The NSW elections returned the Coalition Government, which suffered a loss in votes and seats, but with 46 per cent of the vote to Labor’s 34 per cent, remained well ahead. The more hopeful Labor people say that they will be ‘in striking distance’ at the next elections in 2019, and indeed they well might be — it’s a long way off. The item that received most coverage on election night and thereafter, once the comfortable return of the Baird Government was clear, was the role of the coal-seam gas (CSG) controversy. It seems to have given the Greens three seats, and nearly provided a fourth. Two of them are in inner Sydney, Balmain and Newtown, while two are adjoining seats in northern NSW, Ballina and  Lismore; the last, on present indications will be a close win for the Nationals over the Greens.

It was clear to me that I knew much less than I ought about coal-seam gas, and set off to find out more. I am aware that there is a major coal seam underlying the whole of the Sydney metropolitan area, and indeed there is a lot of coal in eastern Australia, at varying depths. Much of the present mining is open-cut, the technology for which makes most underground coal-mining unviably expensive. Getting rid of coal-seam gas from underground mines was a basic problem in underground mining, because the gas is, of course, highly flammable.

The gas itself is methane, with other constituents that have to be extracted before the gas can be sent by pipelines to you and me. That kind of extraction applies to all sources of methane — the ‘conventional’ gas that is associated with oil, or by itself in gas reservoirs, and the ‘unconventional’ sources — shale gas (where the gas is lodged within shale rock), tight gas (where the gas is in hard rock, and requires hydraulic fracturing, or ‘frakking’, to be released), and coal-seam gas, where the gas is held within coal seams by water and pressure. All these gases are chemically much the same.

Coal-seam gas doesn’t come from those big open-cut holes in the ground, but from underground seams between 200 and 1200 metres below, so drilling, rather than clearing off the overburden, is necessary. The drilling may well pass through underground aquifers, and the extraction of the gas will also require more water, which will to some degree be affected by the whole process, and may in cases render it unfit for any human or agricultural purpose. The question of that water, both in the aquifers and what must be disposed of after the production of the gas, seems to be central to the ‘coal-seam gas issue’. But it is by no means the only important factor.

The Chief Scientist and Engineer of New South Wales was asked two years ago to provide the Government of the State with advice on ‘the current operation of CSG activities in NSW’, and delivered her interim report at the end of July 2013. It is a comprehensive and most interesting document, and anyone who want to find out about the issue will do well to read it. The final report came out in September last year. It consists of a summary, a list of recommendations, and a set of appendices. It too is clear and accessible.

The big picture is fascinating. CSG is not new: a colliery in Balmain in Sydney operated in the 1930s and during the war to produce it. Before that came ‘town gas’, which I remember well from Armidale in the 1950s, produced basically by distilling the gas from coal. Those local gas companies have gone. But natural gas is now a rapidly growing element in our energy sector (an 8 per cent increase in production in 2011-12 alone), fuelling power stations, heating our homes, cooking our food and serving in countless ways in industry and commerce. Moreover, it is a highly prized product internationally, where the price is a good deal higher than it is here. The gas we use in Canberra and in NSW comes from the Bass Strait, the Cooper Basin and Queensland. Whether you are opposed to it or not, about a third of the gas you use is CSG. Only about five per cent of the CSG comes from NSW, and all of that from one facility at Camden, south west of Sydney.

New South Wales does have large reserves, enough to supply the State for centuries. But they are largely untapped, because of worries about water and residue, on the one hand, and a regulatory system that greatly favours those who don’t want CSG wells in their backyards, on the other. There is a looming supply crisis. It seems that Victoria can’t supply any more than it is currently supplying, because of pipeline constraints. And in 2016 the formal agreements that provide gas to us come to an end. The new agreements will be much more expensive, meaning higher prices for everyone. Queensland and Western Australia are concentrating on the overseas market, not on the domestic, let alone on poor old NSW. If you were the NSW Government, you’d be wanting to exploit the State’s gas reserves as quickly as possible. Hence the request to the Chief Scientist to produce a report.

