Premier Keneally outlines strict coal seam gas guidelines

New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally has sided with farmers and environmentalists on the contentious issue of coal seam gas.

Yesterday Keneally announced restrictions on where miners can explore and how the gas can be extracted while speaking in the Hunter Valley.

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

Labor unveiled a ten point coal and coal seam gas plan which said the use of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes would be banned across New South Wales, following in the footsteps of the Queensland government who banned BTEX fraccing late last year.

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

Otherwise known as coal seam methane or coal bed methane, it is the natural gas in coal which develops when formed deep underground by heating and compressing plant matter.

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

The benefit of coal seam gas is that it requires little treatment before being used as energy in homes and industry.

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

The concern of residents centres around the fact that almost half the chemicals inserted into the ground to allow the coal seam gas to be extracted can remain in the soil forever, so if the chemicals used are dangerous or toxic they can become part of the groundwater and pose risks to people, animals and property.

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

‘‘They have been banned in other jurisdictions. We think it is appropriate NSW follows suit.’’

She also announced the compensation payed to landowners where wells are installed will be increased under the government’s plan.

"A re-elected Keneally government will mandate minimum payments to landowners to recognise the business consequences of exploration and extraction activities on farming," she said.

There would also be an audit of gas wells and drill sites to examine how operators had compiled their conditions of approval and an industry ombudsman would be appointed to deal with complaints.

But the stricter guidelines have not kept environmental groups happy, and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW said that only some of the issues of coal seam gas have been addressed in the policy changes.

‘‘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.

‘‘For too long, the Keneally government has held the community in contempt as it allowed coal and coal seam gas exploration to expand swiftly without strong, effective safeguards for our environment and communities.

’’The government says it will ensure future approvals for gas pipelines will be restricted to public land corridors and stock routes, to avoid agricultural land.

QGC is refusing to comment on the issues outlined in a story aired on the ABC’s Four Corners program last month about some of the issues surrounding coal seam gas in Queensland and have instead released a lengthy statement on their website.

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

Calls to Eastern Star Gas were not returned.

Image: The Northern Star

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