It’s election time … you’re at the local café, reading the paper, while you sip on a caramel latte and a lovely serve of bacon and eggs on wholegrain toast … sounds like the perfect way to spend a Sunday morning. However, everything that you have in front of you — including the printing of the paper, the delivery of the food to your cafe, and the gas that cooked your food and heated the water for the coffee, is the subject of huge conflict at present.

The issue? Mining coal seam gas in agricultural areas. The conflict? Balancing food security and energy security.

Both of these forms of security are paramount to the survival and growth of Australia. Food security so that we may feed ourselves (and a hungry world), and energy security for transport, heating, lighting and various other activities that we enjoy at present.

How is conflict resolved, and what role does the law play?

What happens when there is a perceived conflict between these two vital forms of security? Should one give way to the other, can they happily co-exist, or is it the role of the law to create a framework where the interests of both are protected?

It is these difficult questions that governments, especially NSW and Queensland, are facing at present. The development of unconventional sources of gas (such as coal seam and shale gas) is providing Australia with energy security, as well as generating a huge export industry in the form of LNG.

Unlike most traditional mining activity, CSG is often found on highly fertile agricultural land

However, many of the coal seam gas deposits occur in areas of high agricultural fertility. This includes the fertile Darling Downs area in Queensland, and the Liverpool Plains in NSW, which comprises only 6% of Australia’s total agricultural area but produces more than 22% of its food.

This is Australia’s breadbasket.

Conflict over land use and concerns over fracking

This creates conflict in land use; farmers are understandably reluctant to allow their prime agricultural land to be used for coal seam gas extraction. However, as the law stands at present, even if a farmer owns the land, a government has the right to grant a licence to an energy company to extract the coal seam gas from under the ground, by drilling wells to extract the gas.

At the heart of this conflict are the methods used to extract coal seam gas: hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Under this process, vast amounts of water, chemicals and sand are pumped at high pressure down a well to fracture the coal or shale to release the gas. The water is then returned to the surface, sometimes along with the naturally occurring salty water if it is in coal seams, and the gas is collected in a pipe and sent off for processing and use.

There are several major concerns with fracking:

  • the high use of water in agricultural areas
  • the chemicals and sand used in the water
  • the amount of water returned to the surface (produced water)
  • possible damage to underground water structures (known as aquifers) as a result of the fracking process
  • the number of wells required to successfully extract the coal seam gas in an agricultural area
  • the number of trucks and service vehicles that enter a farmer’s land in order to undertake the fracking process.

Water and CSG

Water use in Australia has always been an issue, particularly in agricultural areas. The major concern for farmers, and quite rightly so, is governments’ inconsistent attitude to water conservation and management. If the federal government is attempting to restrict water use in the Murray-Darling Basin, then why are energy companies able to extract vast amounts of water (which the farmers see as important for agriculture) to undertake commercial enterprises that only profit the companies?

Related to the use of water is the real danger of damage to ground water resources. Unlike in Western Australia, NSW and Queensland are part of the huge underground water resource known as the Great Artesian Basin. The concern is that if the chemicals used in fracking enter the groundwater, there is a likelihood that groundwater could be contaminated.

The major cause of contamination of aquifers has been linked to poor fracking well construction and design. This can lead to a well leaking fracking fluids into the surrounding aquifers. Many farmers are concerned that the groundwater movement in some areas is little understood, and have called for hydrological studies to map ground water so that potential effects of fracking compounds in the water can be monitored.

In NSW and Queensland contamination is more likely than in Western Australia, since the aquifers are very close to the coal seams being fracked. Therefore, it is necessary for the government regulating gas extraction to ensure that the well design and construction has multiple barriers to reduce the likelihood of such a contamination.

Contamination can also come from the produced water that is returned to the surface. A major challenge for governments is how this produced water, which contains fracking chemicals and compounds, is going to be treated and disposed of. It must be done in a manner that ensures it does not escape to enter surrounding water sources, such as streams, rivers and bores, thus contaminating water sources used for agriculture.

Call for an embargo

Finally, land access and conflict of land use is of major concern for farmers. This issue has been recognised by the Queensland government, which has declared a two-kilometre exclusion zone on mining activities near towns with more than 1000 people. Many farmers are calling for a similar embargo over prime agricultural areas.

Clearly there is a conflict in the use of the same area of land for agricultural purposes and the extraction of coal seam gas.

Farmers’ concerns about water use and aquifer contamination are real.

Governments are attempting to manage these important land management and technical issues. Coal seam gas development is going to forge ahead, especially since it is providing many important jobs in the declining Australian economy.

Dr Tina Hunter is assistant professor of law at Bond University, and a member of the Legal Culture Research Group and the Research Group for Natural Resources, Environment and Development Law at the University of Bergen, Norway. Read more about FAQ Research writers here.