Hunter Valley Protection Alliance
Concerns About Coal Seam Gas Industry
About Hunter Valley Protection Alliance. We are an environmental group from the banks of the Wollombi Brook, a tributary of the Hunter River. We are all volunteers fighting to protect the environment of our beautiful valley from irresponsible exploration by energy companies. Five years ago, then Sydney Gas, now AGL Energy acquired coal seam methane gas (CSG) exploration leases in our area from the NSW Government. They tried to convince us that CSG methane extracting industry, their "AGL Hunter Gas Project", is perfectly compatible with the ambience of our valley. We have studied the experiences from the gas fields in Queensland, from the USA and from Canada and came to the conclusion that the current NSW legislation framework does not provide sufficient protection for the local residents. Consequently, we are now called "NIMBIEs", reactionaries, Luddites and "a special interest group".
We are not NIMBIEs. Our valley has three big coal mines on the edges, we have Australian Army firing range, geothermal energy explorations on the outskirts of the Wollemi National Park and now two CSG exploration leases. All this activity is associated with dust, noise and water pollution. We are certainly giving more then our share to the State and to the energy companies.
We are not Luddites or reactionary hillbillies. We work in the coal mines, drive tractors, breed cattle, grow grapes, make wine and provide pleasant tourist accommodation for tired big city dwellers. We use the Internet and we are well aware that our current life style is dependent on a large input of energy which has to come from somewhere. We are also aware from our research that the 200-years rein of fossil fuels is nearing its end.
It is strange that someone regards citizens of a particular area, who care about their land, air and water to be "a special interest group" with some sinister connotations. Two great Australian rivers, Murray - Darling have been seriously damaged if not lost by bureaucratic bungles. In the end, it is only the local citizens, and not the decision-makers in the distant city offices, who really pay the cost of all the environmental disasters. That is why we oppose coal seam gas exploration in densely populated rural areas. Our reasons are given below.
HUNTER VALLEY PROTECTION ALLIANCE
1. CSG fractures agricultural land. Unlike the conventional natural gas extraction, the CSG industry requires huge ares of the land because coal seam gas is a very diluted energy source. Why?
Just consider a lump of wet coal just extracted from a deep coal seam. In that lump of coal there are some small pores, called cleats, that contain salty water. A small quantity of methane gas adsorbed into the solid matrix of the coal carbon particles under high pressure. A typical CSG company comes, drills a hole, extracts the produce water, lowers the pressure in the coal seam, extracts the methane, leaves the coal in the ground and stores the salty water in evaporation ponds. There is not all that much energy extracted from that original lump of coal. No wonder the CSG industry needs such a huge land areas!
Yet the media give the impression that coal seam gas is like the conventional natural gas - somewhere deep underground there are huge concentrated deposits of gas that only need to be drilled into for the gas to come out.
The picture of the gasfields around the famous US Colorado River on the right illustrates the problem. Each gas well pad, which could be size of a football field, must have a connecting pipe line and a dirt track access road. There are also holding ponds for toxic waste water, gas processing plans and compressor stations. That does not allow much space for proper farming.
Our Queensland farmers at Darling Downs have their fields accurately planed by sophisticated machinery using laser level measurements so that they can irrigate their crops. Then comes a gas company with their heavy drills and dozers to convert their property into a gasfield. No wonder that they are very unhappy as this recent program on 60-minutes shows.
2. CSG produces huge quantities of saline water. In order to extract the methane gas it is necessary to de-water the coal seams. Recently gas company Gastar reported that they produced about 100,000L of saline water every day (about 5 water tankers) from each of their 6 Bohena pilot wells. The amount of produce water gradually decreases with the life of the well. Nevertheless, each gas well produces huge quantities of water during its production life. This water is not only saline but it also contains traces of pretty nasty chemicals that have been used in the hydraulic fracturing process.
This toxic produce water is difficult to dispose off. In Queensland they currently store it in huge evaporation ponds like this one and wait for a technological solution. Note the salt encrustation around the edges.
