Santos plans for a Coal seam gas field in the Pilliga region of western NSW has met stiff opposition from local farmers and traditional owners. A Santos test site was occupied on Sunday by 120 people in a mass civil disobedience action.
Santos want to build a waste water treatment plant at the Leewood site near Narrabri. After that they plan to drill over 850 coal seam gas wells to establish a gasfield in the Pilliga Forest. This is the largest undisturbed inland forest left in Eastern Australia.
But Santos record on waste water hasn't been very good to date. Their pilot waste water treatment has already contaminated a groundwater aquifer. There is a failure of the regulatory system here. Instead of a substantial penalty, the NSW EPA in 2014 handed Santos a $1,500.00 fine. That's like petty cash to a company such as Santos. So what did the NSW Government do? The Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner fast tracked the project.
An EPA investigation report released in May 2014 revealed that actually two aquifers were polluted, with the second aquifer having stock and domestic bores within 5km. Carnel Flint from Lock the Gate Alliance commented, "Perhaps the scariest aspect of this report is that it confirms that CSG wastewater has leached a number of heavy metals out of the soil into the water table - including uranium. This means that mobilisation of dangerous heavy metals as a result of wastewater spills is a major risk with CSG activities that has never really been considered before."
Flint also highlighted that the EPA did not conduct any independent sampling of their own, but relied entirely on data provided by the company they were investigating - Santos - and that the NSW Office of Water were effectively sidelined from the process.
Lyndon Schneiders from the Wilderness Society writing in the Age in March 2015 identifies Pilliga Forest coal seam gas mining a misstep, for numerous problems including impact on Great Artesian Basin groundwater, and disposal of ultra salty and contaminated waste water.
Risk to Great Artesian Basin water
The Pilliga Forest is one of the main recharge areas for the Great Artesian Basin. Disturbance of the geology through hydrofracking risks contamination and alteration of levels of this major groundwater resource relied upon by habitats across a wide area and rural people who live here.
Matthew Currell, Lecturer in Hydrogeology at the School of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University writes:
"The Pilliga is one of only a handful of recharge areas providing significant new water to replenish the stores within this vital groundwater system. The basin has been described as one of the seven hydrogeological wonders of the world, and it supports a rich and diverse set of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, as well as thousands of rural Australians living off the land."
Currell argues strongly that the Pilliga should be set aside as a strategic “groundwater recharge protection zone”, to ensure the long-term health of the basin. "If groundwater is contaminated or pressure is lost in this area, then there is the risk of having widespread effects on groundwater quality and quantity that are not just local in their impact (as would be the case in most other locations)." he says in The Conversation: Groundwater: the natural wonder that needs protecting from coal seam gas.
According to the Wilderness Society, coal seam gas community surveys conducted reveal that 96 per cent of people living across more than 3 million hectares of land in North West NSW want to be gasfield free!
Today local landowners and traditional owners walked onto the Leewood site and occupied it. It was a taste of mass civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry and Santos in particular.
On Monday, three Knitting Nanas stepped forward and locked themselves to the access gate to prevent work starting. Up to 60 anti-CSG demonstrators joined the women onsite at 7am, according to The Guardian.
Mother of seven Dominique Jacobs said, "I’ve never been involved in protests in my life before the coal seam gas threat came to my home town of Gloucester. As a mother I cannot stand back and let this destructive industry roll out across our state.” reported the Guardian.
Knitting Nanas against Gas from the Northern Rivers blockading Santos' Leewood CSG water treatment plant in Pilliga pic.twitter.com/eD806ev4MC— Naomi Hodgson (@CrystalNomes) January 11, 2016
Santos contractors also show a cowboy attitude to workplace safety, operating heavy machinery in close proximity to members of the public (protestors) on site such as shown in the video below filmed on Tuesday 19 January. This cavalier attitude to workplace safetycould easily cause a workplace injury or death.
Pilliga Gas and climate change
The Paris agreement has just been concluded in Paris to try and avert dangerous climate change. All 195 states, including Australia, adopted a goal of well below 2 degrees C of warming and aspire to meet the lower target of no more than 1.5C. The agreement says Global peaking of emissions needs to happen as soon as possible and more rapidly in developed countries. All emissions need to be matched by carbon sink removal processes by the second half of the century.
What does that imply for fossil fuel extraction? We need to stop all new extractive sources, such as Santos Pilliga gas field.
A 2015 study by McGlade and Ekins argued that 82 per cent of global fossil fuel reserves needs to remain un-burned if we are to limit global warming temperature rise to 2 °C throughout the twenty-first century. If CCS is unavailable, this level grows to 88 per cent needing to be unburnt.
For gas reserves they highlighted that 51 per cent of Australia's gas reserves need to stay unextracted. As they were working on the 2 degree goal, it means that a lower temperature goal would necessitate an even larger proportion of fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground, unextracted.
I reported on this study in January 2015: 88 percent of Global Fossil Fuel reserves need to remain unburned - Implications for Queensland.