A talk on the subject of CSG mining isn’t exactly rare these days. But when the speaker is an advisor to the mining industry and is blowing the whistle on dubious CSG mining practices it may be worth taking notice.
Dr Tina Hunter has a background in geology and administrative law. The Bond University lecturer has prepared reports for state governments and has specific knowledge about the integrity of mining wells.
Dr Hunter, who addressed a gathering in Casino over the weekend, believes that NSW is in a position to ensure that if CSG mining does go into production, then we have an opportunity to ensure that only best practices are followed.
But she is horrified with what purports to be ‘best practice’ according to some Australian CSG miners and believes that a further moratorium is necessary to deal with the current situation.
Dr Hunter spoke at the launch of Rod Moore’s mayoral campaign for Richmond Valley Council. Mr Moore has acknowledged concerns regarding CSG mining and asked her to speak to bring some science into the debate.
Dr Hunter expressed dire concern over what she called ‘adaptive management’ of the CSG mining industry in Queensland.
‘I have been mortified by the possible consequences of the type of exploration and production activities that have been hurtled through in Queensland and what NSW wants to do,’ she told the gathering.
Dr Hunter prepared an article last year regarding CSG mining titled ‘NSW coal-seam gas ban – where the frack to next?’ It can be found at http://theconversation.edu.au/nsws-coal-seam-gas-ban-where-the-frack-to-next-2487
In it she states, ‘In Queensland, the tool used to manage environmental issues related to fracking is “adaptive management”. As the Queensland government notes http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/factsheets/pdf/environment/en7.pdf it is a system to monitor and instigate change where required, and to enable best practice to be implemented as technologies develop.
By its own admission, adaptive management in Queensland is used to ‘address unknown and unintended impacts when making important management decisions’.
But Dr Hunter believes this framework is inadequate and provides no safety net against disasters that do happen.
‘Fixing something after a disaster is not the best way to do it. However, I think having a good strong regulation system in place is the best. In fact, that is what I have worked on in Western Australia. I have just finished writing all the regulations for the well-management systems.’
Well integrity is a major area of concern and is where most disasters have originated. Well integrity is affected by poor drilling technique, geology and poor cementing. She advised that there have already been numerous well blowouts in Queensland, which are a result of the ‘full steam ahead’ approach. With an anticipated 40,000 new wells planned for the coming five to ten years, Dr Hunter is very concerned.
‘Wells do contaminate aquifers, there is no doubt, and that is the biggest danger in this process. This happens when a well is not completed properly. What they normally do is drill a well, cement it and then pump large amounts of water down at a pressure of 10,000psi. If well completion is not achieved, the water comes back up and migrates out the sides and goes the easiest path which is, of course, into the water table.
‘We have these issues at Condamine in Queensland. The company’s information tells us that it is pumping 1km away therefore it cannot be its fault. But we all know that underground water migrates for hundreds of miles, so it’s highly likely [it is].
‘In the Piliga forest in NSW a company had a leak from a storage pond. People found out and reported that an accident had happened. The government investigated and said there wasn’t [a problem] and [the reports were] based on anecdotal evidence. [A later investigation found] there had been a major spill and it hadn’t been cleaned or reported by the company.’
Dr Hunter identified some major areas of concern in relation to CSG mining to include the contamination of water in aquifers and groundwater and she is hopeful that those two issues can be dealt with.
‘Aquifer contamination is best dealt with by well integrity. Water and well integrity are inextricably entwined. I am not convinced that in this country, at all, that we can do well integrity properly,’ she said.
Two well-known examples of well failure were mentioned by Dr Hunter as she uncovered the link between them. Oil and gas leaked for seventy-four days at the Montara oil spill in 2009, in the Timor Sea, just off the northern coast of WA. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and flowed for three months.
‘Both of these major disasters happened as a result of the cementing of the wells. Both of these wells were cemented by the same company, Halliburton. They are the major cementer in any well job. I have a major issue with that and well integrity is a major issue in Australia.
Dr Hunter is also concerned about Halliburton because of the ‘political range and influence’ they have. Halliburton have been awarded many contracts and one in particular that Dr Hunter is worried about is the pipeline from the Caspian Sea in the Azerbaijan area.
There are many standards globally relating to well integrity that are not followed by the major oil companies. Dr Hunter believes one of the major reasons is a result of staffing.
‘There is a shortage of skilled drillers and skilled cementers in the onshore petroleum industry, which raises concerns over getting wells done properly.’
Dr Hunter acknowledged that the protests in NSW may very well demand better practices than what’s happened in Queensland, but she issued the following warning.
‘NSW is in the exploration phase but it will not stop here, I can guarantee you, because the money and the stakes are too high. And I suspect that you can’t stop it. What you can do is to ensure that it is done properly.
‘This can be done in a number of ways. The first thing that the NSW government has done is a moratorium. From here on there needs to be a lot of building, like the building of a good legal framework, taking the law and making it so the companies cannot abuse it.