The Report says that the major political imperative is to provide really good data (of all kinds) that people can trust, and a regulatory system that provides certainty to those who are prepared to risk their money in the hope of finding exploitable gas. The public submissions to the enquiry (of which there were 233) emphasise concerns about ground water, health, the environment, and the use of chemicals and their consequences. An underlying theme was lack of trust in what the CSG companies and governments say. It is worth noting that within the Coalition, those who possess seats where coal-seam gas is an issue are not anxious for the Government to give a green light to CSG exploitation. The Greens have been given a lovely stick with which to thump both major parties.

Altogether, it’s am intriguing political mix. Why are ordinary people so concerned? I’ll pass on the citizens of Balmain and Newtown, where there cannot be serious concerns about CSG in the local environment, and one looks to more general explanations about why the Greens are doing well in inner-city seats. The Report has some thoughtful pieces about public concern. A document commissioned by the Chief Scientist suggested that the film Gasland, which is about frakking for tight gas and oil, not coal-seam gas, and very much from the opponents’ perspective, ‘is unduly shaping the coal seam gas debate and heavily influencing Australia’. Having not seen it myself, I can’t comment. But the authors of that report go on to say:

The media coverage of CSG is what most of the population know about CSG, hence there is probably a greater fear or wariness in the general public when it comes to the subject of CSG activities. Most people, even if unaffected directly by CSG activities, will find some part of the mosaic of concerns that resonate with them; whether it be safe drinking water, health concerns, concerns for the environment, or human rights.

What a muddle. Oh, and everyone on the Green side seems to have forgotten that gas is a much smaller producer of carbon dioxide than coal. You wonder sometimes what exactly it is that they want. The final Report of the Chief Scientist gives a cautious go-ahead, but we have not by any means heard the end of this issue, and I wish Mr Baird and his Government every success in persuading the citizens of NSW that there really is a problem with the supply of gas to NSW people, that it won’t go away, and that exploiting CSG can be done, responsibly.

Footnote: I take this opportunity to recommend an excellent 20-minute interview of the 91-year-old Freeman Dyson, physicist and mathematician. There’s nothing in it about CSG, but his wit, gentleness and perspicacity are a model for those who like to talk about global warming and ‘climate change’. You can view it here.

 

Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • David says:

    In paragraph two you acknowledge that you “…knew much less than I ought about coal-seam gas, and set off to find out more.” Then based on the results of an hour or two on Google you conclude

    “… and I wish Mr Baird and his Government every success in persuading the
    citizens of NSW that there really is a problem with the supply of gas to NSW
    people, that it won’t go away, and that exploiting CSG can be done, responsibly.”

    No one can ever say you lacked for confidence in your ability to arrive at position. 🙂

    • David says:

      In some respects people’s objections to those CSG and Wind generators are both based on aesthetics. Both groups then turn to uncertain science bolster their arguments.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        David,

        I spent about a day and a half on it. There are two useful Chief Scientist reports, amounting to 150 or so pages, with lot of links elsewhere, which I followed up. I really did have to learn. If there’s something wrong with what I’ve written, you might point it out. If you have alternative factual stuff that I might have missed, please let me know of it. As for aesthetics, the pipe that is involved is not one of those pictured below (Cooper basin) but a short stopped pipe about 1.5 metres high (I can’t quickly find a picture, though I saw one while preparing this post. And it’s a funny kind of aesthetic in which a 75 metre high wind turbine, let alone several hectares of solar panels, is to be preferred to a short stopped pipe. But de gustibus non est disputandum…

        The picture is of an oil well head; the gas ones are blue and somewhat smaller. You can sometimes see them side by side.

