Warning on CSG impact ‘ignored’: report

The Australian - 2.12.2011

Internal advice to the Queensland government had warned five years ago that coal-seam gas development was dictated by misplaced “technological optimism” that environmental problems could be solved, when there was no way to assess the industry’s “cumulative impact” on farming and water.

The scathing assessment was made by a then principal policy officer to the state Department of Mines and Energy, Geoff Edwards, who yesterday backed the finding of an all-party Senate committee that CSG projects in Queensland had been approved prematurely.
Dr Edwards, now an academic, said the problems he had identified with CSG development remained, ranging from its potential impact on underground water tables and aquifers to the disposal of heavily salted water produced as a byproduct of gas extraction.

“In the absence of a good technical solution, I would question the desirability of pushing ahead at the great rate we are seeing with the issuing of tenures for these projects,” he told The Australian.
Dr Edwards spoke out as Queensland Premier Anna Bligh accused the chairman of the Senate inquiry into the impact of CSG development on the Murray-Darling basin, Bill Heffernan, of undermining the $60 billion energy industry and thousands of jobs.

The veteran Liberal hit back last night, saying Ms Bligh was playing politics rather than addressing the substance of the Senate committee’s interim report.
“It discloses decisions taken by the Queensland government against its own advice,” Senator Heffernan said. “Obviously, the Premier has not read the report.”

The committee questioned whether the boom industry, centred on Queensland and now expanding into NSW, was worth possible long-term damage to the environment and farming, when CSG reserves would be exhausted in 50 years.

It recommended a suspension of CSG developments in the Murray-Darling Basin that overlapped the Great Artesian Basin, and greater federal involvement in regulating the industry.

Dr Edwards’s confidential December 2006 report found the industry was growing faster “than the capabilities of the authorities to moderate the potential downsides”.

“There is an attitude of ‘technological optimism’ among the ‘can-do’ people who populate the industry, a confidence that the engineers and geologists (and markets) will solve whatever disposal or environmental problems arise,” he wrote.

“It is this, rather than any ethical carelessness, that explains why the industry is powering ahead to sign long-term contracts for gas while long-term solutions to disposal of water are not yet cemented in place. However, the optimism is potentially misplaced as it is quite likely that for many fields no solutions that are both financially viable and environmentally benign exist.”

He warned that projects were considered on their individual merits, not in the context of their collective impact.

Dr Edwards wrote that the “informal current practice” was for development tenders to be assessed primarily “on how much exploration activity the bidder is prepared to undertake to prove up the resource, as evidenced in particular by how much money the bidder will spend”.

At that time, there was “no evaluation of land use and no environmental or hydrological criteria”, Dr Edwards wrote. “This practice is not compatible with the satisfaction of a range of government policies other than the promotion of the CSG industry and with the protection of the public interest in the land and waters of the regions in which the industry is developing.”

His report came to light only this week when posted on the website of the Senate rural affairs and transport reference committee, among submissions tabled during its inquiry into the CSG industry.

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