ABC Environment 22.03.2011
Coal seam gas extraction is the latest environmental battleground. Amidst the protests about land access, is the question of whether one of Australia’s geological and cultural icons (the Great Artesian Basin) is at risk.
Across mostly peaceful pastoral lands and farming communities some very clear and defined battle lines are being drawn. The nation’s vast stores of methane gas, locked up for millions of years in coal seams, are ripe for exploitation and major national and international companies are already moving in.
In the last six months, the Federal Government has approved three major coal seam gas (CSG) projects in Queensland worth $66 billion. Collectively and under myriad management rules and conditions set down by state and federal government, these three projects alone will drill more 18,000 wells in the coming decades. Overall, the state government expects between 25,000 and 35,000 wells to be drilled.
But environmental groups alongside some farmers and residents are staging blockades, locking gates and calling for moratoria on the entire industry. They say the coal seam gas industry is compromising prime agricultural lands and placing the rights of mining companies above all else.
However it may be Australia’s underground water reserves, ancient water held in rocks for millennia that cause a bigger headache for the gas companies. Australia’s famous Great Artesian Basin may be compromised by too many gas wells operating in the same area.
Dr John Williams, a member of the influential Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and former head of CSIRO Land and Water, says the combined impacts of multiple major projects isn’t being addressed.
“Environmental impact statements (EIS) let you have death by a thousand cuts,” he says, referring to the lengthy documents which companies provide as part of their applications to governments. They are compiled by private consultants paid by the companies.
The basin has allowed the expansion of grazing and cropping in regions of Australia that would otherwise not be viable. But the bores puncturing the groundwater reserves, known as aquifers, are taking their toll. Pressure has dropped in the basin to the point that one-third of previously free-flowing wells now must be pumped. To combat this, the wells are progressively being capped in a government-sponsored program.
There is also the question of recharge: water is being extracted from these reserves faster than it is replenished.”
“The Great Artesian Basin has an important place in our culture and heritage,” says Dr Williams. “It allowed us to develop grazing and pastoral lands. It has an important history but it had been badly managed.
“We have moved on a bit now but just as we get it back under control we seem to be exposing it to risk.”
A report by Geoscience Australia said the “overriding issue in CSG development is the uncertainty surrounding the potential cumulative, regional scale impacts of multiple developments”.
“The information provided in the assessed EIS documents is not fully adequate for understanding the likely impacts of widespread CSG development across the Surat and Bowen Basins,” the report said, “nor will any level of information or modelling that can be provided by individual proponents.”