      • dlb says:

        Agree David on your comment about aesthetics, though quite a bit of native forest has gone under the bulldozer for CSG well pads, pipes and access roads. Just check out the forested areas west of Dalby Qld on Google Earth. I have also seen similar destruction on a smaller scale for solar farms. But of course the most massive insult to the landscape if not environment has been agricultural clearing.

  • Mike says:

    Thanks Don I have been interested in this for some time what has impressed me greatly is the complete lack of information about what it is. Your link to the extensive documentation of the New South Wales government report on the issue is very worthwhile and something I was unaware of. I have read some of it, one key part of the information I had was the depth was more like 2 km. But it seems this was an error. The amount a reading here on this subject is huge.

    It seems some have managed to digest it all in about an hour I just don’t have that ability and as yet I have not picked up the fact that it seems it was written by Google.

    I doubt I will be able to make a worthwhile comment for quite a time. As to aesthetics one could have CSG shaft in the backyard of a normal property and your neighbours possibly not aware of it. The only thing that would need to be hidden is the pipe leading away from it. In fact I have read activists who express this very view that the gas could be tapped into from anywhere in the City of Sydney.

    If you are a green you should not be using natural gas because it is a fossil fuel and by definition evil.

    Finally have you discovered any actual verifiable case of adverse results from fracking?

    • David says:

      “If you are a green you should not be using natural gas because it is a fossil fuel and by definition evil.”

      Grow up!

      • dlb says:

        Mike’s comment a bit close to the bone David?
        Similarly all this nonsense about the dredge spoils from Abbott Point harming the GBR is just a foil to stop the export of the evil fossil fuel coal.

        • David says:

          dlb

          Well I don’t agree with it.

          If a physician suggests that their patient should go on a diet, does that mean the physician should give up all food least they be accused of being a hypocrite?

          • David says:

            If were to participate in clean up
            Australia campaign does that mean I have
            to forgo all packaging on food items least I be accused of being a hypocrite. No. It’s
            the Goldilocks principle; not too much not too little etc.

      • Mike says:

        David I didn’t realise you are a literalist or is it that you could not think of anything else and desperately wanted to attack me. Ho-hum read this http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/nuclear-called-a-lesser-evil-than-fossil-fuels tell me what you think.

        I’m not convinced you know what the Greens think for instance “It is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.” George Monbiot, a UK Guardian environmental journalist: Prince Charles and his father have made similar pronouncements both avowed Greens. They pronounce humans to be evil so it is not surprising fossil fuels should also be classified in this way after all it enables us viruses to do what we do.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Sorry David – I can’t agree Mike has any reason to grow up. The Greens are demonising gas and coal because they produce CO2 when burned. Gas and coal also produce the bulk of our electricity, to which the Greens hypocritically turn daily when their favoured power source – wind and solar – has failed yet again to meet our needs.

    Green support for these proven failures is only possible because they know they can go back to the twin evils of coal and gas any time – because, unlike their ‘clean renewables’, these Green whipping boys produce reliable, affordable 24/7 power that underpins our entire civilisation.

    If, like the Greens, you too demonise gas and coal, I suggest you stop using the power they produce and find alternatives to the food chain, health system, water and sewage, communications and much more that depend utterly on 24/7 electrical power. If you are not prepared to do so, then please stop assuming the high moral ground you have no right to occupy and show some gratitude that nature has given us two such abundant fuels with which to power modern civilization and the wit to do so.

    • David says:

      The pair of you argue like adolescents. The Green position is that there should be a transmission
      from fossil fuels to renewable energy (solar, wind etc.) because fossil fuels
      are harmful, not evil. The Greens do not argue the transition should occur over
      night. A blanket assertion that the “Greens” should give up all access to fossil
      fuels because of their political position is as ridiculous as me arguing that you
      should give up access to clean air because of your position.

      • Doug Hurst says:

        David,

        Insulting us does will not help your case, it merely indicates the weakness of your case. It is not adolescent to use words Green policies and actions constantly reflect and imply. Nor is there any connection between my declaring their behaviour hypocritical and having continued access to clean air in a country with some of the cleanest air in the world.

