Thursday 23 June 2011

Coal Seam Gas Mining and the Law

Proposals for new gas wells are creating unlikely allies. Not only are farmers and environmentalists united in their concerns about the potential impacts on the environment, they are also worried about potential social impacts as drilling rigs are moved around on local roads and placed within earshot of houses with little or no consultation.

The regulatory framework for gas mining in NSW is 20 years old but it is only now, with the booming interest in developing the state’s gas reserves, that its deficiencies are obvious. We can look at Queensland to see how bad things can get, with pollution of ground and surface waters, clearing of wildlife habitat, interference with farming activities, and leakages so severe that water bores can catch alight.

The current laws in NSW will not stop the same things happening here.

The law is particularly slack when it comes to assessing potential impacts in the exploratory phase. All stages of exploration, including pilot production wells, can be approved without public consultation. Local government is consulted but powerless to stop it.

Full production requires a publicly exhibited assessment of potential environmental impacts but, because these are likely to be of state significance, the decision again is taken out of the hands of local councils and there are limited grounds for appeal. An appeal against the approval of 100 production wells around Gloucester, currently before the Land and Environment Court, is a test case.

A number of councils, including some on the north coast, are demanding law reform to tighten the regulatory framework for gas mining, and a moratorium on all mining until this occurs. This would be consistent with the precautionary principle, a fundamental tenet of sustainable development. 

The NSW Government’s introduction of a 60 day freeze on new exploration licences is unlikely to satisfy these demands, given that 75% of the state is already covered by licences.

            - J Cavanaugh

Thursday 16 June 2011

Clarence Valley Council's Living Sustainably Awards

Clarence Valley Council LIVING SUSTAINABLY AWARDS recognise outstanding contributions or achievements that "enhance environmental, economic and social sustainability".  The awards will be announced during Local Government week (1-7 August). 

This is the first year for these awards which have been instituted by Council as a result of the recommendation of Council’s community Climate Change Advisory Committee.

There are three award categories:
  • Individual
  • Community Group
  • Business.

Nomination forms can be obtained from the Council's website
Nominations  close on Thursday 23 June.

Monday 13 June 2011

Coal Seam Gas as an Interim Fuel?

The gas mining industry is promoting gas as the interim fuel for power generation as Australia moves to a renewable energy future, claiming it is 60% cleaner than current coal-fired electricity, a 'line' which has been easy to sell to various Australian governments addicted to lucrative royalties.

It is widely acknowledged that the burning of gas for electricity produces far fewer emissions than coal. What gas mining companies are not promoting is the amount of polluting emissions that are created through the exploration, mining, transport and refining processes, not to mention methane released into the atmosphere from leaking pipes

Until now, this has not been accurately quantified, but in March 2011, scientists from the Cornell University in the USA released the results of a comprehensive assessment of the total emissions of various electricity generating fuels, including, coal, shale gas (referred to locally as coal seam gas), traditional gas, and diesel.

The collateral emissions from machinery used in coal seam operations are enormous. It requires trucking in millions of litres of water, tonnes of sand, and a 10,000 horsepower engine to drive the 'fracking' operation (fracturing of underground rock strata) for each well.

The scientists are at pains to explain that their calculations, based on US Mining Department statistics, are conservative, and show that when the emissions of all aspects of production are considered, coal seam gas burning causes by far the greatest amount of pollution than all other fuels.

One interesting statistic was that, over the life of the project, between 3.6% and 7.9% of all gas mined becomes “fugitive methane”, either 'vented' or flared directly into the atmosphere. Venting is the release of methane that unavoidably leaks or overflows into the atmosphere during the process, much of it during drilling, where it accompanies 'flowback' waste or 'produced water'. Flaring is the deliberate burning of surplus gas, a process that is banned in some countries.

The study's conclusion was, that rather than reducing greenhouse impacts, “developing gas from shale formations is likely to aggravate global warming”.

This is a powerful argument to place a permanent hold on all gas mining, particularly coal seam gas, and move directly to renewable energy.

- J Edwards

Thursday 9 June 2011

Update on Senate Koala Inquiry

The first report on this Senate Inquiry was posted on 12 May, 2011.

The second hearing of the Green's Senate Inquiry into the state and health of koalas, on May 19, has left koala support group representatives quietly confident about the eventual outcome.

A concerned and very well-informed committee is digging into all the reasons for government's reluctance to list koala as a threatened species, and unearthing the very apparent flaws in the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Given the federal Scientific Committee's finding of a 30% decline in koala numbers, the Minister has the power, under the precautionary principle clause of the Act, to list the koala without any further discussion. So why the hesitation? Well, of course, we all already know the answer. It's those big players, who drive that mighty stumbling block - The  Economy!

Despite all the proven science, the Property Council still claims lack of rigorous scientific understanding of all issues regarding koalas, and developer representatives reiterate the additional costs to themselves if they are forced to work around a nationally protected species. There was even one outright claim of “loss of competitive advantage” if koalas are listed.

On the other side of the coin, through the medium of the Australian Financial Review, Friday 20th May 2011, the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) has indicated an at least $1billion benefit in tourism by protecting and 'growing' koalas. Yet in response to questions by the Senators, the Property Council admit to having no sustainable best practice code within the development industry

Throw-away lines at the Inquiry MkII were rife, and telling. In discussion of the benefits of biobanking offsets, one relatively high ranking government official explained that this is where “...we let a developer give us some money, and we then allow them to knock over a habitat. Then we buy a piece of pineapple growing land, and then we rebuild the koala habitat."

At the next sitting of the Senate Committee in Victoria in July, the development industry and also the government will have the job of defending their past lack of interest in protecting the koala.

Meanwhile AKF's CEO Deborah Tabart OAM, is off to the World Conference in California, to receive the 2011 Excellence in Communication Leadership (EXCEL) Award. There she will  pass on a few more of the one-liners from the Inquiry - particularly one from a senator who, when a witness complained that the gallery was distracting him, responded: “Beats chain-saws cutting down trees, doesn’t it?”.

- P Edwards