FactCheck: is 53% of Australia under exploration licence for unconventional mining?

Our country stands on the brink of being irrevocably damaged by the impact of CSG (coal seam gas), with 53% of the landmass of Australia under current exploration licence for unconventional mining. – The Reverend Fred Nile MP, in a media release calling for an immediate moratorium on CSG, March 11, 2015.

Coal seam gas and other forms of unconventional mining have become increasingly politically sensitive issues in the lead up to the March 28 New South Wales election. Those issues may even help swing seats in regional areas.

As this article on the future of coal seam gas in NSW noted, the NSW Nationals' leader Troy Grant recently said of the CSG debate that:

People are yelling at each other. It’s probably one of the most difficult things we’ve had to grapple with in government.

With passions running so high, it is important to have accurate figures on the scope and extent of unconventional gas mining in Australia.

So, is Christian Democratic Party leader Fred Nile correct when he says that 53% of Australia’s landmass is under current exploration licence for unconventional mining?

Where did that number come from?

When asked for a source for the figure of 53%, Reverend Nile’s office directed The Conversation to the website of anti-CSG group, Lock the Gate. Their website states that:

54% of Australia is covered by coal and gas licences or applications. Nowhere is sacred and nothing is safe.

If you click through to Lock the Gate’s Call to Country page, you can download maps, including this one below.

A map entitled Australia: our country or their quarry? Lock the Gate

Lock the Gate relied on data from official state government records, a 2013 report on the group’s website said.

A Lock the Gate spokesman told The Conversation via email that:

The map and the figures we derived were for all coal and petroleum titles and applications. I’m not sure that we have ever made the claim that these titles will all be subject to unconventional mining methods. It is not really possible beforehand to be certain what method will be used when an exploration title is given or applied for. The titles and licences do not differentiate …

Lock the Gate’s Call to Country research in 2013 found that 437 million hectares of land in Australia is covered by coal and gas licences or applications, which is more than half of the land mass of the country. There may be some change since that time, but it’s largely the same now. Last year, the NSW Government suspended applications for new petroleum titles and, in the last six weeks, have bought back several million hectares of petroleum titles – our figure does not reflect those recent developments.

The spokesman also said that unconventional extraction techniques are “driving the boom in acreage releases by state governments, licence applications by companies and existing exploration activities”.

To summarise: Reverend Nile’s office said the NSW MP got his figure for the extent of unconventional mining from Lock the Gate – but Lock the Gate has said they have only ever produced figures on all coal and petroleum titles and applications.

Conventional and unconventional mining: what’s the difference?

The term “unconventional” gas covers shale gas, tight gas and coal seam gas mining. Shale and tight gas extraction rely upon a controversial practice called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. This technique may also be used in coal seam gas extraction, although less frequently. Fracking involves fracturing a coal or rock seam and injecting water, sand and chemicals into the fracture to release the gas contained within.

Conventional coal and gas mining do not involve extraction from unconventional reservoirs, and do not involve fracking.

The Lock the Gate statistics from their 2013 report do not identify the distinction between conventional and unconventional. Their statistics cover a mix of conventional and unconventional mining, including: exploration titles for coal, mining and petroleum and applications for coal, mining and petroleum titles.

Lock the Gate estimates that the total overlapping area of Australia affected by coal and gas titles and applications in Australia is 437 million hectares, or 56.9% of the land mass.

Lock the Gate’s report doesn’t specify how much of that 56.9% is unconventional mining alone. They don’t say it is 53%, as claimed by Reverend Nile.

What do other stakeholders say?

It’s hard to pin a precise figure on the extent of unconventional mining in Australia. A spokesperson for Geoscience Australia, the agency that advises government, industry and other stakeholders on geoscience matters, told The Conversation that:

The type of information that would need to be analysed is held by the individual State/NT Regulators and is not collated or collected through Geoscience Australia. While there is some data present online, the legislative frameworks vary between the jurisdictions (for example: in some jurisdictions CSG is treated as a mineral and in others as petroleum) and it is not necessarily clear what is unconventional and what is conventional. This obviously makes it difficult to accurately piece together the information you are seeking to verify.

A spokesman for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), which represents industry, disputed Reverend Nile’s figure of 53%, saying:

There is no evidence to support such a claim. By its own admission Lock the Gate, an organisation opposed to the development of natural gas from coal seams, base their figures on both petroleum and exploration titles and title applications. These are not confined to unconventional gas resources such as natural gas from coal seams or shale. In addition, a number of applications can exist over the same area until one is approved. As such, this figure is artificially inflated.

Unfortunately, there is no single national database against which Reverend Nile’s or Lock the Gate’s figures can be checked.

Even if one were to go through applications on a state-by-state basis, it’s hard to know based on applications alone whether conventional or unconventional mining methods will be used. So it’s not really possible to use state government sources to show that 53% of the landmass of Australia is under current exploration licence for unconventional mining.

CSG is on the rise

All that aside, the prospect of unconventional gas mining in Australia is expanding. According to the 2014 International Energy Agency Energy Supply Security Report, global gas demand is expected to reach nearly 4,000 billion cubic metres by 2018. This additional demand is being driven by increased unconventional gas production in the United States, Australia and the former Soviet Union region.

Despite some NSW government buy-backs of exploration titles, NSW Premier Mike Baird has said that the CSG industry would continue to expand if his government is re-elected, although under tighter environmental controls in line with those recommended by the NSW Chief Scientist, Mary O'Kane. (You can read more about the government’s gas plan and other parties' CSG policies here.)

In overall terms, production of unconventional gas in Australia is expected to continue to grow.

Verdict

Reverend Nile’s office said he got his figure on the extent of unconventional mining from Lock the Gate. But Lock the Gate has said they have only produced figures on all coal and petroleum titles and applications – which covers more than just unconventional mining.

Reverend Nile’s statement that “53% of the landmass of Australia under current exploration licence for unconventional mining” is not supported by any evidence, including the source his office provided.


Review

This is a sound analysis. As commented by Geoscience Australia and APPEA, it is difficult to obtain accurate figures on licence areas, due to differing jurisdictions and the way that information is categorised and compiled. There is no evidence to support Reverend Nile’s claim. – Peter Cook


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