To frack or not to frack
When you take a risk, you have to be prepared for the consequences, as well as the rewards.
The problem with coal-seam gas, and its extraction method - fracking - is that the rewards are quantifiable, the risks are not. And unlike coalmines, where the states released land logically, carefully and sequentially for development over many decades, the approach to CSG has been slipshod, bringing a polarisation in the debate.
Two things about fracking: one, few experts dispute there are risks to water systems and, two, the debate over fracking will rage between communities, miners and assorted experts for years to come.
For industry, too, the risks are significant. One established case of farmland being ruined may be enough to arrest future development, not to mention spawn a plethora of lawsuits.
In NSW, they have been fracking around Camden for 20 years. In Victoria, although 24 CSG exploration licences have been issued there is a moratorium on coal-seam gas exploration until a national framework is agreed.
Getting it right - if there is a way to get fracking right at all - will not be easy. Every aquifer is different. Moreover, it is impossible to tell what environmental effects will arise in 20 years from gas extraction today.
Nor do the contradictory statements emerging from the CSG producers provide much comfort.
Jennifer Trynes and some activists from the mid-north coast of NSW stormed the offices of AGL the other day and demanded to speak with someone. The PR people brought out John Ross, the AGL hydrologist.
AGL is proposing to frack four wells at Waukivory near Gloucester on the floodplain of the Avon River. The company has approval for a 110-well program which was granted before the recent changes in the CSG rules.
Its preferred method of disposal of the water from the coal seams is to dilute it with fresh water from the Avon and irrigate it on the river flats of the Avon river. This is in the Manning River catchment, the water supply for 75,000 people.
John Ross told Trynes and co that "water flowing through the coal seams naturally reported to the [Avon] river anyway". Yet Ross' comments on the issue seem to be at odds with those of Paul Ashby, the general manager of commercial development at AGL's upstream gas business.
"[The] biggest fear that people have, that we will somehow have a connection from this deeper well location up to the surface and that is why we have those surface water bores because that is where all the beneficial aquifers [are] ... down deeper than that there are sealed layers that make sure there is no interaction between that shallow water and the deep water and we want to make sure that that is actually the case," Ashby told a radio station.
They are also at odds with AGL's expert, Parsons Brinckerhoff, in its "Groundwater Report" of January 2012. "The low permeability inter-burden units are locally saturated, but generally act as confining layers between and overlying the coal seams. The layered aquitards of the inter-burden units create separate and distinct groundwater systems with no connection evident between the deeper coal-seam water-bearing zones and the shallow rock and alluvial aquifers." Further, in its "Groundwater Investigations" of September 2012, AGL found "there is no evidence of natural connectivity between shallow and deep groundwater systems".
Mixed messages abound. One independent expert, hydrologist Philip Pells, reckons mining around Camden in NSW is "appropriate for extraction of CSG, in relation to groundwater systems ... but this does not mean that Camden is a direct analogy for a CSG field in a completely different geological, surface water and agricultural environment such as at Gloucester".
Professor Pells is not anti-CSG - he supports the Camden development though is a critic of Gloucester and Sutton Forest and the politics that ensured licences were dished out in Queensland and NSW without proper process by previous governments.
As for Gloucester and salinity, while AGL claims that "produced water" from its wells will bring less salt to the surface than natural rainfall over 10 square kilometres, Pells says that in order for that claim to be true, AGL would have to drill just one bore every 10 square kilometres with each bore yielding less than 0.16 litres per second of produced water (compared to normal production of 2-5 litres per second).
The plan is to have dozens of wells in a 10-square-kilometre area, many close to houses.
Today online — Professor Pells' findings and AGL's response.