How CSG threatens drinking water catchments
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Coal seam gas (CSG) exploration and mining poses significant risks. Yet licences have been issued and development approved in vital drinking water catchments in NSW. These ‘Special Areas’ are so protected that fines up to $44,000 apply for unauthorised or illegal access.
Before Barry O’Farrell was elected NSW Premier, he made a promise to ban CSG development in our water catchments. He said:
“The next Liberal/National Government will ensure that mining cannot occur … in any water catchment area, and will ensure that mining leases and mining exploration permits reflect that common sense; no ifs, no buts, a guarantee.”
Once Premier, O’Farrell told 2GB’s Alan Jones:
“I don’t intend to allow — particularly after the drought we went through over a decade — mining or any other activity to threaten water resources.” He also said: “[CSG] exploration licences have been granted, in some cases permission to mine has been granted, in areas, frankly, that should never ever have been on the list.”
O’Farrell’s successor, Mike Baird has ratcheted up support for CSG, stating in November 2014:
“Do we want coal seam gas? Absolutely we do.”
NSW Government buybacks in 2015 have left our water catchments currently free of active CSG licences, but there is no legislation for a permanent ban and it’s expected the government will open up new areas for exploration when their ‘Strategic Release Framework’ is finalised.
The real story
There are five drinking water catchments managed and protected by WaterNSW (formerly the Sydney Catchment Authority) — Warragamba, Woronora, Upper Nepean, Blue Mountains and Shoalhaven. These cover less than 2% of the land in NSW and supply drinking water to 60% of the state’s population. Before the 2015 buybacks, CSG licences covered or encroached upon all five.
Licences are titles granted by the NSW Government that define an area for oil or gas exploration, and require that exploration take place.the government does not even classify drinking water catchments as land of strategic importance
Development consent for CSG wells — approval to drill and run them — has also been granted in NSW drinking water catchments. This includes the approval of wells in ‘Special Areas’, buffer zones established to protect drinking water quality. Unauthorised or illegal access to these areas attracts fines of up to $44,000.
A well has been drilled in the Warragamba catchment, though an extension of time to allow Apex Energy’s 16 CSG well project in and around the Woronora and Upper Nepean catchments to go ahead was rejected by the Planning Assessment Commission in July 2013 — despite the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure recommending approval. Subsequently, in March 2015, Apex’s CSG licences were cancelled.
While the current NSW Government said its Strategic Regional Land Use Policy would protect water:
- The policy — released in September 2012 — failed to ban CSG development in drinking water catchments. In fact, the Government did not even classify drinking water catchments as land of strategic importance, and impacts on aquifers became “information to be considered” in the approval process.
- In December 2012 the NSW Minister for Primary Industries replaced the entire Board of the SCA. 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 SCA Board.
CSG mining poses particular and unacceptable risks to drinking water catchments and water security:
- CSG development requires land clearing. CSG exploration and mining requires a well every 300 to 900 metres, connected to roads and pipelines, pumps, generators, compressors, ponds or tanks and storage facilities. Contrary to industry advertising that depicts CSG wells as a minor feature on the landscape, CSG fields have a big industrial footprint. This requires clearing and degradation of large areas of land.But plants along rivers and streams, native vegetation and wetlands are vital to catchment health. Plants stabilise river and stream banks, and reduce erosion and flooding. Native vegetation in catchments retains rainfall and lowers the risk of excess runoff and flash flooding. It reduces soil and groundwater acidity and salinity, and lowers soil and nutrient loss into waterways. Likewise, wetlands store runoff, sediments, nutrients and other pollutants and reduce flooding.
- CSG wells degrade over time. CSG mining requires wells that connect the surface to coal seams, and pass through any groundwater systems present. The industry stresses the integrity of wells, but they are made of materials that degrade over time, particularly steel and concrete. About 7% of wells fail and leak within a year of construction and about 50% leak during operation. When a CSG project ends, the wells — built and plugged with materials that degrade — must last forever.
- CSG extraction unearths contaminated water that is high in salt and methane, and can contain toxic and radioactive compounds and heavy metals. CSG is trapped underground by water pressure. To mine the gas, this water must be drawn out of the coal seam to the surface.This process also changes underground stress fields, which can lead to loss of surface water and subsidence or other seismic events.When using fracking — a CSG extraction method that involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground to fracture coal and increase the flow of gas out of the well — contaminants escape into the surrounding environment. Only 20% to 80% of fracking fluids are recovered.Soil testing around CSG wells and wastewater ponds in the Pilliga forest found arsenic, lead, chromium, salts and petrochemicals. Desalinated CSG waste water released into the Condamine Rivercontained boron, silver, chlorine, copper, cadmium cyanide, zinc and other toxic chemicals.Some of these compounds can produce short-term health effects and some may contribute to systemic illness and/or cancer many years later.
- CSG mining depletes groundwater. Drawing water out of the ground depletes aquifers and surface water, critical sources of drinking water. The Federal Government’s Water Group estimates the industry will draw at least 666 and up to 5,400 gigalitres of water out of the ground each year. For comparison, Australian households use 1,872 gigalitres of water per year.A 2009 NSW Office of Water report into drinking water catchment health said: “Groundwater is a significant resource in most catchments … As well as being extracted for town supply, stock and domestic use, and irrigation and industrial use, groundwater is a major contributor to base flow in rivers and streams in dry periods, and in maintaining wetlands and other groundwater dependent ecosystems: Excessive extraction for human use can decrease the amount of groundwater available for maintaining surface aquatic ecosystems, and can also lead to salinisation of the resource.”
- CSG poses fire risks, which threaten water quality. CSG is usually methane, a highly explosive and flammable gas. This can leak from pipelines, wells, waste water and processing plants. It can even escape from underground systems after CSG drilling disturbance. Researchers from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said air sampling of unconventional gas fields in Colorado showed leakage rates of 4% on average, and up to 7.7%. This leaking methane can easily be ignited by sparks or cinders, and lead to fires that threaten water quality. The NSW Office of Water report said: “Bushfires can have devastating effects on catchment health, destroying native vegetation, farmland and infrastructure. Areas burnt by bushfires are prone to accelerated soil erosion, resulting in enhanced sediment and nutrient export to the surface water bodies downstream. Removal of vegetation by fire also reduces the ability of catchment areas to retain rainfall.”