Recently, after letting the CSG industry letting run wild for almost a decade, Queensland Government outlawed the use of the evaporation ponds like that one above. The industry has now three years to stop using the open evaporation ponds. Originally they talked about purifying all saline CSG water for human use or for irrigation. Toowoomba was then the prime candidate but now, three years later, they are thinking more along the lines of recycling their town waste water.
Then there was talk about reverse osmosis which actually works on a small scale. However, it does not remove toxic fracking chemicals and is far too expensive to process all water from the thousands of proposed gas wells. Now we hear about irrigated salt tolerant forest plantations. This is fine, but do we really want to replace valuable food-producing agricultural lands by some new growth scrub?
The question of water pollution during gas production is huge in America. For example this KILL THE DRILL video from New York state is very disturbing.
3. CSG lowers surface fresh water table. Dewatering of the coal seams creates a negative water pressure gradient which may force migration of fresh water from surface aquifers into the coal seams. This represents a loss of height quality water for agriculture and human use.
The coal bed methane industry in the Powder River basin in Wyoming,
USA caused almost a 200-metre drop in the surface aquifer. Detailed Government research from
The extraction of CBNG-produced groundwater from PRB coal deposits has caused widespread public concern about declines in groundwater availability. Between 1987 and 2006, CBNG production in the Wyoming PRB has withdrawn accumulative total of 4.1 billion barrels (174 billion gallons) of groundwater at total pumping rates up to 77.3 million gallons per day (mgd). Based on the BLM deep monitoring well data, water levels in some of the monitored CBNG wells have declined up to 625 feet within the CBNG production areas of the Wyoming PRB.
The coal seams (or as the Americans say coal beds) in the Powder River Basin are relatively shallow (less then 500m) and often contain fresh water used locally for irrigation. Thus the drop of underground water level of 625 feet x 0.3048 = 190.5 meters is serious. Such a substantial drop will cause many agricultural bores to run dry.
The gas industry likes to say that there are impenetrable barriers between the surface aquifers and their target coal seams. Unfortunately, this notion ignores the existence of fault lines, joints and other fractures in the geological strata. Some of them are not detected by seismic studies and become know only when they are accidentally drilled into or when, years later, the pressure gradients became established by pumping of produce water. We have a major fault line at Bulga Inlet which is over 20km long and clearly visible on satellite images. Yet Sydney Gas was happy to explore in its vicinity for coal seam methane.
Last year, Queensland Government recognised that the possibility of lowering water
tables by CSG industry is real and came up with
a "Trigger Point" system.
4.CSG companies use proprietary toxic chemicals for hydraulic fracturing. In order to facilitate the flow of water and methane gas from the coal seam it is usually necessary to undertake hydraulic fracturing (fracking for short) several times during the life of the well. We have devoted a special page to this technology on our website (Environmental Effects of Hydraulic Fracturing ).
This a massive industrial operation, involving dozens of water trucks and pumps which clearly does not fit into quiet rural countryside.
The idea is to force hydraulic fracturing fluids into the coal seams in order to open the "pores" in the coal (known as cleats). The fracking fluid contains "proppant" i.e. small grains of sand or ceramic spheres, that keep the cleats open when the pressure is released.
Some of the fracking fluid returns back to he well head, some of it stays underground (estimates range from 20 to 80% depending on geology).
The problem is that the gas industry keeps the composition of their fracking fluid as a proprietary secret while claiming that their fracking chemicals are harmless. This is the result of removing oil and gas industry from the Clean Water Bill under the US Bush /Cheney administration. This legislation, also known as the "Halliburton Loophole", is a target of much protest in America.
Research from independent organisations has shown that many of these chemicals are toxic and harmful to both animal and human health (see introductionary video presentation by Dr. Colborn ( http://tinyurl.com/Colborn) to get some idea about the extent of these problems.
Reports on the range of the health disorders are too numerous to list here. As an example, here is a wild deer with extremely aggressive cancer tumors that was found in a gasfield near drilling waste storage ponds.
