Coal, gas and coal seam gas

Cam Walker

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/115

This edition of Chain Reaction features several articles on the campaigns against coal seam gas (CSG) in eastern Australia.

The first one, by Friends of the Earth campaigner Drew Hutton, describes the campaign that has seen farmers and environmentalists join together to forge a strong alliance aimed at stopping the spread of CSG. A fundamental element of the Lock the Gate (LTG) alliance is the call for land owners to 'lock the gate' and refuse access to mining companies.

The second comes from community campaigner Aidan Ricketts. Aidan highlights the evolution of the 'lock the gate' model into a community-building initiative with the 'gasfield free' organising model. Aidan highlights the fact that personal action and empowerment and enhanced connections between neighbours is a positive end in itself as people organise to protect their 'patch' from mining companies.

The third is from Victoria, where the CSG industry does not yet have any commercial operations. Rural communities are organising pre-emptively in order to head off a threat from a range of fossil fuel projects including new coal mining, CSG and Tight Gas. As in the northern states, new alliances are being formed between farmers, regional communities, and urban-based environmentalists.

There is no doubt that we are witnessing the rise of a new political force in Australia, one that is beginning to shape national debate on energy, food, and trade. It is influencing state elections and has helped drive the creation of at least one political party.

These are new manifestations of political action and, in many ways, have a lot in common with the 'green bans' and socially engaged environmental politics of the 1970s: people joining together and finding common cause in spite of their various differences. While the evolution of environmental politics saw it move strongly into middle-class reformism in the decades from the early 1980s, Lock the Gate and other parallel movements – including the struggle against the gas hub planned for the Kimberley – are more similar to the green bans than the professional 'insider' politics used by most environmental NGOs.

Whereas 'greens' and 'farmers' have often been pitted against each other, for instance in the campaign to end broad acre land clearing in Queensland, this new campaign starts with common ground: water, landscape, connection to place and Country, food production and security, the role of corporations and so on. There are multiple points of connection, which makes this campaign even stronger and marks a shift in the 'framing' of environmental campaigns towards the traditional terrain of the Right: focusing on values and community.

While this type of campaigning has existed through the last 30 years – the Jabiluka campaign being a classic example – it has not been the dominant operating mode for the environmental movement. In fact, it can be argued that the direct action arm of the climate movement, with its tendency to focus on coal power stations, mines and other infrastructure, had re-created the class conflict that existed in the forests campaigns from the 1980s onwards. Lock the Gate offers the chance for the movement to recreate itself with different primary targets – governments and corporations – and away from a focus on specific workers or infrastructure.

There are similarities with the 1990s, where a major community mobilisation that occurred across Australia was driven by anger at government policy, and shaped by right-wing political movements like Pauline Hanson's One Nation.

What is different this time is the strong presence of progressive activists, political thinking and strategies. While Alan Jones is vocal on the issue, the movement itself is a fascinating collection of traditional green activists, seasoned rural campaigners, conservative voters, and many newcomers to politics who have been mobilised by immediate threats to their patch. The 'CSG free community' model, in particular, is a great example of old-fashioned community organising that has its roots in 1990s North Coast forest campaigning.

With the CSG and other unconventional gas industries continuing to spread their influence across much of Australia, and as the stakes continue to rise, this debate will become more and more about what type of future pathway Australia will take. While there is a prominent cultural and class divide over the question of action on climate change and attitudes to the carbon tax, the campaign against CSG cuts across this divide, and allows Australians of many political persuasions to find common cause in care for land and water, concern for economy, and opposition to corporations. It will only get more interesting in months and years to come.

CSG, Tight Gas, Shale Gas

Like many parts of the world, Australia is experiencing a major expansion in exploration for, and production of, 'unconventional' gases.

Historically, conventional natural gas deposits have been the most practical and easiest deposits to mine. However, as demand grows and known reserves become depleted, corporations have sought to access new forms of fossil fuels.

As technology and geological knowledge advance, unconventional natural gas deposits are beginning to make up an increasingly large percentage of the supply picture.

There is no set definition of what constitutes 'unconventional' gas, and it is subject to change because new technological advances or processes can mean specific gases can become 'conventional'. In the broadest sense, unconventional natural gas is gas that is more difficult or less economical to extract, usually because the technology to reach it has not been developed fully, or is too expensive to deploy.

Generally, theses gases are seen as being:

  • Deep natural gas that exists in deposits very far underground, beyond 'conventional' drilling depths.
  • Tight natural gas, also called Tight Gas, stuck in a very tight formation in hard rock, sandstone or limestone. Several techniques exist to extract the gas, including fracturing and acidising.
  • Shale gas − shale is a very fine-grained sedimentary rock, which is easily broken into thin, parallel layers.
  • Coalbed Methane (or Coal Seam Gas) − many coal seams also contain natural gas, either within the seam itself or the surrounding rock.

CSG fracking chemicals not tested for safety

A report by the National Toxics Network finds that of 23 chemicals used in the drilling and extraction of coal seam gas (CSG) in Australia, only two have ever been assessed by Australia's industrial chemicals regulator.

National Toxics Network is calling on state and federal governments to urgently introduce a moratorium on all drilling and fracking chemicals until they have been independently assessed by the federal regulator, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme.

"Constituents of fracking fluids are often considered 'trade secrets' and not revealed. Even regulators are left in the dark," said Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, lead author of the report.

