What the Frack is Coal Seam Gas?

By Alexandra Hurley | 24 Feb 14
Yellow balloons with slogan: 'Farms not gas'.

This article part of Right Now’s February Issue, focusing on Technology and Human Rights.

By Alexandra Hurley.

The far north coast of NSW is heating up. Farmers and landowners alike are protesting against control that mining companies are wielding over much of the state. Locals are concerned by the aggressive progress of coal seam gas (or CSG) mining. In response, locals in Pilliga have formed a permanent protection camp in response to developments in the Pilliga State Forest. Coal seam gas, commonly known as “fracking” gas, is quickly becoming a very valuable global commodity, but also causing conflict within the community.

To give an idea of the scale of this debate, unconventional gas sources have become so valuable to the United States that they aim to halve reliance on Middle Eastern oil by the end of this decade, and could end it completely by 2035. A good portion of this surprising bounty comes from the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. In Australia, coal seam gas it is set to supply at least 30 per cent of the domestic market by 2030, and 50 per cent of gas demand in eastern Australia.

Fracking” involves the use of water, sand and small amounts of chemicals, injected deep into the coal seams under high pressure, causing small earthquakes. Fracturing down as far as 30 meters, this then allows for large quantities of gas to escape. Key environmental management concerns associated with “fracking” relate to the recovery of waste. The highly saline waste water produced contains a variety of chemicals and minerals, with up to 100 kilolitres of waste water generated each day in a typical CSG extraction process. This waste water is then re-injected into the ground, and can contaminate basin water reserves. In the United States, there is evidence of methane gas being found in household water supplies, in such large quantities that the water becomes highly flammable. (Watch this video for an example.) CSG is also a non-renewable resource, estimated at having a lifespan of five to 20 years.

Coal seam gas map

There is currently very little knowledge of how long the contaminated water produced by “fracking” will remain in underground water sources. The National Water Commission said “the production of large volumes of treated waste water, if released to surface water systems, could alter natural flow patterns and have significant impacts on water quality, and river and wetland health.” It has also proven difficult to control such large amounts of contaminated water; during the first six months of 2011 there were 23 spills of waste water, four uncontrolled releases of waste water and three breaches of waste water storage during floods, according to Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management. For the above reasons, as of 28 June 2013 all CSG activities, from exploration, to assessment and production will now be required to hold an environment protection licence, issued by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

The effect of holding an environmental protection licence is dubious. The courts, in an attemt to remain impartial the issue, are proving very reluctant to revoke or bar mining licences for environmental reasons. Justice Pepper held that section 111 of the EPA Act confers a duty on holders of mining licences to consider to “the fullest extent reasonably possible all matters affecting or likely to affect the environment. No more and no less.” The quality of research required for parties intending to commence mining does not appear to be adequate. In the above case, the main environmental report considered was in fact prepared by the mining company itself.

The other controversial element of CSG is that in Australia, property owners do not own unconventional gas (CSG, Shale, Tight gas) that exists under their own land. State governments have the power to issue mining licences without the landowner’s consent. This means if a property owner’s land is within an area that is granted a licence; mining companies are able to enter their property and drill on their land. In response, NSW farmers have started a “lock your gate” alliance, hoping to prevent the mining companies entering their land, citing the High Court case Plenty v Dillan as evidence that the mining representatives would be trespassing.

Corruption is also becoming an issue in this debate, as NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) revealed in 2013 that the former mining minister, Ian Macdonald, acted corruptly when he granted an exploration licence to his “mate” and former union ally, Mr Maitland. One of the benefits granted to the minister by mining companies, in exchange for favourable licence consideration, was the services of a prostitute. The ICAC referred both men to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to face criminal charges. However, the licences granted during this time have not been revoked. Similarly, NSW Energy Minister Chris Hartcher has recently resigned from the frontbench after the ICAC issued a search warrant against him. It is claimed the minister accepted donations from developers who are prohibited from contributing to political parties in NSW.

Coal seam gas map

Globally, unconventional gas is an increasingly lucrative commodity. Canada, Poland and France are some of the other countries investing heavily in exploration and development. Argentina possesses one of the biggest reserves in the Western Hemisphere, the third largest in the world, the “Vaca Muerta” reserve. A United States Department of Energy report has shown Argentina holds more natural gas trapped in shale rock than all of Europe – a bounty estimated at 774 trillion cubic feet. Argentina is looking to sell the entire reserve to Chevron, to help pay off international debt incurred after the 2002 economic crisis. Only another example of a government rushing to exploit their countries unconventional gas resources, without considering the long term effects.

It is becoming increasingly common for governments to take advantage of alternative gas supplies. However, the haste in which they are willing to do so, without proper analysis of environmental and societal concerns, seems alarming. Water in particular is crucial to other industries; such as agriculture, tourism, and also for basic human sustenance. As the mining of this resource appears to have a direct and possibly permanent effect on basin water supplies, state governments should be more transparent and accountable when they grant licences to companies to commence such procedures.

Click here to view another video of water on fire due to high levels of methane gas.

Alexandra Hurley is passionate about human rights, international law and migration. Her passion developed after she volunteered for five years with Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning. She has lived in Spain and Ecuador and is a student of Arts (International Studies)/ Law at Deakin University.