        The Green belief that we can power the world with renewables – especially wind and solar – is delusional; 25 years of experience proves neither can operate competitively without heavy subsidies and neither can provide the base-load power we need to run the modern world.

        Coal will continue to be the biggest power source in the world for the foreseeable future, whereas solar and wind will be struggling to increase their share above the insignificant 2% they now provide. Recognising this fact and abandoning failed technology and policies based on it would be a sign of long overdue maturity. Clinging to such beliefs simply shows that they live in fantasy land, not the real world the rest of us live in.

        Lastly, how long do you persist with doing something harmful before it becomes evil. I think 25 years is quite long enough.

        • David says:

          Doug

          I was not insulting you, just your argument. In my opinion,
          your willingness to characterize the Green point of view as “delusional” and
          “evil”, lacks sophistication and adds very little to the debate. You know, like an adolescent.

  • Alan says:

    Don,
    Coming, like you, new to this issue, I found the post useful, rounded, clear – hallmarks of your discursive style I reckon.

  • aert driessen says:

    Don, the terminology in this industry is somewhat confusing. As I understand it the term natural gas (NG) includes all gasses that occur naturally. Gas (and oil) forming in a marine environment gives rise to petroleum gas (PG) which comprises mainly methane (1 C atom, say 85%) but also ethane (2 C atoms, up to 10%), less propane (3 C atoms, 3%) and traces of butane (4 C atoms), CO2, N, He, and H2S; the longer C chains form liquids. Liquefied PG (LPG) refers to liquefied methane, propane, and butane, the latter two easily distilled from petroleum gas because they boil at < 20 deg C and can be liquefied under pressure at room temp; ethane is separated because it is a valuable raw material for the plastics industry and so is not used as a fuel as are the other gasses. Coal Seam Gas (CSG) refers to methane associated with coal which forms in a terrestrial environment. When that is liquefied it is referred to as LNG because CSG (methane) occurs naturally and is therefore also a NG. So liquefied methane is referred to as LPG when it comes from oil/gas deposits of marine origin and LNG when it is recovered from coal deposits. The methane (CSG) associated with coal is distributed throughout the coal deposit by adsorption onto coal particles, held there by the pressure of the water also in the coal seams. Coal seams underlie not only Sydney but the whole of the Sydney Basin which occupies the triangular are from Newcastle in the N to Wollongong in the S and Lithgow in the W. Because the Basin is saucer shaped the coal crops out at the edges (like at the localities named) and would be deepest under Sydney which lies over the centre of the Basin. I hope that I haven't confused your readers.

    • aert driessen says:

      PS. Coal seams were often drilled pre-mining to reduce the CSG in the seams and thus make them safer for mining later. In the old days such methane (as far as I know) was nor recovered for use but flared or vented to atmosphere. Making the seam safer to mine was the main objective.

  • dlb says:

    I have some knowledge on the CSG industry in Qld, as soon as I mention anything about it, people recoil with the exclamation “Frakking!”. The green PR machine, the movie “Gas Land” and of course our friends at the ABC have done a good job in demonising the industry. Little do people know most wells in Qld are not frakked.

    I did attempt to watch the movie Gas Land but regardless of any inaccuracies, I found it so repetitive that I fell asleep watching it. I see the gas industry have a website putting their case forward. http://www.energyresourceinformationcentre.org.au

  • Ilivedwithcsg says:

    I’m only going to weigh in lightly on this thread mainly because I don’t have time to go into great detail. Don you article is good, some of you assumptions are not correct but fairly informative even though you unfairly use the greens as a punching bag.

    Gas use is actually reducing throughout NSW and soon with prices to double or even triple gas use will fall even further, some predict 50%.

    https://theconversation.com/a-crash-in-gas-use-is-more-likely-than-the-forecast-shortage-36764

    We don’t have a volume problem we simply have the export market selling the gas to China and India that should have been piped into NSW. Every other country that exports gas has a reservation policy which the industry has very successfully lobbied against.

