What’s hidden below the surface

Coal seam gas in a mine was once deemed a significant hazard, but with improving technology is allowing it to be retrieved in what the industry says is a safe way.

Usually the gas is 300-600 metres underground and extracted via a complicated process where wells are drilled through the coal seams, water is pumped out and natural gas is released from the coal.

But the gas extraction has faced increasing opposition, with people in areas where coal seam gas (CSG) is retrieved becoming increasingly concerned for their health and safety.

The CSG industry has increased at a rapid pace in Queensland, where the typical levels found in the Surat Basin contain over 98 per cent methane and only small amounts of nitrogen and carbon.

In February, the ABC’s Four Corners program presented a report about faulty CSG wells on properties in QLD that were posing a risk to the health and safety of the residents.

Anne and Robert Brindle, from Tara, discovered Queensland Gas Company (QGC) could put up to 500 wells on their property, right in the middle of the feed lots for their cattle, and only 200 metres from their home and landowners feel they have no rights on their own properties and gas companies are allowed free reign.

QGC refused to comment on the issues outlined in the story, instead releasing a lengthy statement on their website.

And they are not the only gas company who want to distance themselves from the CSG issues; Australian Mining also contacted MetGasco about the issues surrounding CSG, but they declined to comment, saying CSG was going through a difficult month.

Calls to Eastern Star Gas were also not returned.

In its statement, QGC said “We do, of course, compensate landholders for accessing their land.

“Companies like QGC pay the state royalty to develop the gas that is equivalent to 10 per cent of the value of gas.

Two weeks out from the state election, New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally announced restrictions on where miners can explore and how the gas can be extracted.

She announced Labor policy would prohibit exploration near national parks and ban the use of toxic BTEX chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing (fraccing) process.

Labor unveiled a ten point coal and CSG plan, banning the use of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes across NSW, following in the footsteps of the QLD government who banned BTEX fracking late last year.

“There is no evidence to suggest these chemicals are being used in NSW but everything seems to suggest they are carcinogenic," the Premier said.

But the stricter guidelines have not kept environmentalists happy, with the Nature Conservation Council of NSW saying only some CSG issues have been addressed.

‘‘The proposal to build gas pipelines on travelling stock routes alone could have a significant adverse impact on native wildlife and their habitat,’’ chief executive Pepe Clarke said.

The pressing issue for residents faced with the possibility of having wells installed on their properties is malfunctions, such as those shown on the program, bubbling in waterways and producing scarily high methane readings when tested.

When Brindle tried to find out about the chemicals used in the fracking process, to see if her cattle had been contaminated when it went wrong on a neighbour’s property, she was supplied with government data sheets for the chemical THPS that were American, incomplete and out of date.

When she got current Australian safety data, it showed the chemical was highly toxic, “can cause chemical pneumonia and death” and advised people “DO NOT discharge into sewers and waterways.”

QGC blasted 130 litres of the chemical into the well.

ABC obtained footage from activists who stalked a coal seam drilling rig to find out if the information QGC provided about the chemicals used in the fracking process was accurate.

Four Corners spoke to Marrian Lloyd-Smith, an advisor to federal government body NICNAS, which regulates and assesses the use of industrial chemicals.

The QGC plans she has studied have unveiled more outdated safety data, raising concern about CSG projects in Australia.

“I’ve had a look at the application and what is of concern – the manufacturer’s safety data sheets, or the material safety data sheets they include are not the Australian standard and as such they are in breach of both the Queensland Act and the national code for materials safety data sheets,” she said.

“Of the 23 most commonly used compounds in fracking fluids, the national regulator, NICNAS, has only assessed two of those 23 and of the two that have been assessed, they weren’t assessed for their use in fracking fluids.

“So you can basically say of the 23 major chemicals used in this process, they have not been assessed by any national regulator.”

 

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