Gas Fracking

Energy security is important to us all, our current lifestyle is based on availability of cheap, convenient energy sources such as oil and coal.  Gas also plays a central role in our energy mix and The Strategic Energy Initiative Discussion Paper; Energy 2031 (March 2011) advocates Western Australia should plan for increased reliance on gas and land-based gas should replace off shore gas piped from the Northwest Shelf.  This plan would allow a major portion of Northwest Shelf gas to be exported for foreign exchange.  As a community we should question the wisdom of exporting non renewable resources in an atmosphere of urgency, to fund current lifestyles, whilst simultaneously committing future generations to energy poverty, and, concurrently emitting vast quantities of greenhouse gasses in the process.

Land based gas is sourced from unconventional reserves of coal seam gas (CSG) by the fracking process.  Unlike conventional gas, accessed by drilling and tapping into a gas-field directly, fracking requires the sub strata, in which the gas is trapped, to be fractured with extremely high pressure water and chemicals.  What comes to the surface is a mixture of gas, saline water with which the gas shares the substrata, fracking water and fracking chemicals.  This mixture is then processed to extract the gas, leaving behind very large quantities of strong brine contaminated with the fracking chemicals.

A primary concern associated with gas fracking is the quantity of water consumed in the process.  An example of this is currently playing out in Eastern Australia’s Murray Darling Basin where the Murray Darling Draft Plan is recommending returning 2,750 Gigalitres of water to the river system whilst simultaneously the CSG fracking industry in the Murray Darling Basin area has been granted water allocations of 300,000 Gigalitres annually to extract gas from just one CSG source in the NSW Gunnedah Basin.  Much of this 300,000 Gigalitres is from the deep aquifer though there is little if any understanding how this will impact on the water cycle in our arid country.

Equally important is the issue of how to deal with residual salt, there being varying estimations of how much will be produced, with quantity being directly linked to quantity of water extracted.  If we use the National Water Commission estimate of 300 Gigalitres of water each year that would result in 3million tonnes of salt being produced annually over the next 30 years.  The major issue with salt is the CSG fracking industry has no idea how it will dispose of it.  A proposal to truck it to the coast to take it offshore and dump it at sea was rejected due to cost and obvious environmental impacts.  For the CSG fracking industry to go ahead without even knowing how they will dispose of their waste salt has the potential to leave behind mountains of salt in our countryside as the unacceptable legacy of their industry, a spectre that is reminiscent of the slag heaps of my youth.

The third and highly contentious aspect of the CSG fracking process is its adverse impacts on farming land.  The concept of fracking relies on liberated water and gas travelling together through a concrete pipe to the surface where it is collected and processed.  Usually CSG is found in deep aquifers below the shallow aquifers sourced for irrigating farming land.  Experience in the Hunter Valley demonstrates a proportion of the liberated salt water/gas/chemical mix will migrate across into the shallow aquifer putting arable land at risk.  Some months ago the ABC 4Corners program filmed a Queensland farmer lighting his irrigation water in a graphic demonstration of CSG fracking contamination.  Once contaminated, shallow aquifers will become useless for irrigation forever, if the fracking chemicals get into the soil that land will no longer be available for agriculture.  Farmers are so concerned they have formed the Lock the Gate Alliance (http://www.lockthegate.org.au) and those in the NSW Liverpool Plains area are engaged in blockades to stop CSG fracking companies accessing their land.

Returning to Western Australia and The Strategic Energy Initiative Discussion Paper, the unconventional gas the Western Australian State Government wants to replace Northwest Shelf gas with is CSG from the state’s South West, especially Margaret River.  Farmers and wine grape growers are extremely concerned their arable land and their livelihoods are being put at risk for short term gain.

A Federal Senate Committee report released today (30-11-11) has recommended new restrictions on the CSG industry.  Committee chair Senator Bill Heffernan said currently CSG operators work under cowboy regulations.  He also called for better national oversight of the largely unregulated coal-seam gas industry, warning of its environmental impact on underground water reserves, saying “When you extract the gas you draw out a bloody lot of water, and it can alter the direction and behaviour of the aquifer.”  However you look at it this industry has a lot of questions to answer before any more permits are issued for CSG development.

Published in Fremantle Herald 2 December 2011

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