May 22, 2011

Got Coal Seam Gas?

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Don't Fight, Don't Steal, and Don't be Greedy

SWoBs Down Under Episode 3: Australia East Coast- Got Gas?

Australia is an ancient continent, with lots of new things going on. The red soils tell the story of aeons of evolution, continuing to support abundant life. Natural Resources are abundant, including timber, precious metals, and coal.

On the outskirts of town, Eucalyptus forests brimming with flocks of parrots line the road and kangaroos graze in the grass. “The Bush” as the forest is called, is still alive in this area, though mainly second growth after the cedar logging industry of the 1800’s.

Parrots and Pandanus are common in Northern NSW

The East Coast from Sydney north to Queensland is an almost continuous forest dotted with hamlets and the occasional big city. Though the cities don’t feel too city, they hold lots of people.

The Ocean is so beautiful

The ocean is a way of life for many here- Aussies are right into beach-going and surfing. They are into lots of things nature and sporty, and are always keen to “get amongst it”. The Bush rules in Australia, and many people enjoy it on the weekends, or lead a rural lifestyle.

For this reason, awareness is rising about an environmentally treacherous industry that is making it’s way from the Good Ol’ US of A to Australia- that of Coal Seam Gas (CSG) Mining.

Masquerading as a "clean" solution to our growing energy needs, CSG mining is anything but. In the USA, over 500,000 gas wells are currently in use, with a significant increase projected for the near future. Many of the communities surrounding these wells have reported startling and downright scary experiences associated with the mining.

In the documentary film “Gasland”, the process and the results of Coal Seam Gas mining in the United States is examined. This is a must see for anyone concerned about this issue.

What the Frack?
Coal Seam Gas is also called Coalbed Methane, and the gas surrounds and fills porous coal deposits. In order to extract the gas, a well is drilled into the coal bed and a liquid is pumped into the well bore which fractures the earth around the well, freeing the gas and causing it to rise to the surface. This practice is called Hydraulic Fracturing or “Fracking”.

This sounds great in theory, but in practice fracking is almost an inevitable nightmare of side effects.

Since the wells often drill down many thousands of feet (up to 12,000 ft or 3500 m), they may penetrate many underground water reserves on the way. The fracking process destroys the layer between coal deposits and aquifers, causing the gas to rise into the groundwater, polluting it with methane.

A spider's web of wells dotting the landscape of QLD, Aus

The fracking fluid itself is a proprietary blend of over 600 chemicals that are not registered or even declared by the industry. In the USA, a the 2005 Energy Bill exempted Oil and Gas Companies from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which meant they could basically pump whatever they wanted into the wells with little or no oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency.

(US former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was also the former CEO of Halliburton, was an author of the bill. Conveniently, Halliburton invented the fracking process and is the major installer of CSG wells. There really is no difference between the Oil and Gas Companies and the Government that is supposed to regulate them. )

A typical well site with associated infrastructure and effluent ponds

Water Water everywhere but not a drop to drink
The fracking fluid may also end up in the groundwater and surface waters as a normal practice and from accidents during drilling. Up to several million gallons of water are used per frack, with up to 18 fracks in the lifetime of the well. That is around 50 million gallons of water per well, contaminated with untold chemicals, pumped straight into the groundwater, on purpose. Read the LA Times article about concerns over fracking.

This is apparently happening in our home-town of Santa Barbara as well. A recent article in the SB Independent by our dear friend Ethan Stewart sheds light on the dark cloud that is approaching our seaside community. Apparently, local oil company Venoco Inc. has been using fracking in several gas wells in SB County without telling anyone at the local level… no bueno.

It looks as if Venoco hopes to "exploit" the Monterrey Shale formation, hailing it as the most productive "shale play" in the US. The formation goes from Santa Barbara to Sacramento and passes through some of the largest aquifers in the state.

CSG Mining is about the worst thing you could possibly do to the Earth, which includes us. Basically, the water table becomes polluted immediately. People living near CSG wells are experiencing unbelievable consequences to their water supplies, including severe health problems like severe body pain and brain tumors. Many water wells near CSG wells are so polluted with natural gas that the tap water can be lit of fire!!!

This is not right. This is not okay.

Yet the gas companies and the governments still claim fracking is safe. Despite thousands of reports of illness and even water wells exploding. If there still can be a doubt if this is safe, read the recent study by Duke University about the dangers of water pollution from fracking.

America’s Worst Export
Both New South Wales and Queensland are being hailed as the future of energy in Australia, with CSG and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) as the main industries. Projections are that Coal and Coal Seam Gas mining will increase 10 fold in the next 10 years. American Oil Companies are right into it, including ConocoPhillips.

Oil Companies are actively placing gas wells on private property, often without the consent of landowners. Actually, the Oil Co’s are granted rights to the mineral resources under private properties by the Australian Government, similar to the USA. Watch the 60 minutes Aus report on CSG in QLD.

Local resistance is on the rise. The Lock The Gate Alliance is creating a forum for people to express their concerns and the realities of CSG mining in Australia. They also take action- like blockading the miners.

We attended a rally in Northern New South Wales organized by Lock the Gate. Over 3000 people of all demographics peacefully marched the streets of Murwillumba NSW. The march culminated in a rally at the town park, where indigenous leaders, farmers, and concerned citizens educated the public on the dangers of CSG.

So what’s the solution?
All of this nonsense and madness is not necessary. There is no need to ruin groundwater supplies for untold years for a supply of natural gas that may last less than one person’s lifetime.

We have all of the energy we need right now, and it can be created from waste. Yes I am talking about BioGas again, or methane derived from rotting organic matter. This is in fact the same gas that they are extracting from the Coal Seam, so the infrastructure already exists to use methane for electricity generation. We can just substitute BioGas for CSG- no tweaking (or at least very little) needed.

This landscape would be unaffected by small scale BioGas production, unlike CSG mines...

BioGas generation is not complicated. In India households are installing small-scale BioGas Digesters that provide all of their gas needs for cooking, from vegetable scraps! What if we went the next step and connected digesters to septic tanks, and turned potential pollution into electricity?

Keep it Green!

Farms are using methane to power their operations all over the world. Communities are trapping gases from landfills and sewage treatment facilties that would otherwise cause air pollution. This is the industry we need to support on a government level, instead of one that stands to benefit only Big Oil.

Would you mess with this girl?

Please educate yourself on the issue of Coal Seam Gas Mining in your area. Urge your State officials to demand transparency from the Oil Companies about their practices.

Stay tuned for an Update on the Permaculture Tour Australia 2011, for more Solutions To Pollution Through Sustainable Design!

Thanks for reading. Keep the faith.

For more on the issues of CSG:

Links specific for Australia:
Concerns over chemicals used in CSG mining:

Pipeline location info:

Interactive map for mine locations in QLD:

Map of mining operations in NSW:

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