Now even some US environmental agencies, such as New York State Department of Environmental conservation, are starting to report on the toxicology of drilling and fracking fluids (CHAPTER 5: NATURAL GAS DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES AND HIGH-VOLUME HYDRAULIC FRACTURING)
Aromatic Hydrocarbons (a small list of chemicals in frac fluids)
Adverse health affects of Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Some fracturing additive products contain specific aromatic hydrocarbon compounds that can also occur in petroleum distillates (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene or BTEX; naphthalene and related derivatives, trimethylbenzene, diethylbenzene, dodecylbenzene, cumene). BTEX compounds are associated with adverse effects on the nervous system, liver, kidneys and blood-cell-forming tissues. Benzene has been associated with an increased risk of leukemia in industrial workers who breathed elevated levels of the chemical over long periods of
time in workplace air. Exposure to high levels of xylene has damaged the unborn offspring of laboratory animals exposed during pregnancy. Naphthalene is associated with adverse effects on
However, all this does not stop the gas industry to claim that Fracking: As Safe as Coca-Cola! because it uses "organic" chemicals. Those of us who still remember anything from our high school chemistry will recall that organic chemistry is the science of carbon compounds that can be either harmless or toxic or something in between. You can compare the industry claims with the presentation of Dr. Colborn (see above) and be the judge of who is right!
5. Unsafe gas drilling procedures may cause contamination of surface water by salt, toxic chemical or fugitive methane gas. There are two types of of gas wells - vertical and horizontal. Vertical wells go straight down from the top through the surface aquifers into the coal seam. Horizontal gas wells start vertically, then bend horizontally into the coal seam and can go like that for kilometers.
The following schematic diagram from Earth Justice coal bed methane documentation shows how a typical vertical gas well looks like. The important thing is that the well is bored first through the surface aquifers and through various deeper geological strata into the coal seam. The coal seam is the hydro fractured which shatters the coal and surrounding strata. Some natural faults, joints and rock fractures may also exist in the same area. All these may become migration pathways for saline water, fracking chemicals or methane gas. This could lead to contamination of the surface biosphere by either toxic water, gas or both.
In order to prevent contamination of the surface aquifers it is necessary to install secure steel casing in the straight parts of the well.
As explained by this official Drilling 101
The important thing is that the annulus between the casing and the inside bore surface must be properly sealed with concrete. This is a tricky precision operation. We are not convinced that the framework of current regulations provides sufficient supervision and controls to prevent hired drilling contractors from "cutting corners" and thus endangering the surface biosphere.
6. Leaky CSG gas gas wells, processing plants and pipelines cause air pollution. In order to transport methane gas it is necessary to separate the gas from water, dry and pressurize it. This requires a processing plant and huge compressors often powered by huge diesel engines. According to experiences from the gas fields of Queensland (see transcript of 60-minutes documentary "Undermined") most if not all gas wells leak not only methane but other toxic gases such sulphur dioxide (SO2) or highly dangerous H2S - hydrogen sulphide gas (smells like rotten eggs). This is another thing that gas companies do not like to talk about and where our environment protection agencies have a lot of work to catch up.
This satellite image shows AGL's coal seam gas processing plant at Rosalind Park on the southern outskirts of Sydney. According to Dayne Pratzky (see 60-minutes documentary) this is really a very small plant.
Quote: ... that one (gas processing plant) 6 kms from my house makes this one look good. I have 12 of those sheds a 200 man camp and a total of 675 acres of salt evaporation ponds (!!!)
Chemical plants of this nature often experience gas leaks and produce noxious smells. People living close to these industries experience asthma attacks, eye irritation and even cancer and genetic disorders.
Air pollution from escaping natural gas is usually invisible. Gas tank on the left was photographed in the visible light. Picture of the tank on the right was taken in the infrared. It shows a plume of invisible gas escaping constantly into air (from the article "Curbing Emissions by Sealing Gas Leaks" in New York Times).
