Need for CSG catchment ban clear and urgent

The long-awaited report on coal seam gas (CSG) from the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer makes it clear that CSG development is unacceptable in our drinking water catchments.

In the context of damaging, toxic and radioactive problems both overseas and in Australia, people in NSW have been asking ‘is CSG safe and, if so, under what conditions?’ Most think this question should have been answered before approval to drill was given.

Given extraordinary community efforts to demand change – the NSW Government commissioned a review. It called on the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, Professor Mary O’Kane, to review CSG activity in NSW. The review took 18 months to complete and was delivered on 30 September 2014.

The CSG Review’s terms of reference

This review was framed by terms of reference, written by the Government. They called on Professor O’Kane to do six things:

  • Look at industry compliance
  • Identify and assess any gaps in the identification and management of risk
  • Identify best practice
  • Compare CSG in NSW with other places
  • Inspect and monitor current activities
  • Produce a series of information papers ‘on specific elements of CSG operation and impact’

Essentially, she was asked to look at how CSG has – and can continue to be – developed. She was not asked to answer the question ‘is CSG safe to develop and, if so, under what conditions?’.

Despite this very important distinction, Professor O’Kane still found cause to include many warnings and concerns, going as far as to suggest there are areas that should be off-limits to CSG – though she does not define these areas.

The report found:

‘it is inevitable that the CSG industry will have some unintended consequences’

  • There are risks and ‘significant concerns.’
  • There are still ‘things we need to know more about.’
  • That drilling should only be allowed in areas ‘appropriate in geological and land-use terms for CSG.’
  • Risks could ‘in general be managed’ through ‘engineering and professionalism’, regulation, legislation, ‘a well-trained and certified workforce’, data collection, monitoring and use ‘of new technological developments as they become available.’
  • ‘Rapid emergency response and effective remediation’ as well as ‘insurance cover’ should be planned for, in case things go wrong.
  • ‘There are no guarantees’ and that risks cannot not be ruled out, concluding ‘it is inevitable that the CSG industry will have some unintended consequences, including as the result of accidents, human error, and natural disasters.’

Essentially, the report concludes that there are risks, but that those risks can be ‘managed’ (albeit theoretically only – based on data yet to be collected, and emerging technology). It goes on to say that ‘in particularly sensitive areas, such as in and near drinking water catchments, risk management needs to be of a high order with particularly stringent requirements on companies operating there in terms of management, data provision, insurance cover, and incident-response times.’ When quizzed further on the appropriateness of CSG in our catchments in a subsequent media interview, Professor O’Kane suggested a ‘learn as we go’ approachwould be needed.

The CSG industry response

Tom Fontaine – spokesperson for the Apex Energy CSG project – holds interests in several oil and gas ventures worldwide.The CSG industry has been very quick to seize on the report’s findings as a green light for development. Apex Energy holds the license over the drinking water catchments for Greater Sydney and project spokesperson, Tom Fontaine, claims the report ‘supports the company’s position that there are no issues with coal methane development’ and ‘If there were any chance of aquifer or drinking water contamination we would not proceed’. He also scorns community concerns and any representation of them by the Government, suggesting that it will take ‘some people to grow a pair I guess before anything will happen’

Given the very clear concerns expressed in the report, these comments can only be viewed as wilfully misleading. Indeed, speaking in a media interview with Alan Jones shortly after the report’s release, Professor O’Kane said she had been ‘startled’ by the headlines and industry response interpreting her report’s conclusions as a ‘green light’ to proceed.

Put simply, if there is no chance of contamination why does the report recommend ‘rapid emergency response and effective remediation’ and the need for ‘insurance cover’?

What do the Sydney Catchment Authority say about CSG?

The Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA) manages the drinking water catchments for Greater Sydney. The Authority’s key role is to ensure the quality and quantity of water in the catchments – protecting public health and safety, and the environment. Some ‘Special Areas’ of the catchment are considered so sensitive that the public is prohibited from even walking in them, with fines up to $44,000 applying for illegal access. Astonishingly – CSG licences cover these areas and the holders, Apex Energy, have development plans to drill within them.

The SCA requires that ‘any proposed development in the catchment area is required to have a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality’It could not be any clearer that CSG development cannot meet this requirement, given Professor O’Kane’s conclusion that ‘it is inevitable that the CSG industry will have some unintended consequences, including as the result of accidents, human error, and natural disasters.’

Separate to Professor O’Kane’s report, the SCA have made their opposition to CSG development in the catchment Special Areas very clear. In 2013, they provided a submission to the Planning Assessment Commission regarding Apex Energy’s CSG project within the catchment, concluding: ‘Given the real and potential risks to Special Areas and Sydney’s water supply, SCA’s strong position is that coal seam gas activities should be excluded from the Special Areas.’ It’s a position they continue to stress to this day.

How should the government respond?

Last year the Government put a temporary freeze on CSG development in Sydney’s drinking water catchment ‘Special Areas’, pending the outcomes of Professor O’Kane’s review. The Government must now respond and is said to be considering the report’s findings.An industry with ‘no guarantees’ that may require a ‘rapid emergency response’ simply shouldn’t be allowed in our water catchments

The report makes it clear there are many risks involved in CSG development. Given those risks and the unequivocal advice of the Sydney Catchment Authority, it’s clear that we need permanent no-go zones including a complete ban on CSG in our water catchments. An industry with ‘no guarantees’ that may require a ‘rapid emergency response’ simply shouldn’t be allowed in such vital areas. When it comes to the protection of our drinking water supply, the community needs guarantees that this report says it cannot give.

