If you’re wondering what the frack fracking is, here’s a quick primer to bring you up to speed. Fracking in Australia doesn’t get a heap of press but it’s an issue of great contention in many forgotten corners of our country, and I predict it will be a hot topic in years to come.
The term fracking refers to a method of extracting coal seam gas (CSG) or shale gas from the rock bed 300 or more metres underground. Both are natural gases, mostly methane, that occur within coal seams and shale respectively, and are held in place by water. These “unconventional” gases are used to make electricity on or near the site of the mine, and can also be converted to LNG (liquefied natural gas) to be distributed elsewhere in Australia or even overseas.
To extract this gas, wells are drilled through layers of rock to reach the source. Wells are generally lined with steel and cement in an attempt to prevent contamination, which we’ll look at in a minute.
Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a technique used to speed up the flow of gas by whumping millions of litres of water plus a load of sand into the well at high pressure to crack (or fracture) the seam. Not all CSG wells will use this technique, typically it is used when the reservoir is deeper or difficult to access. It’s expected that shale mines will use fracking as the rock is much harder than coal.
The unconventional gas industry in Australia
Australia has bucketloads of CSG, heaps! In fact, we’re giving it away (well, selling it actually). The main reservoirs are in Queensland and NSW and there are more than 3500 coal seam gas wells in action today, with the vast majority of them being in QLD. Currently, CSG is high on Australia’s priority list for economic growth and there are plans and licences in place to see this happen. The Darling Downs, which is close to home for me and is one of the nation’s richest food bowls, could be home to 26,000 new coal seam gas wells, for example. (According to Lock The Gate, more than half of our entire nation is under licence or application by the coal and gas industry.)
Shale gas mining is still some years away from commercial application, however Western Australia is believed to have one-fifth of the world’s shale oil reserves and exploratory mines have been operating for decades. The most recent is a pilot fracking operation in the Canning Basin in the Kimberly.
What are the issues about fracking in Australia?
There are numerous social and environmental issues associated with coal seam and shale gas mining, and fracking comes with its own set of specific concerns on top of that. Here are the key points:
- All CSG mining produces waste water that needs to be stored and treated after it is pumped out from the well to release the gas. At best, this water is salty, at worst, it contains heavy metals and radioactive substances. In addition to the environmental impacts of carting this water around (or piping it) to be treated and reused, there is large potential for human error or accidents where the contaminated water is released into the environment. According to SBS, there were 23 spills, three breaches during flooding, and four uncontrolled spills of CSG mining waste water in the first six months of 2011 alone.
- Still on waste water: even after treated, the water can contain heavy-metal contaminants that interfere with ecosystems, yet mining companies are allowed to dump this water in waterways.
- There is some evidence that even without fracking, removing the water from the coal seam allows the methane to escape, along with other contaminants into air and water. Some health effects that have been observed in communities living close to CSG mines include nosebleeds, skin and eye irritation, unexplained seizures in children, headaches, nausea and vomiting.
- Aquifers (underground water supplies) can become contaminated when the well is drilled
- CSG resources are owned by the crown and are often located on land that is already in use, meaning land-owners, farmers and whole communities often have little or no say on whether a mine is dropped right on their doorstep. CSG mining devalues property and affects tourism and farming.
- When it come to fracking, the above risks increase. In the US, where fracking is more common, there are cases of people being able to light their tap water on fire due to water-supply contamination.
- Fracking requires huge amounts of water that is diverted from the local environment.
- Fracking fluids also contain chemicals. In the past, a mix of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX) was used but these are banned in NSW and QLD as they contain known carcinogens. However, fracking can release naturally occurring BTEX into the environment.
What can you do about it?
- If you live in an area where gas mining is planned, get in touch with Lock The Gate to familiarise yourself with your rights and how you can let your voice be heard. This map gives you a rough idea of the mining assets in your area.
- Be alert to the issue and support communities that are standing up to coal-seam gas mining, defending their right not to have their own land pockmarked with gas wells.
- Don’t install gas and limit your use of it. Even though natural gas has a lower carbon footprint than coal or oil, think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions poo-poos it as a household fuel, urging residents to use high-efficiency electricity from renewable sources as the best option.
- If you don’t have solar or another renewable energy source, ask your provider for 100% Green Power, which means they are required to source your energy needs from renewables.
- Stop funding the mining industry through your banking and superannuation. Switch the latter to Future Super or Australian Ethical, and see this table to find out whether your bank invests in fossil fuels.