An Independent Queensland Regional & Rural
(Cairns... Far North Queensland)
The Disaster is Coal Seam Gas
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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