When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

This was written for a journalism assignment:

DRAMATIC footage of a foamy discharge from a coal seam gas well in south western Sydney has added to concerns around the controversial industry. The video, filmed by a Greens member of the New South Wales parliament, appears to show an unidentified foamy chemical mix being forcefully expelled from the well. Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham, who filmed the video expressed concern about the location of nearby housing and water facilities and called on the NSW Government to investigate the incident.

The incident came amongst growing opposition in Australia to the controversial industry, which uses a broad mix of chemicals to force gas up from within underground coal seams. For Buckingham and others concerned about the environmental impacts, especially of pollutants, from the coal seam gas industry, the discharge provides further impetus to question existing practices.

In parliament, Buckingham’s questions to Duncan Gay, who represents the Energy and Resources Minister in the Upper House, were met with obfustication. Gay responded to Buckingham’s request for a government inquiry into the industry by stating: “the Government provides a number of attractive incentives to encourage exploration, development and utilisation of the coal seam gas industry” and promised to refer to “refer the question to the relevant Minister.”

Community groups in areas such as the NSW Southern Highlands have embarked on vocal campaigns opposing coal seam gas extraction. Hume Coal, a joint venture between Korean steel-maker POSCO and Australian-owned Cockatoo Coal, is conducting exploratory activities around the Southern Highlands town of Sutton Forest.

Hume’s activities are being closely monitored and scrutinised by the Southern Highlands Coal Action Group (SCAG’s), whose “Shoo Cockatoo” campaign has crystalised local opposition to the project. SCAG’s activities are also being closely monitored – by Hume Coal. The company noted strong community opposition in their Review of Environmental (REF) factors prepared for the NSW Government as part of the exploration application. They gave an account of SCAG’s history, and noted the group’s primary concern related to future mining activities, not to exploration. The REF says community concerns “subsidence damage, dust and noise from surface facilities, damage to the aquifers and water supply catchment, changes in the character of the area and property values.”

Coal seam gas mining is not the only source of anxiety. As the Hume Coal REF notes, objections to the Sutton Forest activities “largely revolve around future mining”. Such mining is likely to include long wall extraction of hard coking coal for export. The community’s fears are not unfounded. A 2008 NSW Government inquiry into the impact of mining on natural features of the Southern Coalfield found there is every likelihood of  surface damage when mining occurs. The report notes, “With few exceptions, at depths of cover greater than about 200m coal cannot be mined economically by any mining method without causing some degree of surface subsidence”. Hume Coal’s REF shows the Wongawilli Coal Seam lies at a depth of almost 200 metres, indicating a strong probability of effects such as surface subsidence. The report also states “non-conventional subsidence effects (including valley closure, upsidence and regional far-field horizontal displacement) regularly occur” in the Southern Coalfield.

In the Illawarra region, which also has a long history of coal mining activities, an estimated 3000 people recently participated in a beach-side protest against coal seam gas proposals. That protest was sparked by plans by mining company Apex Energy to drill 15 exploratory boreholes in their search for coal seam gas. Apex’s preliminary environmental assessment, prepared for the NSW Government in 2007, shows an exploratory lease covering most of the Illawarra region north of Lake Illawarra. Community group Stop CSG Illawarra has expressed concern on the impact of these wells, and resultant mining operations, on the quality of water, food and amenity in their region.

The group also suggest significant environmental impacts of coal seam mining, a contention supported by a determination of the NSW Scientific Committee, which is established by the Threatened Species Conservation Act. In recommending protection for Coastal Upland Swamp environments, which are abundant throughout the Illawarra (and the Apex Energy licence area), the committee notes coal seam gas mining is likely to have “significant environmental impacts on hydrological and ecological functions of Coastal Upland Swamp”. The recently-elected NSW Coalition Government has imposed a 60-day moratorium on new exploration licences for coal seam gas, which started on May 21. The moratorium was imposed to allow the Government to develop a new strategic land-use policy.
However, the freeze has no effect on existing licences, as residents in the Southern Highlands discovered when Hume Coal began their exploration hours before the moratorium was announced.