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(Cairns... Far North Queensland)


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Selwyn Johnston



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The Disaster is Coal Seam Gas

Over the course of the last decade ‘the climate’ has been a hot topic. Initially there was global warming, which subsequently morphed into ‘climate change’ when the proposed temperature changes failed to mature and still the climate argument goes on. Carbon dioxide is claimed as the villain of the piece but in reality, other gases such as methane and even water vapour have an equally significant effect on climate but carbon dioxide remains the culprit. It has to be questioned as to whether or not this is because carbon dioxide can be both measured and sourced whereas other gasses do not offer this opportunity or perhaps it is the premier greenhouse gas after all.  

Because for whatever reason, carbon dioxide [CO2] is ‘in the frame’ to the exclusion of all others, opportunities are sought to reduce carbon dioxide output. The unilateral reduction of carbon dioxide was the desired outcome of the Copenhagen Conference and in the search for a painless method of reduction, natural gas was seized upon as a saviour since the carbon emissions of natural gas burning are about half of that of coal. Many can remember when natural gas was first found at Roma and the resulting benefits to the State with very little environmental damage or inconvenience to the residents of the area. This put natural gas in good stead.  

Now with enhanced pressure on countries to reduce carbon dioxide, industry and Governments have been forced to seek some very ‘unnatural’ forms of natural gas. Australia is a country rich in coal and it has been known for years that coal deposits harbour quantities of coal gas and the race has been on to develop what has become known as the coal seam gas industry.  

This industry produces gas from underground coal seams and involves two common methods. If the coal is reasonably accessible it is drilled vertically from the surface, to arrive at the coal seam then horizontally to access the gas for retrieval. Where the coal is deeper and the coal seam is ‘isolated’ the coal can be burned underground with the coal gas again being retrieved at the surface. In all cases the retrieved gas is collected and compressed for transport to the ultimate destination.  

But coal seam gas production, if done naturally, is a slow process so to increase the extraction rate and retrieval a process called ‘fracking’ or ‘hydraulic fracturing’ is used. It is this fracking that causes much of the problem with the production of coal seam gas. It is not the only problem, others being the interference with, and contamination of water supplies, uncontrollable leakages of product mainly methane and physical intrusion onto land.  

As if this was not enough the drilling and fracturing processes themselves are not without concern. As we are very well aware in Queensland water is a valuable commodity and farmers are very restricted as to how much underground water they can use and what they can use it for. The quantities of water, that same restricted water, that is used in coal gas production is simply mind boggling. The process of drilling can and usually is through aquifers and so the potential for aquifer contamination is very real with little or no hope of any remedial action being taken… ever. The chemicals used to achieve the fracking of the coal seam are extremely dangerous chemicals and the actual composition of the fracking material is more often than not confidential company property.  

What we do know is that to fracture a seam some 20,000 litres of chemical are mixed with millions of litres of water and sand and sent down the well under high pressure. The process is unpredictable as there is no way of telling if or how the seam will fracture or where the fracking mix will finish up. What generally happens is that once pressurised the pressure has to be removed, together with the water and toxic chemicals, including those the ‘mix’ has picked up on its way through the seam. This is then brought to the surface hopefully for safe disposal. Beside what chemicals and water comes back to the surface there is a residue of generally unknown proportion left in the ground. The hope by miners is that this process will yield coal seam gas, which has to then be compressed and transported.  

By this time there are environmental issues that remain unresolved and unquantified. There is the disposal of the fracking material, there is the safe disposal of the large quantities of now contaminated water to be disposed of and there are of course leakages. These leakages can, and have been in Australia, quite large. There have been well blow-outs, sometimes multiple, and there is the danger of smaller constant leaks both around the well stem and into adjacent aquifers. So, at this stage the fracking process is ‘one off’ and fraught with uncertainty. Also uncertain is what remedial action can be taken, if any, when things do go wrong. In addition, wells can be fracked a number of times and the risk must increase with every subsequent fracking.  

Coal seam gas or coal bed methane has of course been the bane of underground coalminers since time began with the active ingredient being methane but methane is not the only product involved. There are other substances present including benzenes, toluene, xylene, methylbenzene, and formaldehyde all toxic substances. The collected gas also contains varying quantities of carbon dioxide but clearly coal beds with high CO2 contents would not be mined.  

So far to this point we have taken the CSG from the deposit and compressed it. The effort required to achieve this has, and will continue to use considerable energy, all the time producing CO2. The mining method is not popular within any community into which it has moved. While the industry is relatively young in Australia overseas countries such as the United States and Russia have both had considerable experience over the last few decades and the history is not all good.  

In the United States the most graphic consequences became apparent when householders, remote from the mine site, were able to hold a match to the water running from the kitchen sink tap and see the flame from the contaminants in the water actually burn with a visible flame. What this water does for those people's health can only be guessed at. There have also been TV documentaries made such as ‘Gasland’ and even locally produced programs.  

The experience Queenslanders saw with the Cougar mine at Kingaroy seem to be all too common in the United States so at least we do have the U.S. experience from which we can benefit.  

What now has to be considered is whether or not the coal seam gas production, with its fracking and environmental risks is a viable proposition. Given that genuine natural gas has about a 50% CO2 emissions advantage over coal burning it has to be recognised that coal seam gas does not have that level of advantage. If we take into consideration that the coal seam gas requires considerable energy use to be produced and that it does contain a worrying suite of contaminants then some serious sums have to be done.  

 If the concept of ‘green’ consists of assessing the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of energy then coal seam gas would probably come out with a slight advantage over coal. When all the other factors are taken into consideration any advantage becomes very questionable and when we take into consideration potential land sterilisation and the lack of remedial measures the activity is definitely a looser.  

Beyond this there is the question of property rights. Farmers and land-holders generally, take exception to their land being taken over, in fact taken over to the point of rendering it practically useless for the purpose of the undertakings that has gone on there for years. Admittedly different companies have different reputations in this regard but if the landholder knows that the rape is inevitable, how to handle it becomes a problem. Then given that the land holder is both financially and legally disadvantaged there comes the problem of rehabilitation. This has yet to be addressed.  

Well may you ask how we arrived at this point? The answer is not all that involved. There is money to be made out of producing energy and that pursuit has been driven in what purports to be a carbon reduced direction be that direction beneficial or otherwise. In addition, the energy being produced is [by and large] not being used in Australia and there are benefits available for exporters from Australia. That is the Government offers incentives to undertake this method of mining.  

Then again, we have a Government at State level that is able to sell exploration licences for money and that Government is in such dire financial straits that it has to get money and will do so at any cost. It has lost is regular government AAA credit rating and simply needs a cash flow. Consequently, obtaining revenue from any source, be it in the countries long term interest or not, is probably not a matter of choice but necessity. Any subsequent government will naturally inherit this financial debacle.  

So, it's a shame about the landholders who are having their properties, if not destroyed, then rendered useless to them for some time. It's a shame about their lives and expectations. It's also a shame about the environment and many genuine environmentalists will be wondering about whatever happened to the ‘precautionary principle’. But the real shame is not only that the physical damage of coal seam gas production is irreversible but any incoming government will be hard put to fight transnational companies with the reserves available to it. And fight those transnationals will. They will rightly claim that they have been induced to invest many millions of dollars in the industry, if not billions. So, it won't be easy, especially for those close to the action and who are financially disadvantaged.  

What we are dealing with is the disastrous consequences of an incompetent and uncaring Government and to relieve the situation we will need new leaders who not only have the ability to address the impossible but also to be able to take the population along with them as they try.




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Written and Authorised by Selwyn Johnston, Cairns FNQ 4870