    Drilling wells in NSW will hardly lower prices, its simple we, are pegged to the international price so for us to make any real reduction in price NSW would need to drill enough wells to impact world supply which may be a good thing because you all may end up with a gas well in your front yard and may understand how that actually effects your life however, that is very unlikely to happen.

    Early estimates from the QLD government say between 10-40% wells will be fracked however, with my experience once a well stops producing they will frack most of them mainly because a well costs around one million dollars to get to a producing stage. In some gas fields I have seem them frack 70 out 100 wells. We saw in Gloucester AGL tracked all the wells they drilled. It’s far more profitable to frack wells instead of P&A (plug and abandon) which brings us to a major issue….well integrity. Up until a few years ago there was no standards to how a gas well should be constructed, water bores had standards gas wells didn’t. Thankfully that is now not the case. Lets talk basics, gas wells are made of steel pipping and cement. Most will know that the water brought up from the coal seams in saline so it doesn’t take long to realise what salt water does to steel and cement. I will leave you to work that one out.

    I haven’t even touched on the waste issue but there will be a pile of salt 40km long 10 meters high and 30 meters wide….yes 40km long. All of which will be buried in plastic bags all be it strong plastic bags.

    The Condamine river is bubbling with gas that is likely from CSG, although some say it’s always bubbled which is sort of true. Small bubbles came from small patches of shallow coal but never like it is today and never in that spot. Locals (who aren’t making money off CSG) all say it’s never bubbled like that before CSG came to the area

    I for one lived with the industry and know what its like to have CSG go on around you all I can say it’s not pleasant. There are many issues that are not covered in this thread.

    Using places like the link below is very unreliable mainly because they are industry funded web sites which run bias agenda.

    I am not anti mining I am anti irresponsible mining. We need gas we just don’t need unconventional gas, we have plenty of conventional reserves which we should have quarantined and sold cheaply to our industrial users which would have kept many jobs in Australia. What has happened is we the public have been conned by the revolving door between the industry and government. Right now it’s your call if you believe what we are being told.

    Kind Regards

  • 70s Playboy says:

    While digging a final resting place for a beloved dog in our Balmain yard, I quickly hit what looked like coal. I am wondering if anyone has any suggestions for a DIY CSG extraction kit. I would love to invite my neighbours around for a barbie and reveal the well-head just as they start chomping into their snags. I would have a photographer on hand to catch their expressions.

    Seriously though, I can’t comprehend why many of my well off local friends who seem to enjoy all the fruits of a modern economy and then think that they are doing the right thing by voting for The Greens.

    • Mike says:

      In Balmain that is the electorate of Balmain the Greens have the biggest support in the whole of New South Wales nearly 50% I think. I am in the electorate of Fraser where a 27% swing is needed for the Liberals to win the seat. Mainly labour though. Enjoy.

  • […] In a recent post I mentioned a talk by Freeman Dyson, which so captivated me that I went looking for further talks and texts. They’re not hard to find. He has given a fascinating TED talk about the kind of life we might expect in the coldest reaches of our solar system. And I came across an address he had given a few years ago, which seems to be very like another, hour-long, lecture I watched with interest and enjoyment. […]

  • Jasen Anderson says:

    Firstly, studies have shown that wide spread contamination at well fields is occurring, and that CSG/Shale gas extraction is almost as bad as Coal due to the infrastructure and fugative emissions and the initial methane leakage being taken into account. Don, get your science right mate, you’re lacking in it.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Jasen,

      I’ve read the reports, and there is no doubt that some contamination has occurred. But widespread? What is your evidence? A great deal of the American experience is without contamination. Read The Chief Scientist’s report and the links provided there.

      If you have some good links, please share them.

    • dlb says:

      Where is this happening in Australia Jasen? Please direct me to the studies.

Leave a Reply