The CSG industry has been around for a long time partly supplying local needs but the recognition that coal seam gas and methane (the same constituent in natural gas) might serve as a transition energy source with a smaller global warming potential than coal, has expanded demand as the world’s largest economies, particularly in Asia, move to make their increased energy use from renewables.

The scramble to establish forward contracts for the resource, which is plentiful in Queensland (the state government says more than 98% of reserves in Australia), particularly in the Bowen and Surat basins, has seen the four largest companies Santos, Australia Pacific LNG (Origin, ConocoPhillips, Sinopec), QGC (BG) and Arrow (Shell and PetroChina) building pipelines several hundred kilometres to Gladstone and nearby Curtis Island.

The impact on the marine environment and on aquatic life

At the ports, plants are being constructed for liquefaction and docks for shipment out through the Great Barrier Reef. Curtis Island is largely a national park protected area. UNESCO asked the Australian government for an assessment of the effect of this and five other new port developments planned, on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. The GBR Marine Park Authority has also raised concerns about the potential for damage resulting from the greatly increased shipping movements in future. A response from minister Tony Burke’s office to the UNESCO request is awaited.

Gladstone Harbour has coughed up some nasty looking, sick barramundi lately, which kiboshed the local fishing industry. The expert scientific panel report in January 2012 for the Queensland government was not able to tie down a cause. Was it stress from the floods as an estimated 30,000 barra were washed over the weir of the Awoonga Dam into the Boyne River, which runs into Gladstone Harbour or was it related to the dredging of disturbing toxins such as heavy metals, especially mercury, or organic chemicals such as pesticides from the sea floor, or making the water dirty?

Such toxins could result in suppression of the fish immune system. Fish are a good indicator of environmental pollution as they are at the top of the food chain. The extra barra resulted in an 18-fold increase in the catch last year, and the increased numbers in the harbour environment itself could be a stressor.

The dredging and floods coincided, and the inadequacy of the monitoring program of water quality and the marine environment particularly needed to provide baseline data, made it impossible to determine underlying causes for the two diseases found, one an infection by a fungus and the other by a fluke or small worm.

The expert panel recommended a greatly expanded monitoring program by the Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) to now include heavy metals and organic toxins, the need for which should have been anticipated before the Curtis Island development began, and disease biology studies, in order to help pin down causes for the fish diseases.

There is potential for environmental damage from the dredging of the acid sulphate soils, a mere 46 million cubic metres of which are being dredged to make a harbour for Curtis Island.  Currently about 1.5 million cubic metres has been dredged and dumped one kilometre out to sea at the mouth of the Gladstone Harbour so there is a long way to go. Modelling ASS management is a tricky business and it has got to be right!

The Queensland government hived off the responsibility for overall management of the harbour development to the Gladstone Ports Corporation quango, which wants to exclude the harbour from the World Heritage area.

Connections between economics and regulation

The four companies are locked into forward contracts, meaning government is very reluctant to slow down the development at Curtis or drilling of wells for CSG extraction.  And the forward estimates of the Bligh government suggest that they reckon they are on to a good thing from the royalties.

CSG wells and agriculture in Queensland

So what is happening with CSG well drilling in Queensland? A major positive development claimed by the government is the Strategic Cropping Land (SCL) legislation passed in December 2011.  This was designed to protect the best agricultural land, estimated to be only 3-4% of the state, from alienation by mining and CSG extraction.

However much of the land is currently covered by company tenements allowing exploration, having gone through an environmental impact statement and assessment process and been given an environmental authority to prospect or develop by DERM.  This gives the companies the rights to drill the exploratory wells on private farm lands that they do not own.

CSG, agriculture and politics

When farmers see this option about to be taken up, many protest as they see the well drilling as destructive of their farming enterprise and the environment.  Many community protest groups have been formed in response particularly in NSW and Queensland including Lock the Gate, Caroona Coal Action Group, Basin Sustainability Alliance.

