Coal-seam gas boom puts pressure on governments

The Australian - Editorial - 2.12.2011

JUST 15 years ago there was no coal-seam gas extraction in Australia. The realisation of this vast resource and the rapid expansion of the industry to exploit it has been dramatic. Hundreds of gas wells have been drilled annually and there are now 2800 productive wells connected by more than 4000km of pipeline, supplying 90 per cent of Queensland’s domestic gas. The industry is set to expand tenfold as $60 billion is invested in projects to liquify and export the gas, creating close to 20,000 jobs. The CSIRO estimates there is enough CSG in eastern Australia to power a city of a million people for 5000 years.

The statistics are mindboggling and help to explain why landholders, communities and regulators have been struggling to keep up. The Senate’s rural affairs committee interim report on the industry’s impact on the Murray-Darling Basin provides a timely opportunity to assess progress and prepare a sustainable plan.

It is fair to say the risks here are considerable. As the committee report emphasises, we cannot afford to be reckless with the Great Artesian Basin because it is one of the nation’s most precious natural resources. The report’s suggestion of a moratorium on new projects overlying the basin, pending the results of Queensland government and CSIRO research, appears sensible, no matter how frustrating it might be for the industry. The call for a consistent national regulatory framework is also worthy of support.

The limited life of existing natural gas fields, the switch from coal to gas in order to reduce carbon emissions, and massive export potential are driving a CSG investment boom. But given the productive life of the wells can be as short as 15 years, developers must ensure that no projects have a lasting deleterious impact. The waters of the Murray-Darling and Great Artesian basins have sustained the nation’s food bowl for 200 years, and must do so for centuries to come. Only a foolish country would jeopardise that resource for a decade or two of gas extraction.

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