Forum fires up coal seam gas debate

Queensland Country Life, James Nason, 26.11.2010

HOW can governments approve mining developments if they don’t understand what the impacts will be?
That was the recurring question asked by scientists, farm representatives, environmentalists and lawyers at a public forum held in Brisbane last Monday night to discuss the coal seam gas (CSG) industry.

The forum, organised by the Australian Conservation Foundation, was the latest example of a strengthening alliance between farming and environmental groups over the impacts of mining.

“I am a bit disappointed that I am the only politician here,” Ms Waters said in her opening statement.
“Perhaps that is because they back the coal industry and not the farmers.”

An environmental lawyer by profession, Ms Waters criticised the Queensland Government’s approval of mining developments before questions about their large potential impacts had been answered, and its decision to adopt an “adaptive” management approach instead.

“I have a lot of difficulty with adaptive management, which says ‘let’s approve it, if they muck it up, they can make good’,” she said.

“Well how do you make good? When the groundwater table drops, how do you fix that?

“We don’t know that yet, and until we can be sure that is not going to happen, we shouldn’t be full steam ahead on this industry.”
She said the Greens would continue to push for a moratorium until more science surrounding CSG impacts was known.

Former Department of Natural Resources and Mining scientist, Dr John Stanley, told the forum that the areas of richest agricultural land in Queensland – the Darling Downs and South East – were subjected to most intensive coverage of mining leases in the State.

It was “extraordinary” that such valuable food-producing land was being placed at risk when world populations were escalating and global freshwater reserves and agricultural land was disappearing, Dr Stanley said.

University of Queensland Emeritus Professor, Clive Bell, a former executive director of the Australian Centre for Mineral Extension and Research, said it was virtually impossible for mining companies to restore cracking clay vertisol soils to their original productivity after mining.

The only examples where mining companies had been known to have successfully rehabilitated land after open cut coal mining all involved returning land to native vegetation or grazing, not farming.

“To my knowledge, nowhere in Australia have vertisol soils supporting prime agriculture been reinstated to prior productivity,” Dr Bell said.

Dr Bell said no mining should be approved on quality vertisol agricultural soils until energy companies could prove through peer-reviewed research that it was possible to successfully rehabilitate these soils.

“Evidence from Europe and the US indicates that such research would take as a minimum six to eight years,” he said.

“It is my belief that such research would show that the probability of achieving original productivity after mining would not be high.”

Former Queensland Government hydro-geologist, John Hillier, reasserted his view that direct connectivity existed between the Walloon Coal Measures and the Condamine Alluvium.

“As you dewater the Walloons, it will create a reverse gradient and we could lose a lot of water from the Condamine Alluvium into the Walloon Coal Measures,” he said.

“I am not going to say it is going to be fast and I am not going to say how much it is, but there is the potential for loss.”

Mr Hillier said that in theory, mining companies should be able to drill new bores through the various layers of the Great Artesian Basin without causing leakage or cross-contamination.

However, when the sheer number of planned wells was taken into account – anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 wells according to estimates given at the forum – the potential for man-made problems to occur was significant.

“I think there is a fair chance that some of those bores will go wrong despite the best attempts and this is where the biggest problem in this whole area comes,” Mr Hillier said.

Mr Hillier also questioned the value of groundwater models developed by the State Government to predict potential impacts of CSG mining, when the baseline knowledge of permeability levels and time series data required to effectively calibrate the models was unlikely to ever be known.

“You can only model what you know,” Mr Hillier said.

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