A leading natural resources expert says Australia needs to establish more sustainable land use planning before coal seam gas (CSG) mining is permitted.
Speaking at a forum at the University of Sydney, Dr John Williams, head of the NSW Resources Commission said different parties need to be consulted on the issue of CSG.
"I think we need to have a more holistic, regional look at where we can mine and where we can’t," Williams said.
"I think if we haven’t got development under way which has financial implications, we just hold development until we get this stuff sorted out."
CSG has been an increasingly prevalent problem lately, particularly in Queensland where landowners feel powerless to stop gas companies installing up to 500 gas wells on their land, sometimes very close to homes and feed lots.
Some of the wells were shown to be faulty and leaking toxic chemicals and residents concerned for their safety and the effects of the mining on the Surat Basin have protested the issue.
Yesterday Bob Irwin faced court over his involvement in a protest against Queensland Gas Company’s CSG projects.
He was fined $300 after refusing to sign a good behaviour bond for his part in the blockade of Tara Estate in Queensland and ignoring police instructions.
One of the concerns of environmentalists and landowners is the effects of the fracking process, which can lead to significant damage to water bodies and ground water.
"It’s likely to be breaking some of the barriers between good and bad water and putting the good water at risk," Williams said.
He also said questions have been raised about how to deal with contaminated surface water caused by the mining and that while there is still uncertainty abound the industry’s impact on the environment, there is some evidence that it has already damaged aquifers and contaminated water supplies.
Williams said the effects of the mining will not be exclusive to those with CSG wells on their land or to those in Queensland, where three major projects have received approval.
CSG exploration has begun in other states, including the Sydney suburb of St Peters.
"It’s not just a country problem, it’s a city problem. It’s wherever there is gas under the ground," says Williams.
Williams wants note precautions taken, especially considering more exploration is planned for Liverpool Plains and sites around the Illawarra.
"The Illawarra system above the escarpment all serves to supply Sydney’s water … It’s a sensitive area and you don’t want to compromise water supply for coal seam gas," he says.
"You have to adopt the precautionary principle."
Williams said the hydrological and geological knowledge should be combined with the public, government and industry input to carry our risk assessments and outline areas where developments can happen without damaging biodiversity, land, water resources and communities.
He said the NSW government’s consideration of regional land use planning is a step in the right direction and has urged them to be the first state in Australia to implement it.
Last week, Australian Greens leader Bob Brown accused Liberal and Labor senators of standing in the way of the party’s proposed senate enquiry into the coal seam gas (CSG) industry.
He also said senators from the National party split with their coalition partners and refused to vote.
Williams believes an overhaul is needed in the way CSG projects are assessed and that the current system of environmental impact statements and court cases overlook the cumulative effect of mines on a catchment because they only focus on the impact of one mine at a time.
He had some dire warnings for Queensland, because once a project has started the only solution is to deal with issues as they arise, but hopes other states will be able to plan more effectively for CSG projects.
"If you create a serious problem, then it’s really hard to do anything about it."
"I think we have the chance in NSW, Victoria and elsewhere, to avoid this path."
Despite the hysteria about CSG, the industry is maintaining that there is no evidence of water supplies being affected by the mining.
Ross Dunn, from oil and gas industry group APPEA made the comments at the same forum, and says he is “happy with how Queensland is going".
According to Dunn, hydrologists found the impact of CSG on underground water flows will be small.
He said monitoring takes place to ensure safety and the industry abides by tough restrictions and provides transparency to ensure the public is informed.
He believes CSG and farming can both occur harmoniously and that farmland can be rehabilitated after gas wells are used.
"I think industry should be allowed to demonstrate that it can coexist," he says.
"I’m not meaning to be a block on development, but let’s do it so we don’t compromise our future," he says