The greenhouse effect potential of the escaped methane is about twenty times that of carbon dioxide. The NY Times article above gives statistics on how much methane escapes from oil and gas installations around the world. When this is taken into an account, the supposed advantages of coal seam gas as a green, clean fuel, as the gas industry never tires to emphasize, are beginning to disappear. Some believe that CSG is really not much better then coal!
Another source of air pollution, never mentioned by the gas companies, are the diesel exhaust fumes from all those drilling rigs, compressors and water tankers that run all the time. This causes significant air pollution of the countryside by photochemical smog and ozone. Both are harmful to living things. We also never see any figures on how much diesel fuel the gas industry actually consumes and how much this influences the energy balance of the coal seam gas production. Neither we see much data on the life span of CSG wells in Australia. It may be shorter then the projections. In contrast to that conventional natural gas projects have a significant advantage because relatively few wells are needed and the gas is already pressurised.
7. CSG leases ruin property values and give little compensation. The coal seam gas industry typically does not acquire properties for their gasfields. Instead they prefer to enter into contractual leases with the land owners and pay them as little as $1500 /per year /per well see LANDLINE video program "Pipe Dreams". Considering the level of disruption to the landholder, this is completely unrealistic. In Eastern US states, where some landholders own the mineral rights on their properties the gas companies are happy to pay from 12 to 20% of their profit in royalties to the landholder and still operate profitably.
Another problem is that the level of compensation negotiated between the landholder and the gas company varies considerably and that farmers must sign non-disclosure agreements. This allows the CSG industry to split and eventually destroy local communities by divide and conquer method. Selected landholders may be compensated much better then their neighbors and these then hustle on behalf of the gas companies.
Furthermore, the value of properties in a gasfield are bound to plummet and some properties may become un saleable as demonstrated by the following case:
Quote from LANDLINE video program "Pipe Dreams" transcript:
In other words, since the property values cannot be negative, the value of Jim Barker's property is probably zero. Can Jim sue the gas company for damages or is the gas company protected by Queensland law? How about the value of other properties in the neighborhood. Should they not be also compensated?
This drop of the property values may also influence the relationship between farming businesses and their financial backers. Banks may decide not to extend loans to properties affected by coal seam gas exploration.
8. CSG heavy vehicles damage roads and create traffic hazard. CSG industry is a heavy industry. They transport huge drilling rigs, water tankers and other large machinery items on the light-sealed country roads. While gas companies do not contribute to the maintenance of local roads their heavy traffic puts a heavy tall on these roads.
Worse still, SGL companies run extensive seismic exploration programs. These involve big tracks with a heavy vibration blades that are lowered to come into the contact with the ground and to produce seismic waves. These waves are then recorded and used to reveal the geology of the underground strata. There are probably excellent technical reason why this is often done on the sealed country roads. Nevertheless, a serious damage to the tarmac surface is the result. We already have some experience with the seismic exploration in the Singleton Shire.
Heavy traffic is also a source of accidents on the narrow twisting roads in the country areas. These roads and bridges have not been designed to carry heavy tankers full of tracking waste water. Here is a snapshot about the social implications of the Queensland CSG industry boom from the ABC TV program Landline: Famine or Feast.
Pip Courtney (from ABC TV's Landline): The Warrego Highway runs through Dalby and out to Roma. It can't handle the increased traffic the gas has brought.
Ray Brown(Mayor of Western Downs): It is horrendous. 1576 accidents over the last five years. 17 deaths. We can't sustain that.
Pip Courtney: Mayor Loughnan says it's time the Queensland State government got serious about fixing the Warrego.
Robert Loughnan: It is an abomination. It's in dreadful condition. It's costing lives, and it cannot support the level of development that's anticipated.
Note, they are talking about The Warrego Highway, an important road artery of Western Queensland not about our twisting Wollombi Road or already accidents-prone Putty Road.
9. Coal seam gas is a fire hazard. CSG is mainly methane and thus highly flammable in all forms and shapes. As "fire dump" it has been feared by underground coal miners for centuries. Methane is easily ignited by sparks or by any open flame. This is a worry in a country so prone to bushfire as Australia.