‘Baseline water studies need to be carried out because unless we have that we don’t know what the effects will be. There is a federal government committee that is being set up to study water.’
Land access is another topic that Dr Hunter covered in her presentation. She warned, ‘if you own land, then legally you have to let them on. What will happen if you refuse is the company will take you to court and obtain the declaration to enter your land.
‘At the moment what you do have is the right to negotiate land access. If you cannot agree you will end up in the Land and Environment Court, which isn’t pretty or cheap. Up until now landowners have had very little rights. The recent government report acknowledges this and makes recommendations to try to achieve a balance.’
The current legal framework that allows this was then explained by Dr Hunter.
‘The Crown owns the minerals and the petroleum, which gives the government the right to hand out exploration and production licences to gas companies. What you have is two competing land interests: your land and the petroleum title that covers CSG. If you are really unlucky like some people in the Liverpool plains area, you have a third interest of mining rights, which covers coal, for example.
‘This is a major planning problem that the government has created.’
When negotiating with mining companies, Dr Hunter is not sure that landowners are aware of some of the social costs identified in CSG mining that have no protocols in place. She noted that we are only in the exploration phase, and to look at Queensland for impacts of the production phase as it stands.
‘In Queensland there are situations where there are camps of up to 30 men near women who have been left alone on properties as their husbands are out working long hours in the mines. Do they feel safe? Many don’t. So you go from having control over your home environment to having none.
‘Noise is also a huge issue. Generators, cars and trucks go all day and night. Roads are under a lot of pressure and need constant maintenance. In one area there has been around a 600 per cent increase in deaths. Driver frustration from trying to get around all the trucks using the road – it is as busy as Pitt Street – means there have been many head-on collisions.
‘Second is driver fatigue: there are many single-driver accidents. Some companies don’t let people travel as part of work time so they have to do it after at least a week of 12-hour shifts; some are on four weeks at a time. They are tired and want to get home. None of this is counted in the statistics for the mining industry.’
Dr Hunter has travelled around the mining industries throughout Australia and notes that social issues in towns are occurring everywhere.
‘The first place I noticed it was in Western Australia. Rents in towns have increased to a huge amount. So if you are in the non-mining sector and you want to rent, it is almost impossible. I was appointed to the University of Western Australia a couple of months ago and I have to fly in, fly out (FI–FO) as I can’t afford to rent in Perth. A two-bedroom apartment is $1000 per week because of the mining boom. Here is the two-speed economy.’
Social issues vary and Dr Hunter informed the gathering that in ‘Moranbah, Queensland, rape has increased by 800 per cent and changes the social fabric of the community’.
Dr Hunter has felt the impact herself. She has been personally groped several times and once she was nearly raped in the frequent-flyer lounge of a major airline.
‘There are at least six federal police that patrol the area. The miners have platinum status because of all the flying they do, and drink for hours and get hammered. I have had numerous flights delayed for hours at times because of drunken miners. I boarded one flight at 9am and we did not leave until 2pm as they had to offload six drunken miners and locate their baggage. These costs are real.’
With all the current technology available and her educated background in geology, Dr Hunter is confident that the geology cannot be exactly determined because of its unpredictability. This explains why the number of wells cannot be predetermined and can change during the production phase.
‘What we do know from experience,’ she added, ‘is there tends to be more well heads needed for CSG, which is what you have on the east coast, than shale gas (such as in WA).’
Dr Hunter said that our coal is very close to the aquifers and suggested for that reason alone we need complete transparency from the mining companies.
‘For what may be a low-probability event it has a huge consequence. This is why we need to know how the companies will deal with these disasters.’
In addition to adequate well completion, the question also needs to be asked, how long will the cement last that is used for the well, and when they are finished with or abandon an unproductive well, how long will the plugging last?
Dr Hunter advised, ‘in NSW they say 20 years. To my mind, this is not enough. From my work with Indigenous people, they want wells to last thousands of years!
‘We now have evidence in America that after one hundred years that these wells are suddenly opening up from the pressure. In populated areas, people’s houses will blow up.’
A member of the audience suggested that a much lesser number of wells are proposed for our area. Dr Hunter suggested the audience put themselves in the position of the company.
‘In order to build a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant (which is what will be needed to convert the CSG in order to be transported) it will cost in the vicinity of $10–12 billion. They will need more than a few wells to pay for that, as well as what they have paid for the exploration licence!’
If well integrity is achieved, I asked Dr Hunter if land movement such as earthquakes could still affect this integrity.
She told Echonetdaily, ‘My expertise is in geology and law; you would need to consult a geo-engineer for that. There have been concerns about that, which CSIRO are looking into.’
The challenge that confronts our regulatory authorities is to determine whether the current ‘Good Oilfield Practice’ is good enough.
Dr Hunter thinks not. And she is not persuaded that the recommendations of the NSW upper house into CSG will be the solution.
‘Effectively the practices by the CSG companies are very poor, the regulatory framework, which is the Onshore Petroleum Act, is very poor and can’t keep pace, so the whole thing needs to be put on hold until that is done.’