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October 19, 2021

CSG risks ‘can be managed’, says chief scientist

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NSW chief scientist and engineer, Prof Mary O'Kane.
NSW chief scientist and engineer, Prof Mary O’Kane.

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The final report of the independent review of coal seam gas activities in NSW conducted by the NSW chief scientist and engineer, Professor Mary O’Kane, concludes that the CSG industry should be allowed to go ahead in the state, albeit under much tighter control and scrutiny than anywhere else in Australia.

The report, which was issued yesterday, acknowledged that the industry had been dogged with a range of problems including: inadequate, complex and opaque legislation; confusing and overlapping oversight from multiple government agencies; lack of proper community consultation by mining companies; bullying of landholders; and, in a number of cases, bad land and water management practices.

The chief scientist noted that a large percentage of the community were opposed to the industry and, despite tighter regulations and proposed high-tech monitoring systems, were likely to remain so.

Community groups respond

The report’s release has prompted Lock the Gate Alliance (LTGA) to call for the industry in NSW to be shut down until the proposed new legislation is in place.

LTGA’s Carmel Flint said, ‘In light of [the report’s] findings, the Narrabri and Gloucester CSG projects should now be put on hold until far-reaching law reforms are implemented and all of the potential health risks assessed.

‘The chief scientist has indicated that the CSG industry should only proceed in NSW if appropriate measures are in place to manage the large volumes of toxic wastewater and salt which it produces,’ Ms Flint said.

‘However, experience in Queensland has proven CSG drillers are light years away from achieving that outcome, and the industry still does not have a plan as to how it is going to manage the vast mountains of salt it produces,’ she added.

‘The report recommends “careful designation’ of areas where CSG extraction is “appropriate” and this would be best implemented by a system of no-go zones to protect important food-producing areas, water resources and other environmental assets from CSG mining.

‘In view of the report, the NSW government shouldn’t be putting families at Gloucester and Camden under threat by allowing CSG wells to be drilled or operated near residential dwellings,’ Ms Flint said.

Gasfield Free Northern Rivers has renewed its call for the cancellation of all unconventional gas mining licences in the northern rivers following the release of the report .

‘This report validates the concerns of the community of the Northern Rivers, highlighting risks to health and to water from unconventional gas extraction, the majority of people across the region are right to be very worried,’ said a spokesperson for Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, Elly Bird.

‘Given the risks and lack of available information highlighted in the report, the NSW Government should not be risking the health of the community in the Northern Rivers by allowing unconventional gas wells to be drilled in our closely settled region,’ added co-spokesperson Dean Draper.

Significant concerns

The report admitted that stakeholders had ‘significant concerns’, particularly with regards to land and water, negative short-term and long-term environmental impacts, the safety (or otherwise) of fracking and horizontal drilling, lack of adequate and respectful consultation, inappropriate siting of CSG wells, lack of trust in the industry and with government oversight of it, inadequate data – especially baseline data, and the animosity stirred up between landholders who benefit financially and those who lose out.

But, it claimed, the industry could benefit the community if properly regulated, especially in terms of bringing down the price of energy for industry and supplying additional capacity for export via Gladstone.

Technical challenges

The review stated many of the technical challenges and risks posed by the CSG industry, ‘can in general be managed through careful designation of areas appropriate for CSG extraction; high standards of engineering and professionalism in CSG companies; creation of a state-wide “whole of environment” data repository; comprehensive monitoring of CSG operations with ongoing scrutiny of collected data; a well-trained and certified workforce; and applying new technologies as they become available.

However, Prof O’Kane admitted there was ‘still much for government to do’.

‘Implementing the recommendations of the review involves non-trivial tasks,’ she said.

16-point plan

Prof O’Kane issued a raft of 16 recommendations, which she told ABC were aimed at: improving community consultation and increasing transparency and fairness; legislative and regulative reform, including financial arrangements for cover against things going wrong.

‘They’re aimed at managing risk, particularly by harnessing the massive amount of data through monitoring and modelling, and also by harnessing the great amount of expertise we have in our universities, government agencies [and] CSIRO,’ she said.

‘They’re aimed training, certification and education matters and also aimed at legacy and consistency issues that need cleaning up.’

The 16 recommendations to the government are as follows:

  1. Make clear its intent to establish a world-class regime for extraction of CSG.
  2. Ensure clear and open communication on CSG matters is maintained at all times.
  3. Allow affected communities to have strengthened protections and benefits, including compensation to landowners and nearby residents.
  4. Cover the cost of government regulation and compliance via royalties, taxes and charges on the companies themselves.
  5. Designate areas of the state where CSG is permitted, and where it is not.
  6. Replace existing legislation with a single act covering the industry.
  7. Separate out departmental responsibilities for granting licences and overseeing compliance.
  8. Institute regularly reviewed environmental and safety impacts, appropriate, significant penalties and automatic monitoring systems.
  9. Create a robust and comprehensive policy of appropriate insurance and environmental risk coverage.
  10. Establish a ‘whole of environment’ repository for all state environment data.
  11. Develop a centralised risk management and prediction tool for extractive industries in NSW.
  12. Establish a standing, expert advisory body on CSG.
  13. Co-ordinate all the regulatory recommendations through a formal mechanism.
  14. Ensure mandatory training and certification for all CSG industry employees and subcontractors.
  15. Develop a plan to manage legacy issues, including abandoned wells and poor past compliance checking.
  16. Look at similar legislation and regulation for other industries that harness methane, including coal mining and other unconventional gas production.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. At long last the voice of sanity is heard in the ongoing CSG battles: “the industry could benefit the community if properly regulated, especially in terms of bringing down the price of energy for industry and supplying additional capacity for export via Gladstone.”

    • Quite so but even a quick look at the recommendation would suggest that implementing those recommendations would make the whole business unprofitable, consequently no enterprise in their right mind would undertake such a venture.
      Let’s face it Australian governments have never really regulated industry with genuine public safety in mind;it is always a compromise. The pressure is more than ever needed to keep the bastards out!

  2. Well looks like Tony Abbot was right! Australia is open for business, the chief scientist has certainly been sold.
    ‘World class’ experience is that this industry has been a disaster anywhere it has established, ‘clear and open communication’ is meaningless when short term outcomes have been catastrophic and the long term is unknown.
    What is the appropriate compensation for the irreversible destruction of the Great Artesian Basin? Who is going to ‘designate’ which areas are to be trashed? A one stop shop for resource export should benefit China greatly!

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