Coal seam gas, coal mines and Australian wildlife
Coal Seam Gas, Fracking Coal mining and Australian wildlife
It is becoming increasingly urgent to find more information about this, as the industry seems about to explode.
Coal seam gas has been touted as environmentally friendly and contributing less to greenhouse gases than energy from conventional coal, but this would depend on nothing going wrong (see for instance http://www.nature.com/news/air-sampling-reveals-high-emissions-from-gas-field-1.9982). There are many things that could go seriously wrong, and once they do so the problems could be very difficult or impossible to reverse, and there are many grave concerns about this practice throughout the world.
And as was said by speakers at a recent forum in Brisbane, it’s great for our country to be sitting on so many resources, but is it really the best financial decsion (even without environmental concerns) to try and dig it all up at once and sell it as quickly as possible? And the mining boom has made the Australian dollar very strong, which is good for some but is already having a disastrous effect on some tourism, agricultural and manufacturing businesses
Farmers throughout Australia(and elsewhere) have become very concerned about potential loss of livelihood and lifestyle, and tourism accommodations such as rural B&Bs and farm-stays are alarmed at the prospect of loss of beautiful scenery and peacefulness that people come for (with many from all the above now involved in protests for the first time in their lives, even at risk of being arrested: see for instance the info on the Kerry blockade below) . Some farmers have said they do not mind the drilling, but these tend to be owners of very large properties: the intrusion onto smaller properties would have more noticeable impact. Even on large spreads, the potential for water loss and pollution is a concern. Some have found it virtually impossible to remain on their lands after extraction has begun, but also impossible to sell it.
Wildlife can be impacted by habitat loss, direct death during construction, water loss and water pollution. The loss of wildlife in any local area would be a problem both for tourism and for biodiversity conservation generally.
Direct habitat clearing and fragmentation. Vulnerable regional ecosystems and habitats for threatened species are being cleared or plans are being made for this (e.g. in the Brigalow Belt and the Pilliga). A 145km stretch of land 30m wide is to be cleared between Casino in northern New South Wales and Ipswich in southern Queensland. Strong-flying birds will be able to cross over , and so eventually will wallabies and kangaroos, but small ground-swelling mammals, reptiles, frogs and weak-flying birds could find it a significant barrier to movement when seeking food, new territories and mates, and limit genetic diversity. I am unclear on to what degree the cleared land would be restored to former habitat after the pipeline is covered (but centuries-old trees are hard to replace, and with any kind of habitat we can’t tell the animals to wait months, years or decades before they can again find food or shelter).
- Where these pipelines are being constructed in other regions, thousands of animals have fallen in the trenches. Thousands have been rescued, and these have been reported in the press: I have not been able to find reports of numbers that have perished. It would seem simple enough for workers to erect temporary wildlife-proof fences while construction is happening, but apparently this hasn’t been done.
- Fracking (the proposed extraction of coal seam gas) uses enormous quantities of water. Right now Australia is well-watered, but the ten-year drought is still vivid in the memories of all rural dwellers, and even the city dwellers who had severe restrictions placed on watering their gardens and washing their cars. Australia is the driest continent on earth other than Antarctica, and also has the world’s most unpredictable rainfall. Many of us are alarmed at the thought of an industry which takes so much of our water from farmland and native vegetation (and wildlife). Over-use of water in an upstream region has the potential to seriously impact the supply many kilometres downstream, especially during drought years.
- Pollution of our underground water and water catchments is a grave concern for wildlife, livestock and the human population. Although we are told the frackers will be using ‘World’s best practice’ and following strict safeguards and regulations, this does not guarantee there will be no accidents. There are many safeguards in place with oil tankers, traffic on our roads and nuclear reactors, but things do go wrong. Once the contaminants are in the water, it will be no easier to get them out and make the water safe again than what it has been to clean up oil spills and radiation leaks. Already Santos has been responsible for 10, 000 litres of saline coal seam gas water leaking into a conservation area, killing trees and ground vegetation, then trying to cover up the event for several months. Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/stink-over-coal-seam-leak-20120113-1pzdx.html#ixzz1jQAkMYO8.
The industry is expanding rapidly. For instance DEEDI has reported that there were 10 coal seam gas wells drilled annually in the early 1990s but over 600 in 2009–10, and that as of September 2011 the total number in Queensland was almost four nd a half thousand.