Yet Sydney Gas (now merged with AGL Energy) is on record of lighting open air gas flares on their production pilot wells during a total fireban!!! Now, six years later, we see a gas company in Queensland (see ABC Landline program) doing exactly the same thing. Note that there is plenty of dry grass all around and there are piles of dry wood in the near-by scrub - firebugs delight!
To be fair, AGL told us that they will be using enclosed flares in their exploration work. At least someone has learned something.
There are numerous reports of migration and explosions of methane from fracked gas wells into residents house water wells, kitchens, bathrooms and even toilets.
This picture from the documentary film called GASLAND shows an American landholder lighting methane gas from the water tap in his kitchen. He can do this because a friendly gas company fracked a gas well on his land and methane gas migrated into his house water well. He is now living in a home that he cannot sell and that is waiting to explode. Does he get a compensation?
Then there are explosions of gas wells and associated facilities themselves. In this case Residents reported gas odors before explosion
QUOTE: Property owners living near the site of a gas well operation that caught fire in Washington County Wednesday morning said they had been trying for days to reach state officials about noxious odors at the site.
George Zimmerman, who owns the property where an Atlas Energy wastewater impoundment pond caught fire on Wednesday, and neighbor Kyle Lengauer, said they experienced a "horrendous gas smell" in the days leading up to the fire, but they couldn't reach state officials to warn them.
"We actually left our house on Sunday because the fumes were so bad and we were so nauseated," said Mr. Lengauer, whose lives with his wife and two children on property that abuts Mr. Zimmerman's 480 acres in rural Hopewell.
Even more dangerous is pressurised methane gas. There are many examples of gas pipelines and processing plant explosions like this picture of a result of a natural gas pipeline fire.
CSG companies may at times feel generous and give some local Rural Fire Brigades few thousands dollar here and there. This is fine but this generosity will not equip our fireman to handle this sort of dangerous situation.
As this video from Canada shows, fighting gas fires is pretty big deal. According to associated comments, this video was post edited to make the company security officer look good. No matter what, you have to admire the guys who fought the well fire.
All these hazards considered who would be surprised that we at HVPA do not want to have gas wells, compressors or even a gas processing plant three hundred meters from our township of Broke, Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia.
Yet AGL purchased the land (see picture right) on which these two gas wells are located and refuses to give us a legally- binding undertaking that they are not planning a future gas processing plant on that land. Is that being a good neighbour?
10. CSG legislation framework in NSW is inadequate. In New South Wales there is no specific legislation covering coal seam methane. Our gas companies currently operate under the Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991 currently No 84 which does not even mention coal seam gas or methane. Neither it mentions horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing or toxic chemicals used in these processes. This is perhaps the biggest hurdle the NSW CSG industry has to overcome if they want to operate successfully. The problem is very difficult because it is so big. Here we could only touch on only a few most important points that ordinary citizens like us are able to see. Effective mineral exploration legislation takes years of specialised work to complete and we have not even an indication that this work has started yet.
In mineral exploration world there is a lot of talk about stakeholders, environment and information. If information is power then:
This imbalance in stakeholder rights makes the local residents very unhappy. The only protection they currently have is that CSG companies cannot drill closer then 200 m from peoples homes and 50m from their orchards, vineyards as well as from rivers and streams. The Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991 does not provide any protection from horizontal drilling. Even this meager protection is regarded as too excessive by some who push for flexible protection zones. They argue that if there is a hill between a residence and proposed drill site the land owner would be protected from the excess noise and thus the separation distance can be shorter. To which we say that you cannot have much of a hill within 200 m and that most of the grinding sound of a drilling rig travels through the ground anyway. Hills will also not protect the residents from gas air pollution and from fugitive methane in the ground.
We are definitively opposed to any shortening of the 200m separation distance because this would remove the only protection the current legislation provides and replace it by arbitrary decisions by minor officials at the Ministry of Mineral Resources. We feel that even the 200m separation distance is insufficient and should be more like 1 km considering the current uncertainty as far as the negative environmental effects of the gas drilling go.
