Coal seam gas development in Australia continues progressing at a rate that concerns some residents, particularly those in rural areas traditionally reliant on agriculture. These economically important industries are vying for key resources in New South Wales and Queensland. According to Circle of Blue, because both enterprises need large amounts of water and are economically important, this is leading to conflict.
About half of the nation’s water is used by agriculture, a reduction from 65% consumed in 2004-2005, according to a 2010 Australian Bureau of Statistics report. Other primary consumers include household use (11%); the water supply, sewerage and drainage services industry (11%); and manufacturing (3%).
Coal seam gas or coal-bed methane is present in underground coal seams, trapped by natural water pressure. The extraction process entails drilling a hole into the seam, then pumping the water, which releases the pressure. The amount of pressure within the seam determines how the gas is removed, according to the Queensland government.
In high-pressure situations, gas flows to the surface. If the pressure is low, the gas is typically pumped to the surface. Sometimes, this process involves hydraulic fracturing. When the gas does reach the surface, it has to be separated from the water.
Goal seam gas has been produced in Australia for at least 15 years. The nation has about 250 trillion cubic feet of coal seam gas reserves — “enough to power a city of 1 million residents for 5,000 years,” according to Circle of Blue.
In New South Wales alone, producer Santos expects mining could add AUS$ 821 million a year to the local economy through 2035, creating roughly 2,900 full-time jobs. Meanwhile, in Queensland, the industry should create about 18,000 jobs, generating about AUS $1 billion a year.
Circle of Blue also estimates that within 25 to 35 years, the coal seam gas industry alone could pump between 300 million and 1.5 billion cubic meters of water annually in Queensland and New South Wales. According to Circle of Blue, “This is between two and nine times more than what the entire mining industry is currently using in these two states. [...] And, some experts say, it could add even more stress in a region that is already extracting 23 times as much water for agriculture than for mining.”
“These water systems are already vastly over-extracted, and there are very severe environmental consequences [to taking additional water],” said Dr. James Pittock, researcher at the Australian National University.
The greatest concern to geologists and hydrologists as well as farmers is what damage coal seam gas extraction might have on local water supplies. In New South Wales, for example, residents are concerned drilling could damage and/or pollute aquifers used for irrigation and household water supplies.
Jeremy Buckingham, the NSW Greens MP, says the release of gas in May 2012 that caused the Condamine River to bubble. He calls it “the worst case recorded so far of what appears to be pollution related to fracking for coal seam gas.”
The river supplies residents with drinking water and irrigation. The concern is that drilling may have put other Murray-Darling Basin waterways at risk.
“[Coal seam gas and agriculture] are two industries at play here, and not one industry and one romantic pursuit,” Chris Moran, groundwater specialist at the University of Queensland, told Circle of Blue. “And sometimes we get that a bit confused, as coal seam gas is now a second industry coming on top of an existing industry. That actually is going to create friction.”
But there are a few examples of how these industries are coexisting. Dart Energy, for example, is working to finalize plans for a new coal seam gas project in New South Wales that will provide power for an AUS$65-million agricultural project. Maria’s Farm Veggies is erecting greenhouses in which tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers will be grown for the domestic market. The project is expected to employ at least 200 people.
Former Australian deputy Prime Minister John Anderson says farmers should embrace coal seam gas extraction as both industries are needed by Australians.
“Between ongoing urbanisation, disturbed weather patterns and a concerning allocation of agricultural capacity to non-food production such as biofuels, we have very little space to expand the amount of land we use to service the increasing demand we face,” Anderson said. Anderson, who was previously chairman of Eastern Star Gas, a coal seam gas exploration concern, also noted:
With a growing population, demanding more and better food, in a situation where we’re running out of the land and water we need to expand agricultural input, and the hydrocarbons we need to improve agricultural productivity, we’re teetering on the edge of a cliff.
Rosemary Nankivell, a Liverpool Plain farmer, says most families have passed their land down for generations. She told Circle of Blue:
We sort of think we are here for a long time. And we have an obligation to pass it on in as good as, or even better, condition than what we received it in. […] We think that farming has a great future. But with issues like climate change, huge population increases, urbanization, depletion of groundwater — I think farming has a lot of challenges in front of us. But it’s always been a good industry and whether you like it or not, it’s a great way of life and it’s essential for the future.