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Issue #1579      January 30, 2013

Coal seam gas and the fossil fuel crisis

Residents of the Camden and Campbelltown areas in Sydney’s south-west got a shock last year when they found out that energy company AGL intended to install coal seam gas (CSG) mining wells at 20 locations near their homes and in proposed new residential development areas nearby.

A protest in Murwillumbah, northern NSW.

Following widespread protests the mining plan was reduced in scope. However, it still includes drilling 66 wells at 11 locations, with the mines extending up to 2.5 kilometres under residential areas. One well entry point is just a few hundred metres from houses.

Residents of Gregory Hills, an area recently developed by the company Dart West in 2010, say they received no warning of AGL’s intention when they purchased their homes. One resident commented: “Some people are saying [Dart West] knew that coal seam gas was going in here before they started selling land to people, but it’s not in any of our contracts. There was no information about it when we were actually buying our land.”

The residents of urban and rural areas affected by coal seam gas mining are rightly concerned by reports of fires and gas leaks, health threats, land subsidence, and soil and water degradation.

However, the CSG threat is symptomatic of an even greater menace from the fossil fuel industry as a whole.

Part of a bigger problem

For two hundred years humans have burnt so much fossil fuel in power plants and engines, and in the process spouted so much carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, that we’re beginning to reverse the course of natural history which enabled human life to flourish.

The extra carbon has changed the atmosphere’s refractive index, trapping solar radiation – i.e. the greenhouse effect. Moreover, methane is now escaping from melting arctic permafrost, and from CSG wells, and it’s a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The result is increasing heatwaves, droughts and violent weather events, as well as rising sea levels, the spread of tropical diseases and ocean acidification. Paradoxically, catastrophic falls in temperatures are expected in countries bordering the North Atlantic.

Mitigating climate change will necessitate making major cuts to global carbon emission levels. The UN wants to limit carbon emission growth (the “carbon budget”) to two percent by 2050, with the intention of achieving a fifty-fifty chance of avoiding climate change tipping points (i.e. levels at which catastrophic climate changes would be unavoidable). To achieve this objective, at currently anticipated fossil fuel production levels global emissions would need to peak in 2019, (only six years away), and to fall rapidly thereafter.

However, an analysis of the world’s expected fossil fuel production, to be released by Greenpeace this week, finds that the coal Australia expects to export by 2020 would be the second-biggest threat to the UN goal.

China will produce almost twice as much as Australia, but its population is far larger, so on a per capita basis we would not only be the worst carbon emitter but also the biggest producer of emission material by 2020.

The greatest obstacle to changing this appalling state of affairs is the entrenched opposition of the corporations that are the major producers or users of fossil fuels. To date they’ve claimed there’s no point in cutting down fossil fuels production or use, because climate variations are not caused by human activity.

This argument is becoming difficult to sustain, and last week Mitch Hooke, chief executive of the Minerals Council of Australia fell back on the argument that “the proposal to stop Australia’s coal exports won’t stop global coal use – it will just send Australian jobs offshore and deprive state and federal governments of billions in revenue.”

However, it’s not a question of stopping coal mining immediately, but rather of phasing it out as soon as possible. Coal mining jobs lost over a period of time could be compensated by developing the renewable power industry, assisted by government funding currently provided to the fossil fuel industries (for example for developing carbon capture and storage).

Coal mining royalties or taxes lost by governments would be dwarfed by the cost of dealing with unrestrained climate change. Nor could the supply of coal be readily met by other nations. Australia is one of the world’s biggest coal exporters, and our industry is highly developed, but we still struggle to get our coal to ports fast enough to meet current demand.

And finally, an announcement by Australia that it would phase out coal mining would apply intense pressure to the world’s worst polluting nations (including the recalcitrant US) to clean up their act.

Getting there

Achieving these objectives would necessitate overcoming the tremendous power of the fossil fuel industries. It would also involve replacing governments that have served their interests. A good example is the NSW government, which has classified the Camden/Campbelltown CSG project as “of state significance”, thereby overriding normal environment protection requirements.

The government is also certain to approve other CSG mining projects that involve the highly dangerous practice of “fracking” (induction of subterranean fractures and injection of fluids under pressure) around Sydney.

The government has also cut legal aid funding which has been available for people who wish to challenge mining proposals. It’s also axed funding for the State Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO), a government institution dedicated to protecting the interests of people affected by projects with serious environmental impacts. The NSW Energy Minister has described the EDO as supporting “the left agenda to destroy the economy”.

The NSW government has also rejected the recommendations of an inquiry, which recommended that a petroleum ombudsman should be appointed, and that CSG production should be subject to agreements with landholders. The inquiry also recommended the banning of any wells that could damage aquifers, the release into surface watercourses of water from wells, and all fracking operations while investigations into pressure chemicals are assessed.

Approval for new mines must be cut severely and must eventually cease altogether. To achieve this, the federal government could override state government approvals for projects that threaten the environment. But this won’t happen under current Liberal or Labor regimes. It’s up to the Australian people to replace them with state and federal governments that will – and to do so fast.  

Next article – Call to prevent closure of Urgent Care Centre

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