AGL warned on fracking project risk

Dr Philip Pells is no greenie. He consults to coal companies. But when it comes to AGL's controversial coal seam gas project at Gloucester, NSW, this engineer and water expert is strident in his criticism.

Dr Philip Pells is no greenie. He consults to coal companies. But when it comes to AGL's controversial coal seam gas project at Gloucester, NSW, this engineer and water expert is strident in his criticism.

Pells says the risk of fracking to the local community and its river system is too high. The underground aquifers are "intimately connected" with the surface water and AGL lacks a half-decent plan for disposing of salty waste water from its mining.

These are our words, not his, but you don't need a white coat and a clipboard to work out dumping thousands of tonnes of salt a year onto the floodplains of the Avon River is probably going to kill it.

Legend has it when the Romans defeated Hannibal in the Third Punic War they ransacked Carthage and ploughed salt into the earth to ensure nothing grew there again. That was without fracking chemicals. "Irrigating" 2500 tonnes of salt a year over the Avon River floodplain will hardly have a "neutral or beneficial effect on water quality" as AGL claims.

Among these resoundingly dubious claims is that natural rainfall has a high salt content anyway. If Pells is correct, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he is, the consequences of the CSG drilling could be dire - not just for the Avon River but for AGL as well.

AGL is not a miner. It is principally a consumer company with 3.5 million customers and can ill afford to have an Ok Tedi on its hands.

"My biggest issue with Gloucester is we don't know. We just don't know [what the effects of the program will be]," Pells says. He has no beef, incidentally, with AGL's gas operation at Camden in south-west Sydney.

"I strongly believe that the way forward is for an independent ranking to be done of the prospective CSG areas in NSW, so that scientifically obviously vulnerable areas such as Sutton Forest, Gloucester, Liverpool Plains are taken out [for now], and less vulnerable areas, such as Camden, parts of the Illawarra, parts of Lithgow-to-Kandos etc are made available for detailed assessment and probable CSG production."

Unlike in Victoria, where the government sensibly put a moratorium on CSG until more work had been done on its effect on groundwater, in NSW the process has been a shambles.

Instead of opting for the release of exploration acreage in a considered fashion, the former government lumped 80 per cent of the prospective CSG land straight up for exploration. Zero planning. Just get on with it.

Now AGL is building a pipeline for its Gloucester gas although it is still in exploration and yet to get a production licence.

Last week Liberal stalwart Peter Reith completed his report to the Premier of Victoria (in his latest role as chairman of the state's taskforce on the eastern gas market).

In an impassioned plea against "fracking scare campaigns" and "greenies" impeding development, Reith told the ABC, "Victoria is not a rust bucket, not yet" but would be unless they sorted out the politics.

The irony of Reith's anti-scare campaign scare campaign was that Victoria's gas can be extracted without fracking.

"Reith went off his head about fracking," Pells says. "But there is no need to use fracking. CSG in Victoria comes from very young brown coal." It is entirely different geology to NSW.

"Strangely, while I think Peter Reith is talking substantial nonsense I actually do agree with a conclusion, which is that CSG should not be stopped primarily because of fracking. On the basis of my technical knowledge, the matters in order of concern are: the impact on groundwater systems and associated base-flows to creeks and rivers; produced water and what to do with the salts; damage to private land [with landholders being disempowered]; and fracking."

On the science of Reith's pro-fracking crusade, Pell points to the dearth of court cases against Big Tobacco where it had been established that smoking had actually caused lung cancer. Were we to ignore compelling statistical correlations, he says, we could find there was no proven case of smoking causing lung cancer, no proven case of DDT causing weakened egg shells, no proven case of Agent Orange causing deformed babies - and no proven case of fracking damaging the environment.

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