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Issue #1474      29 September 2010

Culture & Life

Fracking unwelcome

A couple of weeks ago in this column I wrote about the controversy surrounding the extraction of natural gas (shale gas) using the hydraulic fracturing method (or “fracking”). “Fracking” sees a mixture of water, sand, diesel fuel and the like pumped under pressure deep underground to break up rock formations and free the trapped deposits of oil and gas.

I noted that the UK Guardian had reported from the US that “industrial and federal studies have shown the [fracking] process leaves between 20% to 40% of the components of the diesel fuel in the ground”, and that “towns around America have documented contaminated drinking water from fracking as well as cattle deaths and fish kills in nearby streams.”

Then, late last week, a front-page report in The Sydney Morning Herald revealed that gas-mining company Apex Energy was planning to use fracking to extract coal seam gas from old coalmines along the edge of Lake Burragorang, “the reservoir at Warragamba Dam”.

Lake Burragorang.

As always in NSW when money-making schemes conflict with community and environmental concerns, the “development friendly” State Labor government aligns itself with the corporate interests. Apex has already received approval to drill no less than fifteen test wells along the Illawarra escarpment.

With coal seam methane, however, test wells are but the thin end of a very thick wedge, as we found when the company Sydney Gas tried to drill for it under parts of the NSW Central Coast. Gas is burned off at the top of the drilling tower all day and all night.

Once the exploratory phase has passed, however, drilling begins in earnest. The profitable life of each gas well is short; as soon as the flow slows the well is moved to an adjacent site and the process starts again. And again, and again, and again.

Only a very vigorous, well run and well funded campaign forced Sydney Gas to desist with its plans for the Central Coast, thereby saving Tuggerah Lakes from being thickly adorned with drilling rigs (for they had plans to drill under the Lake itself!).

The Herald reported that Apex Energy’s description of fracking in the company’s Illawarra document says it “involves the injection of more than a million gallons of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure down and across into horizontally drilled wells as far as 10,000 feet below the surface”.

The drilling process returns much of that water to the surface, but in a form so toxic that the water cannot be used for any purpose and must be carted away and processed or decontaminated.

I understand that, in our case at least, that “processing” consisted of carting the contaminated water to Windsor or somewhere nearby, mixing it with more water (presumably to dilute the contaminants) and then pouring it into the Hawksbury!

I have never seen this description of the “processing” of the toxic waste water contradicted.

To add insult to injury, Sydney Gas had the gall to describe its methane gas-drilling project as “green”!

References to Sydney Gas are relevant because, although the drilling by Warragamba is being undertaken by Apex Energy, as the Herald also reports, “fracking techniques are already being used at another coal seam gas operation, at Camden, south of Sydney.

“It is run jointly by AGL and Sydney Gas [of course!], which holds many other petroleum exploration licenses around the edges of the city.”

As I reported in the previous column on this topic, fracking was developed by the notorious Halliburton oil services company that made so much money “liberating” Iraq and taking over its oil industry.

Haliburton is one of those companies that exemplifies the unfettered pro-big business policies of George W Bush and the Republican Right, a policy of “profits not just first but also last and every where in between” – and to Hell with any other concerns, especially environmental!

Not all bosses of big corporations are devoid of any concern for the environment or oblivious to the dangers posed to the human race by pollution and unbridled exploitation of the planet’s resources. But one does not usually get to be the head of a big corporation by following that route. Only by relinquishing those concerns can one successfully climb the corporate ladder in the biggest corporations.

There are almost half a million natural gas wells in the US alone, and as I said previously, 90 percent of them rely on hydraulic fracturing. Is that the kind of “development” we want for Australia?

The Total Environment Centre is calling for a moratorium on new coal seam gas mining in NSW until a transparent, state-wide strategy is developed. “The [gas] miners deserve no special privileges,” said Jeff Angel, the Centre’s executive director, “especially since no mining operation is fail-safe.”

This is a call that CPA members should support. Surely, in the competition between the drive for corporate profits and the desire of the people to preserve the planet there can be no hesitation about which side one is on?

Not that you need to be all that perturbed at the prospect of these corporate cowboys being unleashed on to our long suffering environment to literally rip profits out of the ground and devil take the hindmost. In fact, you can rest easy: the NSW Planning Department, that paragon of clean and honest government, told the Herald that in relation to coal seam methane gas drilling “the Department rigorously assesses all applications it receives on a case-by-case basis on their merits”.

So that’s all right then. 

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