Sep 30, 2009

Queensland farmers rise up to take on the miners

Queensland's Surat Basin has the third largest energy resource in the world but farm groups are warning that mining areas risk catastrophic environmental damage to food-producing areas, reports Amanda Gearing.

Queensland's Surat Basin has the third largest energy resource in the world -- with vast coal seam gas and coal reserves -- but farm groups are warning that mining areas, which are prime farm land, risk catastrophic environmental damage to food-producing areas. Mining development is moving very quickly with 36,000 wells due to be sunk in the next few years. A Senate inquiry into the impacts of mining in the Murray-Darling Basin heard evidence from farm and mining industry representatives in Oakey on the Darling Downs yesterday. More than 60 individuals and groups made written submissions to the inquiry and representatives presented evidence to the committee and answered questions from the ALP, Liberal, Nationals and Green senators. The four senators were visibly shocked at some of the evidence presented. In one case, Queensland’s environmental watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency, had given permission for a flooded central Queensland mine to pump contaminated water for several months into the Fitzroy Basin river system, turning the river blue and forcing towns downstream to drink bottled water for several months because the water was undrinkable. In another case, mining company Ambre Energy, which is proposing a controversial coal mine and petrochemical plant in the rich Felton Valley farming district, formed a community liaison committee in which members were forced to sign confidentiality agreements and membership was kept secret from the community. Farm groups told the inquiry that mining of floodplains at the headwaters of the Murray-Darling Basin threatened water supply and water quality downstream because the land, which had once been under oceans and therefore has very high subsoil salt content, would be dug up and the salt released into the waterways.

Darling Downs farmer Jeff Bidstrup said that removing soil to dig open-cut coal mines in the area would expose subsoil with 31 tonnes-per-hectare of salt, which would then leach into river systems. He said black soil flood plains in the region should not be mined for coal seam gas either because the extraction of saline underground water would bring up an estimated 2000 tonnes of salt per day during mining for 30 years and mining companies did not have any firm plans on how they would dispose of the salt. "With 300 years supply of export coal in Queensland, it is surely inappropriate to destroy our premium food bowl before exhausting other options for mine sites," he said. Bidstrup said prime land could be mapped very easily and very quickly from existing maps but this had not been done. "Currently the Queensland government has no plan at all and they have never refused a mine on the basis of protecting prime farm land," he said. A Queensland Resources Council representative told the senate inquiry the mining industry had "no problem" with protection of prime agricultural land but there were no guidelines yet on what areas needed to be protected. A spokesman for Santos gave evidence that the company had not reached a final conclusion on what to do with salt extracted during mining but was currently considering a range of options including re-injecting the salt into the coal veins. Felton Valley farmer Rob McCreath welcomed the senators’ visit because it put the issue of the threat of mining to farmland on the national agenda. "Australia’s population is growing, we are faced with climate change, so we really need to look after areas that produce a lot of food," he said. Water flowing through the Felton Valley, 30 kilometres south west of Toowoomba, flows into the Condamine River, at the headwaters of the Murray-Darling Basin. Felton Valley farmers are concerned a proposed open-cut coal mine will jeopardise bore water supplies because test drilling for coal has intersected underground aquifers, said agricultural scientist and Felton farmer Vicki Green. The mining company also plans to build a 30-metre high levy bank beside Hodgson Creek to protect the site from flooding. McCreath said if the levy bank was ever broken, a large amount of contaminated water would be released into the creek. In addition, the coal resource is under a hill and removal of the hill will remove the water re-charge area of the underground aquifers in the valley, which currently supply water to 586 licensed water bores supplying domestic and stock water within 10 kilometres of the mine site. McCreath said that at full production, the mine would need more than twice as much water as the city of Toowoomba. He said farmers wanted the Senate committee to produce a report that called for legislation to protect prime farm land, land of high environmental importance and to protect areas with large numbers of people. Nationals Senator John Williams said food-producing black soil country with underground aquifers, such as on the Darling Downs, made up only 3% of the world’s land mass. In Australia, it is even more rare, making up .16% of Australia’s land mass. Senator Williams said state and federal governments should look at protecting food-producing land to protect it from being mined or used for planting trees for carbon sinks so it could be quarantined for growing food.

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7 thoughts on “Queensland farmers rise up to take on the miners

  1. stephen martin

    “Queensland’s Surat Basin has the third largest energy resource in the world ” – Really would you care to reference the source of this statement. Possibly it is correct but I find that this bald statement unbelievable; more than Saudi Arabia, or the Middle East generally, or say the Orinoco Basin ?

  2. John Bennetts

    The situation in the Hunter Valley of NSW is similar when it comes to gas extraction and disposal of saline water, but not quite as poor in two regards:
    1. The saline discharges are currently well monitored and controlled as they discharge into the Hunter River.
    2. The Hunter flows to the ocean, not the Murray-Darling.