We feel that all underground mineral resources should be treated as a "Citizens Common" and not as something to be managed secretly between the resource companies and various Government Departments. All drilling logs, quantities of fresh water used and produce water extracted from the gas wells as well as the quantities of the drilling and fracking chemicals used should be recorded in a database available for public scrutiny. Similarly all technical decisions for a particular bore (and who made them) should be recorded in a public database for future reference. The gas exploration companies can never guarantee absolute environmental safety in what they do deep underground. However, a close public scrutiny should make them think twice before taking risks that could have serious environmental consequences in the future. More in this line is here.
After all, this is a big country and there is coal everywhere between Sydney and Bowen. Where is coal there is gas. If the landholders in poor,sparsely populated country areas were properly compensated for hosting CSG wells on their land there would be no shortage of gas exploration sites and everyone would be happy.
11. There is no rigorous assessment of cumulative environmental effects of CSG projects. The current environmental assessment method is deeply flowed. Each exploration bore is approved separately and the cumulative environmental impact of the whole gasfield is evaluated, if ever, only at the end when the gas company is ready roll into the full production. Reality is that the Government will find it politically impossible to refuse a production license at this point.
In the case of our valley, we are surrounded by three expanding coal mines from the north and east, Army firing range from the south, and geothermal hot rocks exploration area from the west. All the land that is left by coal mines is subject to petroleum exploration leases. Surely this is too much for one small valley and a thorough study of the cumulative environmental effects of all these industries is overdue.
We are not alone in this thinking. Recently George Souris, our Member of Upper Hunter published a series of excellent articles expressing exactly the same spirit. Cumulative environmental effects of different industries in the same area is a big problems that must be solved before any new industry, such as coal seam gas, is given approval to operate.
12. CSG industry is sustainable? Are we kidding ourselves? During the last two hundred years of the industrial revolution nobody doubted that high chimneys belching thick smoke, chemical smells in the air and dirty scam in rivers and lakes were the clear signs of progress. Town planners thought nothing about locating heavy chemical industry in the cities and suburbs. Then, in the sixties, came Rachel Carson and her book "The Silent Spring". This is story where a courageous woman took on the chemical industry and raised important questions about humankind's impact on nature. We have started to clean our chemical mess. Coal was replaced by oil and gas and the air became much cleaner. New legislation largely stopped the industry dump its waste into the rivers and the fish returned. Open cut coal mines started to re-habilitate the moonscape they had created earlier. It appeared that the humanity had learned the lesson. But is that really so?
If we look closer at our society, we must realise that we have largely cleaned the West by moving all the dirty jobs into the Third world, in particular to China and India. We have closed the steelworks in Newcastle and ""replaced" them by "tourist industry". Newcastle has now beautiful Foreshores and a dead city Centre. Only the Harbor prospers as more and more trains and ships come to bring more and more coal from the Upper Hunter to be burned in China. Is that sustainable?
The coal industry, with the Government support, looks hungrily to expand into more and more land. Now the coal gas industry moves to occupy all the places that coal mines have not yet reached. Is that sustainable? It seems that now, fifty years later, we are returning to the bad old days before "The Silent Spring". Destroying fresh water resources and clean air by hydraulic fracturing no longer matters. Is that sustainable? Soon, if we are not careful, the whole area of the Sydney-Bowen basin will become a giant industrial wasteland. Is that sustainable? Is that the legacy we pass on our children?
We live on a small planet and its size is finite. Yet we believe that our future needs to be an endless exponential economic and population growth. That is not sustainable. Something has to give! Moving industrial waste from one part of the planet to another part of the same planet is not sustainable. But we have to be careful. If we eventually succeed in poisoning our water, our soils and our air, the share markets and "the bottom line" will no longer matter.
It does not have to be so. We have the knowledge and we have the technology to find solutions. All we need is to have political will to stop treating Earth as a mine and start treating her as our common Garden of Eden. We have nowhere else to go.