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Issue #1582      February 20, 2013

Government buckles over coal seam gas

Last week Tony Burke, federal Minister for the Environment, indicated he would take on the mining corporations and if necessary the state governments, to protect the environment.

However, leaked correspondence then revealed that last November the Minister had decided to approve a major new gas mine at Boggabri, another in the Leard State Forest near Narrabri and a massive new coal seam gas mining project near Gloucester. They had already been approved by the NSW government, but required federal environmental clearance.

Burke angrily accused the NSW government of having leaked “commercial in confidence” information. He said he himself would now make the final decision on whether the project could proceed, depending on whether the mining corporations could satisfy his approval conditions, and with no further consultation with the NSW government.

There are grave issues surrounding the outcome. Pepe Clarke, chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, also stated: “Leard Forest is a rich natural habitat, teaming with life, and this decision marks the death knell of this extraordinary area.”

A huge open-cut coal mine has already been excavated south of Gloucester, which the owners wish to extend to form a massive excavated strip. If they succeed and the CSG mines proceed as well, this beautiful and economically-productive valley will be ruined.

Blocking the wedge

Burke claims that the approval conditions are so onerous the projects may never get started. He has demanded that energy company AGL prepare a hydrological survey of the Gloucester region before he makes his final decision.

He also wants mining corporation Whitehaven to provide a “biodiversity corridor” within the Leard Forest, to ensure the survival of koalas and other threatened species during mining operations, and he wants high quality “offsets” for cleared forest areas, i.e. the restoration of other forests where biodiversity damage has already occurred.

However, these requirements are unlikely to cause significant impediments to the projects. Admittedly, Burke’s position is a great improvement on that of NSW Energy Minister Chris Hartcher, who last month claimed that:

“There are two million gas extraction wells throughout the world now, and it’s difficult for the anti-gas protesters to point to one that is causing problems. The challenge for them is to find a single example where the water has been tainted or the ground has been damaged. But they don’t have a single example – anywhere in the world.”

This appallingly partisan statement ignores hundreds of cases, in Australia and overseas, of damage to the atmosphere, soil, underground streams and surface water courses from CSG mining. Representatives of the mining industry itself have admitted, albeit grudgingly, that CSG mining carries such risks.

While in opposition Hartcher himself stated unequivocally that the results of mining in the US “clearly demonstrate disastrous problems associated with this industry through groundwater loss, contamination and waste water.” But now he is in effect saying that he’s not going to hinder any mining operations until someone can prove to him that one particular CSG mine caused soil or water pollution.

It’s true that it’s virtually impossible to detect the failure of anti-pollution measures at a particular point during deep mining operations. Nevertheless, pollution of soil or groundwater during “fracking” (pressure injection of chemicals into underground fissures to release coal seam gas) can be detected subsequently by the presence of chemicals used during the process. This includes the carcinogenic BTEX chemicals, evidence of which has been found in soil and water samples after many CSG mining operations in Queensland.

There is now ample evidence about the damage that open-cut coal mines and coal seam gas mining operations can cause to public health and the environment. Burke could have reversed Hartcher’s “stone-wall” argument and simply rejected each of the three proposals on the grounds that the proponents have not proved that the proposal presents no public hazard.

The three projects would result in the production of about 47 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per annum, so Burke could have added that the burning of fossil fuels threatens the future of human life on earth, and that this necessitates the phasing out of coal as an energy source.

Instead, he summed up his position with the statement: “Of all the decisions I have ever made, this is the one where I have the least idea of whether the projects are going to go ahead.”

A major issue

CSG mining is now a major election issue. Independent federal MP Tony Windsor, whose cooperation is crucial to the survival of the Gillard government, is demanding the amendment of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act to make water quality a trigger for federal intervention.

He’s absolutely right. The NSW government has just approved a proposal to construct five long-wall coal mines beneath a series of upland swamps within Sydney’s water catchment area. It has also removed public health experts from the board of the Sydney Catchment Authority, and has installed a former mining executive as the Authority’s chairman.

Last year, treated coal seam gas water which mining company Santos wanted to reinject into shallow aquifers in the Pilliga forest in northern NSW was subjected to tests that revealed the presence of toxic chemicals. Santos insisted that the process would be completely safe, but an independent laboratory scientist commented: “This sample of water is unacceptable for any use”.

An ecological report has found that coal seam gas exploration in the Pilliga has already resulted in the clearing of vegetation, habitat loss and fragmentation. Naomi Hogan from the Wilderness Society described the Pilliga as completely dependent on groundwater. She said: “Coal seam gas is completely inappropriate for the Pilliga, a recharge area of the Great Artesian Basin and iconic wildlife haven.”

Will the Gillard government take effective action to rein in the coal and coal seam gas industries and their acquiescent state governments? Will Burke act on Tony Windsor’s demand for inclusion of water quality as a “trigger” for federal intervention? Alas, to date the signs are not good. But there’s still time for us to convince the government to do the right thing before the federal election.   

Next article – Bob Carnegie case: ITF statement

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