet,” he said.

Drury did not disclose exactly what he earns from having up to 50 CSG wells on his property, but The Courier-Mail says it is between $75,000 and $200,000 a year. In an era where many farmers have had crops ruined by floods, the prospect of sharing in the CSG bounty may well over-ride concerns farmers have about the long-term impact.

The sÍupporters and detractors of CSG have become increasingly polarised. ‘Lock the Gate’ wants nothing less than making all agricultural land off-limits to CSG exploration and for any licences on agricultural land to be recalled. The CSG industry and the State Governments, who will benefit from royalties and job creation, rely on repeating the “$60 billion industry” line as often as they can.

The biggest players in this game, including Santos, Origin Energy, British Gas (which owns Queensland Gas) and their multinational partners, are meanwhile steaming ahead with multi-billion dollar contracts to build LNG plants, rail links and ports, all of it with the blessings (in Queensland at least) of the State Government.

Lock the Gate has a big job ahead to put the brakes on that process.


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