In Queensland the political parties vying for election have taken different positions. The Labor Party states that it has instituted a robust system of safeguards and operational guidelines, the Coalition has talked about a minor concession to keep CSG away from the Beaudesert region, the Greens are calling for moratorium until the potential for environmental damage is sorted out, and Katter’s Australian Party is calling for a ban on CSG operators entering farmers’ land without consent and for no mining and CSG wells on good quality agricultural land.CSG and impacts on land use, agricultural practice and soils

So why are farmers disturbed by a few wells on their properties, about one every 700 to 1000 metres, according to the industry? For starters, the imprint of the well on the area of farmed land is much greater than these stats would suggest. Roads and pipes running across a field effectively take much of that field out of action for cropping, especially as the dam to hold the produced water during the exploration phase needs to be nearby.

Furthermore the roads are elevated and this disturbs the water flow and increases erosion especially in flooding events such as those that have occurred in the past two years. Current cropping practice on the Darling Downs and the Golden Triangle, the region south of Emerald so called because of its excellent agricultural potential, is organised around very large fields with conservation agriculture, minimum tillage practiced with permanent beds or furrows.

The precision farming methods with tractors guided within centimetres by sat nav systems minimise soil compaction and allows for long field runs of up to 1.5 kilometres. This minimises the potential for erosion as evidenced by the rapid recovery from the recent floods on the Darling Downs. A matrix of CSG wells and associated roads in this system would necessitate a complete change to the way the land is managed.

Farmers will receive some compensation from the companies for the inconvenience and loss of land and income. But it is very difficult to get an equitable outcome to this issue. The lost value of production for example needs to calculated, not only for the time each well may last, the companies hope for 20 years or more, but also for the time taken to rehabilitate the disturbed land if it can ever be.

As soon as CSG wells are in the offing the value of the land depreciates and this has enormous implications for interactions by farmers with banks, and besides, no one wants to buy. World food security issues with population growth mean that the value of agricultural products will inevitably increase and along with it the value of good quality cropping land.

Ag Force, a farmer group, has been funded by the Queensland government to help farmers deal with the company representatives on this issue. However, they have not developed an economic model that deals in depth with the various future factors that need to be accounted for so that farmers (and the community) can get a fair deal.

There are two land-use situations where CSG wells are operating or are planned.  The heavy clay vertosols of the Darling Downs and the brigalow soils of the Golden Triangle are now farmed very efficiently indeed in terms of production per unit of water applied in rain or irrigation.  These are some of the best soils for cropping in the world and very productive. They are intensively used.

The skill in sustainable use of water for irrigation from relatively shallow groundwater wells, from streams and rivers and surface runoff water captured into surface (turkey nest) dams, has been honed by farmers and their technical advisers in recent years, so that now they are taking up less than 50% of the entitlements for water use given them by the Queensland government.

West of the Condamine River where the soils change to become lighter, rainfall decreases, less cropping is practised and farms are larger and used more for grazing.  The CSG produced water treated to remove the salt, is being used experimentally in these areas to establish new irrigation systems sometimes with a centre pivot.

Fodder crops such as the shrub leucaena with associated grasses, and timber trees such as Chinchilla white gum are being tested for their suitability for irrigation.  What happens to these shrubs and trees once the irrigation water is no longer available? Will they just die from the change in water availability?  But many farmers in this agroecosystem are happy to have the use of the water now to increase their production potential.

However, not all soils are suitable for irrigation and there is not enough known about much of the potentially irrigable area to be confident that they will respond favourably. Hard pans near the surface for instance will slow infiltration of the irrigation water and lead to waterlogging. Some soils are particularly sensitive to irrigation with even low levels of saline water hence the companies need to purify the CSG water to a level compatible with these soils.

One option being canvassed is to reduce the salinity by adding gypsum and/or dilute the untreated water with reverse opsmosis treated water to make a shandy that meets the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines for use of saline water as stipulated by DERM in the approved environment authority.

More in the next post on strategic cropping land and CSG water …

FAQ Research writer Dr Peter Dart is associate professor in agriculture and food sciences at the University of Queensland

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