By its nature, any form of mining or underground exploration generates controversy from time to time.
The coal seam gas (CSG) industry, however, takes this to a new level. From tens of thousands marching through the streets of Sydney to local councils near Brisbane trying to impose moratoriums on new wells, the technology – which involves natural gas extraction from coal beds and has become an important source of energy in Canada, the US and elsewhere – raises public opposition and outcry to a new level.
Thus far, the industry’s record does not inspire confidence. A case earlier this year in which water samples near a coal seam gas leak in the Pilliga State Forest in New South Wales were found to contain a number of toxic chemicals in concentrations many times higher than safe drinking levels was a disaster for the industry’s image – not least because the spill was not reported by well owner Santos until a good six months after the leak occurred.
Now, activists may have found more evidence of CSG’s impact. In the latest development, investigators from anti-CSG group Lock the Gate discovered coal seam gas bubbling to the surface along a five-kilometer stretch of the Condamine River near Chinchilla.
The gas, Lock The Gate claims, is bubbling to the surface in at least four spots. A video the group posted on YouTube shows footage of the river bubbling like water in a spa and a hand-held gas detector going off when it was held near the surface of the water.
Both the state government and Origin Energy, which has four CSG wells within a five-kilometre radius of the river, have claimed the seepage of methane is naturally occurring and is nothing to do with CSG.
Natural Resources and Mines Minister Andrew Cripps says both his department’s LNG Enforcement Unit and Origin itself have investigated the matter following concerns raised by a local landowner. That investigation found that the four CSG wells near the five-kilometre radius of the river were cased and not in production and that there were no CSG pipelines nearby.
Origin spokesman Ken Horton told AAP tests had shown they were not leaking gas, nor had there been any fracking associated with those wells.
Horton says natural gas seepage in the area is not uncommon and that anecdotal evidence suggests that this was not the first time such seepage had occurred.
Lock the Gate president Drew Hutton disagrees. While acknowledging it is possible for methane to bubble to the surface of waterways, Hutton says none of the local farmers had ever heard of it happening in the Condamine River.
Furthermore, Hutton says, the fact that it is occurring along several kilometres of the river would suggest it is not an isolated occurrence but a major leak and has found its way to the surface along migration pathways opened up by the de-watering of aquifers or fracking – an extraction process that uses pressurised fluid to fracture coal.
“I don’t think there is any doubt this extensive leak is linked to the coal seam gas drilling, and probably fracking, that is occurring in nearby wells,” he says. “This is just one cut in the death-by-a-thousand cuts to the environment that will occur when we have the tens of thousands of wells across rural Queensland.”
The latest developments, which come as House of Representatives in the federal parliament have agreed to establish an expert panel to advise federal and state governments on CSG and mining projects, show that controversy about coal-seam-gas is not likely to abate soon.
Depending on who you believe, the latest discovery is a natural occurrence or the result of coal seam gas.
Whatever the case, the publicity surrounding it was the last thing the CSG industry wanted.