Not everyone appears worried about possible consequences. This is from BrisScience:
Coal Seam Gas Produced Water: Scientific Solutions to Turn a Problem into an Opportunity
Prof Graeme Millar, Queensland University of Technology
The coal seam gas (CSG) industry is rapidly growing in Queensland and represents an enormous opportunity for economic growth and job creation. A by-product of drilling wells for gas is water containing dissolved salts. Since Queensland routinely suffers a general lack of water availability, CSG produced water can represent a significant and valuable resource for applications such as agricultural irrigation assuming issues associated with soil salinity and sodicity are addressed. This presentation outlines the big questions being ask of CSG produced water to satisfy environmental guidelines including reverse osmosis and ion exchange.
Prof. Graeme J. Millar has over 20 years’ experience in the research and development of catalysts, wastewater technologies and advanced materials. Originally he obtained his BSc Honours degree and PhD from the University of Dundee in Scotland and followed this by a postdoctoral position at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He was a senior lecturer at The University of Queensland for 5 years before entering industry in 2000. In 2010 he joined QUT as a Professor with emphasis on bridging the gap between academia and industry. His interests broadly cover the “Cleantech” sector and in particular focus on the areas of biomass conversion, renewable energy sources, clean industrial chemical manufacturing, environmental pollution control, water purification and nanomaterials. Prof. Millar has extensive experience with regards to development of technologies from the laboratory to full scale industrial implementation and has in recent years commercialized purification treatments for wastewater.
However, “assuming issues associated with soil salinity and sodicity are addressed” doesn’t sound very comforting when there don’t seem to be sufficient assurances that we can assume this, and many are worried that the amount of waiter used i tracking could cause more drought problems rather than relieve any, and that if water is contaminated it could easily get into our water courses and groundwater, especially in major flood time, and no matter what safeguards had been in place before the event, the pollutants cannot simply be withdrawn from our waters once they are released.
There are also concerns about open cut coal mining in various parts of the continent:
- http://bimblebox.org/ – substantial clearing of habitat
- http://www.whitehaven.net.au/operations/documents/67502_Part3a_Fauna_000.pdf – relatively minor impact here, very little native vegetation to be cleared
One of the most worrying aspects is the rush with which CSG exploration is spreading throughout Australia without a similar rush into research on its potential environmental impacts. There have been some environmental impact assessments and flora and fauna surveys, but it is often difficult to find sufficient details of these, which should be readily accessible to the public before any fracking or pipeline studies commence, and those that are available do not seem to be detailed enough for us to truly predict the impacts or even find all the species, as legally the companies only need a few days of fauna and flora survey. Scenic Rim Wildlife (a branch of Wildlife Queensland) are trying to record wildlife species along the proposed pipeline through the Scenic Rim and below the border, where the pipeline is planned to run, although without the 30metre clearing, through World Heritage rainforest. These will act as baseline studies if the pipeline does go ahead despite public protest, so that future monitoring can show whether or not there have been changes. Interim summaries are presented here.
A fauna survey in the Pilliga found 20 endangered and vulnerable vertebrate species, including the Pilliga mouse, the south-eastern long-eared bat and the black-striped wallaby, and we now find there has been a 6-month cover-up of a leakage of saline water in this region.
An ecological survey from the brigalow belt for Origin Energy’s coal seam gas plans highlighted the kind of worry that I have for short-term fauna and flora surveys:
“5.3 Limitations of the Ecological Surveys
The scope of this survey only covers those fauna species encountered during one survey period, i.e. five days and four nights, as required under the Queensland EPA 1999 guidelines, and flora surveys conducted during three weekly field visits.
The surveys were initiated during summer and they were completed in autumn of 2008. These surveys were undertaken following good rainfall events. Although flowering had finished for some plant species, there were many flowering plants observed. No ground orchids were observed during this survey period and they would be more likely to be observed after spring rainfall events later in the year. By the end of the survey period, some annual plants were also showing signs of desiccation, making them difficult to identify and be observed. Most of the shrubs, including wattles (Acacia spp.) were not flowering during the field surveys.
The survey period was optimal for observing frogs due to the presence of surface water. However, it should be recognised that no season specific survey can be expect to encounter all the fauna or flora occurring within a project area.”
Typically with any kind of development, years of planning go into engineering aspects, but investigation of wildlife – which is often mobile, cryptic and/or seasonal and therefore not always easy to detect, let alone predict movements or local habitat needs of – is crowded into a woefully inadequate timeslot.