The Government should also go further and freeze the industry while informed decisions are made. Given the risks and unknowns highlighted, we need to press pause on CSG development across the state. We don’t want another public health issue on the scale of asbestos or thalidomide.

The government needs to talk and listen to communities on this issue, as well as the growing chorus from within their own ranks and the opposition. Not for the first time, we ask the question of them – ‘who do you work for?’

Still no water catchment protection

After three days of debate, the ‘water trigger‘ – an amendment to the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 – passed the Senate last week.

Coal seam gas (CSG) projects that could affect water resources will now trigger Federal approval. The trigger will bring CSG projects in for consideration; a good but very limited measure that does not match the hype.

Just as we reported in March when the amendment was tabled, there is no guarantee that the amendment will stop projects that will damage water resources. This change allows the Federal Environment Minister to stop CSG projects that will impact water, but it also allows them not to.

While the Environment Minister must now take advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on CSG development, before making a decision, it also makes them the sole decision maker. This advice is just information to be considered.

Visit the CSG and water catchments website Ministerial discretion was one of the huge problems with Part 3A: a clause in the NSW Environmental Planning & Assessment Act that granted the Planning Minister complete control over the approvals process, including the right to bypass environmental and local planning controls.

In short, The water trigger provides no objective, quantifiable protection.

The changes fail to define trigger points beyond an abstract definition of significant. ‘Significant’ is a subjective term – the Federal Government needs to tell the public what they consider significant, and what they do not.

The changes do not even mention drinking water catchments, when CSG – and the industrial development and toxic risks it brings – should simply be banned in these areas.

Catchment CSG plans revived

In grave news for the 4.5 million people whose water is sourced from the Sydney Water Catchment, the Department of Planning and Infrastructure has recommended approval of Apex Energy’s modification application. The modification would revive the plan to drill 16 coal seam gas (CSG) wells in and around the Woronora and Upper Nepean drinking water catchments. Apex Energy has also been sent a renewal offer for a lapsed exploration licence – PEL 442 – that extends from Scarborough in the north to Dapto in the south; a licence required for the project to go ahead.

Eleven of the sixteen wells are in

Sydney Water Catchment Authority (SCA) Special Areas, so protected that the public can be fined up to $44,000 simply for setting foot in them.

This news follows the announcement earlier this week that the entire board of the SCA has been overhauled. The new chairperson is a former director of two of Australia’s largest mining companies, and for the first time in its history there is no public health expert on the board. It also flies in the face of the Premiers’ pre-election promise to rule out mining in the catchment.The govt has shown complete contempt for the thousands who rallied in October to Protect H2O

How can the Government allow the risks of CSG development into the very areas set up to protect drinking water? CSG exploration and mining always involves unearthing water that is high in salt and methane, and can contain toxic and radioactive compounds and heavy metals. And the risks are not theoretical; heavy metals and toxins have contaminated soil and water, CSG sites have leaked methane and fracking chemicals have spewed into the air.

The Government seems hell bent on developing CSG in the

drinking water catchment, regardless of risk or level of community opposition. They have shown complete contempt for the thousands who rallied in October to Protect H2O.

How can it possibly be acceptable that the authority charged with protecting our drinking water – for the purpose of public health – has not one public health expert, but is headed up by a former mining executive?

It is both deeply disturbing and revolting that we have to fight our Government to have our drinking water protected.

Regardless of this Government recommendation, and whatever the Planning Assessment Commission decides, this community will not let CSG development in the drinking water catchment go ahead.

Abuse of power; pure and simple.

The NSW government has replaced the entire board of the Sydney Catchment Authority. The new chairperson is a former director of two of Australia’s largest mining companies, and for the first time in its history there is no public health expert on the board.

The people of NSW have to ask “what is going on between the O’Farrell Government and the mining industry”?

In opposition, the (now) Minister for Resources, Chris Hartcher, lectured parliament extensively about the dangers posed by coal seam gas (CSG) mining, using Eastern Mining’s pollution of the Pilliga as an example. Similarly the Premier made a ‘no ifs, no buts’ unconditional promise to ban mining in our water catchments.It is difficult to recall a period when an Australian state has seen such disregard for proper government process and standards

Subsequently, we have witnessed CSG contamination events across NSW and Queensland that clearly demonstrate that neither the industry or current planning and legislation standards can be relied on to protect vital areas – such as our drinking water catchments and prime farmland – from the effects of CSG mining.

Since obtaining office with these opposing policies, Minister Hartcher has overseen CSG licence renewals and drilling approvals across our drinking water catchments that include approval for fracking. This is despite mounting scientific evidence of the danger CSG mining poses to water supplies, the increased risk created when fracking is used and the dubious nature of the clean energy tag attributed to unconventional gas by the CSG industry.

The NSW Government has ignored most recommendations of the Upper House Review Committee into CSG mining. The ensuing Strategic Regional Land Use Policy turned out to be farcical in protecting our drinking water from production CSG mining.

In the latest development, the Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, has replaced the chairman of The Sydney Catchment Authority, the independent body established for the sole purpose of protecting our drinking water supplies, with a Liberal party crony who just happens to be a former senior executive in the mining industry.

In the context of CSG licenses being granted over drinking water catchments, including two in the Illawarra, this is of grave concern. How can it possibly be acceptable that the authority charged with protecting our drinking water – for the purpose of public health – has not one public health expert, but is headed up by a former mining executive?

It is difficult to recall a period when an Australian state has seen such disregard for proper government process and standards. It’s time for all citizens of NSW to let this government know, in no uncertain terms, that this latest abuse of power is a step too far.

So please pick up your pens, switch on your laptops, raise your smart phones and let the Premier, the Cabinet, your local MP and the SCA know what you think.