"Risk assessments for specific CSG projects in Queensland lacked basic information on the chemicals. The ones we were able to identify concerned us because of their significant potential to cause damage to the environment and human health. Some were linked with cancer and birth defects, while others damaged the hormone system of living things and affected aquatic species at very low levels.

"Fracking chemicals are complex mixtures of different chemicals which increases their risks. They are being used in very large volumes and unknown concentrations for purposes they were never intended for," Dr Lloyd-Smith said.

Despite industry claims that fracking chemicals are 'only used in small quantities' and are all 'food grade chemicals used in household chemicals', National Toxics Network has discovered that hazardous chemicals such as ethylene glycol, formamide, naphthalene, ethoxylated nonylphenol and sodium persulfate are commonly used in fracking mixtures.

To give an idea of the quantities involved, in one Queensland proposed coal seam gas operation it was reported that 18,500 kgs of additives were to be used in each well during the fracturing process and that up to 40% of the fracking fluids would remain in the formations.

"That's a very large quantity of chemicals and they have to go somewhere. Whether they stay underground or they are bought back to the surface and placed in evaporation ponds, there are significant risks of pollution to waterways, the atmosphere and surrounding communities," Dr Lloyd-Smith said.

"By allowing these chemicals to go unchecked, it effectively gives the CSG industry a green light to pollute. With such rapid expansion of the CSG industry expected, Governments must intervene to ensure the industry does not cause irreversible pollution."

The report, 'Hydraulic Fracturing in Coal Seam Gas Mining: The Risks to Our Health, Communities, Environment and Climate', is posted at ntn.org.au/category/stop-csg


Extending the life of coal

In Queensland, a significant part of the struggle is against coal production for export. Additionally, a growing number of coal proponents are advocating gas-from-coal processes. The following is a quick summary of some of the technologies currently being proposed.

Coal drying

The coal technology company Exergen is the main proponent of experimental brown coal drying in Victoria. However, this technology is still unproven on a commercial scale. The process that Exergen has developed involves drilling an eight metre wide hole one kilometre deep and using a high pressure underground heat and chemical reactor to 'dewater' the coal.

For each tonne of dried coal produced, approximately 1100 to 1800 litres of polluted water have to be disposed of. If Exergen's plan to export 12 million tonnes of dried coal from the Port of Hastings were to proceed, this would result in the production of approximately 13-22 gigalitres of polluted water from the drying process alone. This water will contain high levels of salt, carbolic acid and ammonia.

Exergen's process would also use a significant amount of energy (with its own greenhouse gas emissions) and produce other contaminants that will need to be treated with hazardous chemicals to be safely stored or reused for heating. Exergen claims they will dispose of the carbon emissions in underground reservoirs; a potentially dangerous and unproven practice.

Another major exponent of coal drying technology is the curiously named Environmental Clean Technology (ECT). ECT's coal drying process involves mechanically kneading the coal to extract the water. Similar concerns exist with the volume of waste water produced from this process. In addition, in October last year a 380 tonne batch of coal spontaneously ignited in a smouldering fire that required 15 fire units to bring under control. ECT described this as "a small, contained incident".

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG)

This process essentially involves igniting a coal seam at a depth of least 100m underground and pumping out the gas that is released as a result. UGC avoids the need for surface mining and leaves combustion waste underground.

UCG is another experimental technology where oxidants are injected into a coal seam in order to convert the coal to gas while still inside the coal seam, rather then extracting it first. The Department of Environment Resource Management recently had to shut down a UCG project by Cougar Energy in Queensland, after the discovery that local bores had become polluted with carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene and toluene. Farmers in the area are unable to use the bores anymore. The company didn't notify the department until two months after it became aware of the contamination.

UCG threatens the contamination of vast quantities groundwater with organic and often toxic materials including BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes), phenols, and aromatics (e.g., naphthalene), as well as gases (e.g. carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide) which will remain in the underground chamber after gasification and therefore are likely to leach into the ground water if not contained by rock.

According to independent research, the chemical phenol leachate is regarded as one of the most significant environmental hazards due to its high water solubility and high reactivity to gasification.

Underground Coal to Liquid (UCTL)

The UCTL process involves drilling to depths of 50m and using high-pressure hot water and alkaline metal catalysts to liquefy the brown coal seam and extract a 'syncrude' liquid for further refinement into oil and petroleum products.

The major risks of UCTL are:

  • It leaves coal ash and heavy metals in the ground. There is a significant risk of these leaching into the surrounding aquifers, particularly if any subsidence of the resultant reaction zone cavity occurs (as is the case with UCG).
  • The process itself emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases.
  • It is a new process, untested anywhere else in the world.

Biogenic Methane Enhancement

Melbourne-based company Regal Resources has begun experimentation with another technology called Biogenic Methane Enhancement (BME) at Oak Park, west of Melbourne. This is a form of methane extraction that artificially stimulates microbes and bacteria to rapidly digest and convert underground coal to gas, a process that normally takes hundreds of years. This is highly experimental and has never been used commercially before.

'Nutrients' and other chemicals are also used to artificially accelerate the process. The chemicals used in a similar process in the US include ammonium chloride, acetate, sodium phosphate, sodium bromide, potassium chloride, cobalt chloride, and nickel chloride, some of which are known carcinogens.