Friday, June 01, 2012

Draft Surat Underground Water Impact Report - part 3: Bubbling gas issues

In the last couple of days, the Lock the Gate Alliance which represents a coalition of landholders opposed to coal seam gas in the Surat Basin released a video called Condamine River Gas Leak. It shows footage from an organisation called Gasileaks taken along the River at an “undisclosed location”. There was bubbling activity at the surface of the river and some kind of meter that went berserk when placed near the bubbles.

Frackman in Roma July 2010
The footage was filmed by local landholder Dayne Pratzsky who has been a long-term vocal critic of the industry. I remember Pratzsky as “frackman” for his wonderful attention-grabbing outfit he wore  when he heckled the State Government Community Cabinet in June 2010.  When we published the Lock the Gate footage on our Facebook page today (without comment),  a local man named Andrew Thomas pointed out this phenomenon was not uncommon in the gasfields region. “I grew up at a location near Orallo and all the bores would light up if you wanted them to - the gas comes out of most bore holes,” Andrew said. “It has been happening for well over 150 years around Roma and Surat and lots of other places - get a life and move on.”

It might be difficult for Pratzky and other blockies in the Lock the Gate Alliance to do exactly that. This is their life and they don’t want to move on. Yet I fear they – and others who want a moratorium of the industry – are placing themselves too far outside the conversation about how the industry should evolve. Origin Energy, the petroleum tenure holder in the location where Pretsky filmed (a fishing spot south west of Chinchilla known as the "coal hole") confirmed what Thomas told the Western Star on Facebook “According to local knowledge it goes back at least 30 years and naturally occurring gas has been a phenomenon in the Queensland Western Downs region for more than 100 years,” Origin said.

The public face of Lock the Gate Alliance is its media-savvy president Drew Hutton. He was the one who publicly announced  the Chinchilla leak.  Hutton, a prominent member of Queensland Greens, said he was unconvinced by Origin’s response and challenged them to prove it. Hutton said Origin should “release its seismic and other establish whether or not the leak is linked to the company's coal seam gas operations.” Hutton said he consulted “several highly competent hydrogeologists” who told him there was a good chance the leaks were “linked to the de-watering of the coal seam aquifers and possibly fracking opening up pathways for the methane.” 

With neither Origin nor Hutton willing to offer their sources, it is difficult to know who is right. And water quality remains one of the great unknowns of this massive new industry. Yet this problem can be solved just as land access and now water depletion. The 2010 Queensland land access laws redressed the power imbalance between gas companies and landholders and the new Draft Surat Basin Underground Water Impact Report  which I reported about on Monday (Part 1) and Tuesday (part 2) deals with the water depletion issue. The report specifically ruled out a role for monitoring water quality. That prompted an anonymous respondent to my Tuesday piece to ask the legitimate question: if "It will not monitor water quality (eg for contamination from fracking)", who WILL monitor water quality?  

The answer to that question is the same as the answer to who will monitor water depletion: a mix of the Queensland Government Department of Natural Resources and Mining and the petroleum tenure holders themselves. Many in the Roma forum on the report I attended asked if this was not leaving the fox in the charge of the henhouse. The Queensland Water Commission’s response to that was to say, if they did something wrong, they’d be found out. There would be anomalies in the results that would stand out.

If this is correct then we need to maintain trust. Trust of the companies to do the right thing and trust of the regulator to pick up the anomalies if the companies don’t do the right thing. The gas majors all have the profit imperative but are bound by a number of strict rules and environment conditions they have to satisfy to get the green light for their enterprises. With the pressure to meet their export commitments once the gas comes online in 2014, those companies will need to ensure they are squeaky clean so the regulator does not have a reason to hold them up.

What does need to be looked at is the quick gobbling up of Australia’s natural resources.  According to mining critic Paul Cleary, Australia has the 12th largest reserve of gas but is the world’s second largest exporter and heading towards number one. Gladstone Port in Queensland is the home of four of the eight big LNG plants and Incentives by the Bligh Government drove gas consumption for the local market. Now the high price of oil is driving this massive investment in coal seam methane for LNG. The problem is the price of natural gas on the New York-based Henry Hub has been declining for over a year and will mean the companies will have to reforecast earnings or else dig for more gas.  

With governments greedy for the royalties, knowing when that saturation point comes will be critical for the success of the industry and the regions they serve. As the Surat DWIR proves, having good legislation supported by science will be critical in keeping an even keel.

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