What is Coal Seam Gas?
Coal Seam Gas (CSG) is methane gas found in coal seams. Often referred to as “unconventional Gas”, CSG should not be confused with Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) which is also known as “conventional gas”. CSG is a newer resource extracted from coal deposits that are too deep to mine economically. The methane lies in pores and ‘cleats’ in the coal seams and is trapped there by water.
When burnt, methane produces about 40% less greenhouse gas than coal. Un-burnt it is at least 20 times more polluting than carbon dioxide (CO2). The process of removing methane from a coal seam sees a large amount leaking into the atmosphere, adding significantly to greenhouse pollution.
How is Methane Gas extracted from a Coal Seam?
A mining company will first apply to the State Government for an exploration licence. (Petroleum Exploration Licence [PEL] in NSW or Exploration Permit Petroleum [ATP] in Queensland). They then conduct geological studies to determine which areas offer potential for coal seam gas extraction. This may involve drilling exploratory holes to take samples. They will also seek to identify land where they can get permission from the owner to drill.
Test wells are then drilled into the coal seam. These initial wells are unlikely to produce much gas until the coal seam has been stimulated by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This is achieved by pumping a fracturing fluid into the coal seam at pressures sufficient to crack open the rock. This enables the gas to flow to the well more easily.
Gas companies are very reluctant to reveal what they use in the fracking process and imply they are quite safe. Fracturing fluids are primarily water but contain other chemicals, including acids, solvents, surfactants, biocides, and hydrocarbons. Sand is often added as a propping agent to hold the fractures open and allow the gas to flow freely to the well bore. Some of this toxic fracturing fluid, known as ‘flowback water’ resurfaces but much may remain underground.
The next stage in the development is to de-pressurise the coal seam by pumping out some of the water. This “produced” or “associated” water is generally saline and contains a range of carcinogens, heavy metals and radionuclides naturally present in coal seams, as well as the man-made chemicals used in the drilling and fracking processes. The produced water has to be transported from the site by road tanker for proper disposal. The volume of water produced can vary considerably. Initially, large volumes are produced but this declines as the rate of gas flow increases. When gas is flowing steadily, the test well will be left to run for several months. During this time the methane is flared at the well-head and the gas company tests the flow rate and quality of the gas produced.
If the tests are favourable, the next stage is to apply for a Petroleum Production Lease (PPL) in NSW or a Petroleum Licence (PL) in Queensland. In order for the gas-field to be economically viable, the company has to plan for a high density of well-heads. Drilling each production well involves the same process as a test well. In addition, the development will include the installation of infrastructure and equipment at each well-head – gas and water pipelines and compressor stations – also huge associated water storage ponds, perhaps a water treatment plant and brine storage pond, project offices and potentially, workers’ accommodation camps.
As the CSG industry expands, there will be further applications for processing facilities and major pipelines.
Bad Laws, Bad Government, Bad Attitudes
In NSW the principle legislation is the NSW Petroleum (Onshore) Act 1991, which does not even mention coal seam gas. In Queensland, the industry is partly regulated under the Minerals Resources Act 1989 and partly under the Petroleum and Gas (Safety) Act 2004. Large CSG projects may be designated ‘state significant’ in which case a streamlined and very favourable assessment process will apply under the Queensland State Development and Public Works Organisations Act 1971 or Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 in NSW. In both states, despite being a large user of water, the industry is exempt from State Water Acts. The industry is self-regulated, with governments generally reliant on information supplied by the industry itself. Environmental regulation is ineffective and the responsible agencies lack the resources to undertake many compliance and enforcement responsibilities.
How could this affect me?
Exploration and production licences cover most of NSW and Queensland. You will discover that your legal rights are very limited; that the industry has a disproportionate influence over governments and that State and Federal governments actively encourage the industry with little or no regard for community welfare nor the health of the environment. Large parts of farming properties will be put out of production by CSG infrastructure. The property’s value will fall. There are very few buyers interested in a gas-field property. Banks are already refusing business loans because of falling farm values.
Noise and infrastructure - Lots of heavy machinery is needed to drill gas wells. The costs of hiring drilling rigs means they must operate around the clock. Scores of heavy trucks will come and go each day carrying equipment and supplies and carting away toxic “flowback” water. A cement pad covering approximately 1 hectare will be laid and a security fence installed at each well-head. Pumps will operate and lights will be on continuously. Pipelines will be laid connecting each well-head to a main gas pipeline which will flow to very large and noisy compressor stations that maintain pressure in the gas pipeline and also separates out unwanted hydrocarbons from the gas which are then vented into the atmosphere. Many hydrocarbons are carcinogenic.
Your health and safety - There are many hazards involved with CSG extraction. CSG wells and pipelines are fire and explosion hazards. Over 50% of wells tested in Queensland leak methane. Many landholders have reported instances of methane in their stock watering bores and even household taps.
Investigations in USA have revealed serious effects from volatile organic compounds (VOCs), poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals (eg uranium, lead, mercury) and other compounds naturally present in coal seams. These may be brought to the surface via leaks or in the associated water. Of the compounds typically released, 25% are carcinogenic; 37% affect the endocrine system; 52% affect the nervous system; 40% affect the immune system; and 100% affect the respiratory system. Many compounds affect several systems whether drunk in contaminated water or inhaled.
Water tables - CSG extraction poses serious risks to fresh water aquifers. The huge volumes extracted from coal seams can lead to major depletions in adjoining aquifers used for drinking water, agriculture, other industries and fire fighting. Aquifers may also be connected to surface water systems; fracturing and the chemical residues from fracking may cause potentially irreversible contamination to both ground and surface water sources.
Environment - The water taken from the coal seam is toxic and must be handled with extreme care. The dissolved salts permanently ruin good farming land the water contacts, making it useless for agriculture or pastoral production. It is toxic to aquatic life if spilled into creeks or rivers. There is no reasonable or practical method of dealing with the vast amounts of saline water that will be brought to the surface.
Clearing of native vegetation for well sites destroys wildlife habitats and constant industrial noise scares away much of what remains. Weeds are introduced and spread by hundreds of vehicle movements.
A methane leakage rate of 3% of total well production cancels out any emissions advantage gas has over coal. The latest research conservatively estimates a methane leakage rate of 3.6% – 7.9% of total well production. Over 20 years, this gives CSG a greenhouse gas footprint at least 20% greater than coal.
What can I do?
Do not allow company representatives onto your land for any reason. Meet them at your gate for any discussion, preferably with a neighbour, but never alone. Record every moment, ideally with a video camera. Tell them you are Locking The Gate and refuse them access to your property. A simple “No Trespassers” sign on all access gates will keep them away. Your have a legal right to do this that will be upheld by the courts.
The industry will try to charm you and persuade you that their activities will be minimal. A typical line is “We have no plan to …” . However, experience shows that plans always change. Initial agreements and compensation may have seemed fair and reasonable, but many landholders have found that the development escalated well beyond what was agreed upon – without consultation.
If you allow access to your property you will lose of control of your life, your property and your business. Once they are into the gas production phase they have a legal right to enter your property with or without your permission.
Make sure you and your neighbours speak with one voice. Remember, if you tell them to go away and they must go. Always say NO to requests for access. Do not sign anything. Seek legal advice.
Where can I find help?
Many communities are affected. The Lock The Gate Alliance has formed to focus on the key issues, share information, provide support and mobilise broad community support through education and the media.
We will bring about the change necessary to save Australia from a rapacious industry that will affect everyone unless we stop, think, demand change and restore balance