Coal seam gas mining is a social and environmental nightmare

While scientists and environmentalists blame cattle for the rising levels of methane, there’s another culprit and that’s coal seam gas mining.

Coal seam gas is a form of natural gas promoted as an alternative fuel to coal. ‘The rationale for the use of natural gas has been because its combustion produces less carbon dioxide than coal,’ says Dr David Shearman, the honorary secretary for Doctors for the Environment Australia. The gas lies deep under the ground and secured in coal beds by water pressure.  The search for alternative and greener fuels has led to this growth in coal seam gas as an interim alternative while renewable industries are further developed and marketed.

But new studies undertaken by Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University show that the impacts of methane leaks make the life-cycle greenhouse gas footprint of coal seam gas worse than those of coal and fuel oil when viewed for a 20-year period. Dr Shearman suggests that these fugitive methane emissions along with other environmental effects of coal seam gas mining such as water contamination, loss of productive land and disruption of communities mean that there are more adverse effects of the gas than with coal. Professor Howarth argues for a rapid move toward an economy based on renewable energy rather than to one dependent on the gas industry.

Nevertheless the rush to mine CSG is set to be the next big mining boom; this time it’s taking place in the eastern states of Australia. In our energy – hungry world, coal seam gas provides a vital source of fuel, and resource – rich Australia has vast deposits of it. Already Queensland is home to 3000 wells with a total of 40,000 wells to be constructed across the state, often on very valuable agricultural land. The sixty-billion dollar industry, promoted as an alternative to dirty coal is turning out to be anything but clean, with health experts, landowners and environmentalists raising the spectre of serious social, health and environmental impacts, and calling for a moratorium on the industry that threatens the livelihoods of farmers,  scarce water sources, and  food supplies.

Levels of pollution are increasing due to the escaping methane that is released during the extraction of coal seam gas. Toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene are used in the extraction process. Then there are the heavy metals and radioactive isotopes – also damaging to health. There is also the risk that up to 40 per cent of the toxic chemicals remain within the structure of the seam and can move through the groundwater polluting the Great Artesian Basin – water used for agriculture.

Residents are reporting strange body rashes; some are suffering from headaches that won’t go away. There are stories of stomach problems and many residents affected by the coal seam gas industry are now wondering if their water supplies are safe to drink and bathe in. The  National  Toxics  Network  (NTN) is calling for a  moratorium  on  the  use  of  drilling  and  fracturing chemicals  used in the  hydraulic  drilling  and fracturing  of  coal  gas  seams . They want these chemicals fully assessed for their health and environmental hazards by the industrial chemicals regulator, the National Industrial Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS).

Dr Shearman is very concerned about how the CSG industry will affect Australia as a food producer both for the nation and as an exporter. ‘Large swathes of prime agricultural land are being degraded to facilitate gas wells.  A recent federal government report from its Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, warns that Australia could become a net importer of food in the future,’ he said.

There are billions of dollars to be made and eighteen-thousand jobs created but the community, environmentalists and landowners have come together to fight the gas companies all the way. In 2010 representatives from over 40 community groups formed The Lock the Gate Alliance calling for a moratorium on the coal seam gas industry that is affecting their health and the environment. The rural way of life is under threat with many farming families leaving their land as the intrusions caused by the mining process become too much to bear. And it’s not just the rural communities who are fighting the imposition of coal seam gas mining: Just last week it was reported that residents of  the Sydney suburb of St. Peters were rallying to stop mines being built in their area after they learned that  the New South Wales Government had approved plans by an exploration company to drill a well searching for gas.

The Australian Greens are calling for a moratorium on all coal seam gas extraction in Queensland and promise to introduce environmental laws to protect productive farmland and precious water supplies. The Greens believe that in this time of global food insecurity any threats to Australia’s food bowl should be treated with great caution. The Greens are joined by greenies, farmers, lawyers and representatives from ‘the top end of town’ such as the Macquarie Group Chairman David Clarke, also calling for a moratorium on the gas extraction.

According to David Shearman there is little chance that the industry will stop as the  government has signed coal seam gas contracts worth billions of dollars at a time when moratoria have been called in several other countries. However a Senate inquiry has been announced into the impacts of Coal Seam Gas mining including economic, social and environmental effects, property rights and values of landholders, sustainability of prime agricultural land and health issues.

Meanwhile it is clear that the coal seam miners and their facilitators – our governments show little sign of giving up on this environmentally damaging mining. Neither are they questioning the relentless cycle of economic growth that continues- whatever the cost.  Dr  Shearman fears that this will continue to be the  case unless communities and their supporters fight back. ‘The government supports industry, it wants the royalties,’ he said.

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2 Comments

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