    However, west of the range the situation is exactly analoguous to that which has been reported above.

    Both regions contain acquifers which are at risk and which are not adequately monitored or protected during exploration or operation phases.

    Under NSW legislation, the gas companies have very wide reaching power to enter land, drill holes, conduct tests such as noisy seismic tests and further drilling, construct pipelines and other facilities and so forth with little or no notice to the landholder and the local communities.

  3. Barry 09

    Cannot eat coal, but the coal lobby runs the govt. in QLD and NSW. Vote greens at the next election or import your food from China.

  4. Mark Duffett

    Open cut coal mining is obviously going to be problematic in this geographic context, but surely it’s possible to accommodate coal seam gas extraction without unduly compromising food production. The footprint of even 36,000 wells doesn’t amount to much (no more than a few square kilometres) on the scale of the Darling Downs. And I can’t believe the salinity issues associated with extraction of water that necessarily precedes gas production are insoluble (pardon the pun).

  5. Liz45

    One of the negatives of a desalination plant, is the fact that the extracted salt is put back in the ocean on a regular basis. When the salt content is increased, the effects on fish stocks and marine life is negatively affected. I’d suggest that the same could happen during the mining process as set out above. We have to get over the arrogant presumption, that we can do whatever we please to the environment and get away with it. The present crisis re global warming should at least advise us, that the practices of the last hundred years at least, has done horrific damage. We will ignore this graphic warning at our collective peril!

    With the anticipated rise in temperatures, the areas of growing food will be challenged like never before. We’re the driest inhabited continent in the world; the rain fall in vital areas is already under duress, to make it even worse is just plain stupid. I just marvel with growing anger and sadness, at govts who have this torrid love affair with the mining industry – all they can see is the taxes they’re going to collect, without a thought for now, let alone the future!

    We should be taking steps to ensure, that areas that grow our food are protected not placed under worse hardships than already experienced. I don’t want to eat fruit and veg grown in China, or anywhere else for that matter. An isolated country like ours relies heavily on our historical resource – growing nourishing food for its citizens.
    My sympathies and support are with the farmers. Keep on fighting the good fight! My grand kids are depending on you! I wish I was financially able to give monetry support – even the pension increase won’t be much help?

  6. Peter Howard


    It is worth noting that Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), is planned for this area, and that it is currently
    the least environmentally harmful of all methods of extracting energy from coal.

    UCG EXPLAINED (Taken from Cougar Energy website, http://www.cougarenergy.com.au

    “Underground coal gasification (UCG) is the process by which coal is converted in situ into a combustible gas that can be used as a fuel or a chemical feedstock. UCG has the potential to exploit coal resources that are either uneconomic to work by conventional open cut or underground coal mining methods, or are inaccessible due to depth, geology or other mining and safety considerations.

    The UCG process is initiated by drilling two adjacent boreholes into a coal seam, which is generally at a depth greater than 100 meters. Both vertical and/or deviated drill holes can be utilised to suit the size, shape and depth of the coal seam.

    An oxidant such as air or oxygen mixed with steam is then injected under pressure into one of the boreholes (the injection well) and is ignited at the coal seam.The hot combustion gases flow through the coal towards the second borehole, with the resulting chemical reactions convertng the coal to a gas, which is then extracted through the second borehole (the production well).

    Expansion of the process is achieved by the addition and linkage of further injection and production wells. The “coal gas” produced (referred to as “syngas”) has a low calorific value, and is a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, carbon dioxide and higher hydrocarbons, along with nitrogen if air is used as the oxidant. After preparation, this syngas can be used to fuel a gas turbine, or as the feedstock for other chemical processing plant.

    With an appropriate UCG technology, the cost of the gas per unit of energy is much lower than natural gas. When compared to current coal-fired power generation, these factors combine to provide a competitive cost of power at a smaller scale, with lower CO2 emissions, and longer term potential for CO2 removal and sequestration.”

    There is the smallest footprint of all, almost no disturbance to surface soil or subterranean water table.
    There is also no ash or dust, and no transportation.
    The Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) process converts coal in situ to a synthetic (syngas) that may be used for a range of downstream processes, including power generation and the production of petrochemical products.

    This conversion of coal to gas enables it to be used with reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and for the UCG process to be accepted as a Clean Coal Technology.

    Disclosure: I hold shares in Cougar Energy.

  7. Martin Miller

    We saw, this year in the 4 Corners program on the ABC, how the coal industry operates and ‘thumbs its nose’ at primary producers. We have seen Minister MacDonald in NSW trying to open up some of the best country in NSW, the Liverpool Plains, to the coal mining industry.

    How corrupt is the system, called NSW Government, when the minister holds the portfolios for: Minister for Primary Industries, Minister for Mineral Resources and Minister for State Development.

    “What a joke politics are”.

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