Peaceful protestors in the Scenic Rim, including a WTA member, were arrested this month (January 2012) for engaging in a blockade of an exploratory drill, insisting that adequate water quality tests should be conducted before any kind of drilling takes place. One might well ask why such testing is not mandatory, even though the company involved, Arrow, insists this is just an exploratory drilling, not actual fracking – the leakage in the Pillaga occurred during the exploratory phase. There is a short video of this by the Sydney Morning Herald and various other media articles. Bob Irwin (father of the late Steve Irwin) drove down from the Sunshine Coast to join in the blockade, and made the point that such action would not be necessary if the government and the CSG industry had proper public consultation from the start. AT the end many police were called in and Arrow was allowed to conduct the drilling, without any preliminary testing, despite the protests of many angry farmers and conservationists, but the blockade had good media coverage nationally.
The Sydney Morning Herald has also criticized the lack of information made public by the CSG industry:
“Early this year the oil and gas industry lobby group, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), commissioned research by engineering consultancy WorleyParsons on the life cycle emissions of coal seam gas versus coal when exported and burned in China.
APPEA did something strange. It only released the executive summary. Why? Because, according to some of its members, there were scenarios which showed how coal seam gas might emit more greenhouse gasses than coal. At worst, if burned in the least efficient ”peaking” open-cycle turbines, coal seam gas was up to 44 per cent dirtier than the newest, most efficient coal-fired plant.”
Read more here on this coal seam gas story by the Sydney Morning Herald.
The national group Lock the Gate is also concerned about the lack of dequate research and the lack of rights of land-owners, and has been very active in protests and dissemination of information, especially about CSG. From their website:
The LOCK THE GATE Alliance is a national alliance of over 120 community, industry and environmental groups and over 1000 supporters concerned with the devastating impact that certain inadequately assessed and inadequately-regulated fossil fuel extraction industries are having on our short and long term physical, social, environmental and economic wellbeing. We are particularly concerned with the damage caused by the coal and coal seam gas (CSG) mining industries.
We believe that neither we, nor our governments (at all levels), are sufficiently well informed about these industries, about their true role in our economy and their impact on our health and welfare as a nation and within the diverse communities that constitute our nation.
There are so many conflicting reports being bandied around, sometimes with confusion between hard evidence and generalizations from a few anecdotes, or between practices between countries (e.g. USA and Australia), which can differ – e.g. http://www.aussmc.org/2012/01/roundup-gas-drilling-and-animal-health-new-solutions-–-experts-respond/.
However, there is sufficient potential problem and such lack of information (both a general lack and apparent reluctance to make public some of what is known) that the very rapid expansion we re seeing is currently a very big concern. According to a report in Brisbane Times, the “hundreds of coal seam gas wells now will become tens of thousands.” It seems likely many will not realize how big this is until they see it happening.
http://www.envirowiki.info/Coal_seam_gas makes some disturbing points about potential dangers to the environment and the lack of our current knowledge of many aspects.
Effects of chemicals on animals:
Fauna surveys and other environmental assessments connected with fracking and the transport of coal seam gas in Australia:
- http://www.originenergy.com.au/files/EcologicalSurvey.pdf (the recommendations here seem sound)
- http://branches.wildlife.org.au/scenicrim/fauna_of_the_csg_pipeline_route.html Fauna surveys by Scenic Rim WIldlife along the Lions Rd pipeline route (northeastern NSW and southeastern Queensland)
Blockade at Kerry, in the Scenic Rim:
- Support from Qld Tourism Industry Council http://www.goldcoast.com.au/article/2012/01/19/383745_gold-coast-news.html
- a dramatic finale http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dX8lRlucOWc
Coal seam gas and habitat destruction at Pilliga:
Potential impact of mining coal seam gas on the management of the Murray Darling Basin:
- http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/rat_ctte/mdb/interim_report/report.pdf (mentions several troubling gaps in our information)
And on effect of groundwater generally and why groundwater is so precious:
A compilation of ABC reports:
Quite a good overview of why CSG is being extracted, the pros and cons economically and environmentally, the history of such extraction in Australia etc. is here:
For the Queensland Government’s views on CSG and water pollution:
For environmental assessment requirements of the Queensland government, please go to this link:
Extensive links on fracking and its effects, with articles for and against coal seam gas extraction, from Scientific American
Other mining (and an indication of foreign ownership of some of the proposed mines):
We obviously need loads more information, but the coal seam gas industry and other mining activities are now expanding at an unprecedented pace in Australia and in other continents.