In the lead-up to the 1998 Queensland state election I was the preference negotiator for the Greens. The ALP, led by Peter Beattie, was anxious for Green preferences and promised many environmental reforms, including several substantial structural and legislative reforms regarding the environmental management of mining. Prior to the election, Beattie promised to boost the Environment Department’s budget and devote $6.8 million a year to a new Environmental Protection Agency which would be responsible for monitoring and preventing pollution of air, water and land environments.
Beattie won the election and I then spent a very frustrating couple of years trying — unsuccessfully as it turned out — to hold Labor to its promises on environmental regulation.
The mining industry was wary of the powers of the promised Environmental Protection Agency and it was eventually established without a statutory charter, as promised prior to the election. I was concerned that this was environmental protection in name only and wouldn’t compel industry to comply with pollution laws.
Beattie might have needed Green preferences to win the election but he also needed to keep the mining industry onside because, well, that’s what you do in Queensland. Anna Bligh’s vigorous opposition to the Rudd Government’s proposed Resource Super Profits Tax reflects the same unswerving commitment to the state’s mining industry.
The Beattie incident is a typical episode in the sorry history of the environmental regulation of mining in Queensland. The mining industry is a law unto itself and no government — Labor or LNP — is prepared to tell these companies what they can and cannot do.
This state of affairs has largely remained hidden from the Queensland public because, up to now, most mining has occurred in remote areas where only a small handful of landowners are affected. The resources boom isn’t showing any sign of slowing down, however and the mining companies are keen to exploit coal resources before an international agreement on greenhouse gas reduction is hammered into place. As a result, coal mining has moved into more closely settled areas and onto prime agricultural land.
The highly productive Darling Downs includes areas such as Felton, Haystack, Acland and Wandoan which have the best topsoil you are likely to see outside of the Ganges Delta, as well as being more intensively settled. They are set to be sacrificed to what Guy Pearse calls "King Coal" — and the Queensland Government is doing all it can to facilitate this trend.
But while King Coal might be receiving plenty of attention there is another key player in the Queensland mining sector that is subject to less scrutiny: the coal seam gas industry. Coal seam gas, or methane, is often regarded as "clean" because it releases about half the greenhouse gases from a power station as coal. However, a closer look at the industry reveals a more worrying picture.
Coal seam gas is extracted from coal seams by releasing huge amounts of water which then allow methane to escape to the surface. The hundreds of thousands of megalitres of briny water brought to the surface are stored in collection ponds and the gas is pumped first to compressors, and then overland to domestic markets, or to the port of Gladstone where it will be liquefied and exported.
There are currently four companies extracting gas from under the region known as the Surat Basin (incorporating the Darling Downs); they are all preparing environmental impact statements (EISs) for their export operations and one, Santos, was given conditional approval by Anna Bligh’s government last month.
This approval was granted by Colin Jensen, the Coordinator-General who is in charge of these "projects of state significance". It is, on paper at least, dependent on Santos developing a satisfactory water management plan some time in the future. We can all cross our fingers and trust that Santos does come good with a plan because it seems highly unlikely that the Queensland Government will stop the project once all the scheduled infrastructure is in place, including pipelines to Gladstone and new port facilities there.
This is the biggest single project of any type in Queensland’s history — with $100 billion worth of gas sales "in the pipeline".
A huge amount of building is on the way too. There will be at least 40,000 gas wells built across the Surat Basin. Thousands of kilometres of pipelines and hundreds of kilometres of service roads will be constructed and thousands of hectares of native bushland will be cleared. Compressor stations, LNG plants and major port facilities are also on the way and will require large amounts of fill and sea grass clearing. Many threatened species will be affected as will the Great Artesian Basin. As the Santos EIS itself acknowledges (pdf), the impacts on the Great Artesian Basin could be significant for hundreds of years.
The export side of the four companies’ operations will generate — through the energy required to extract, pump, compress and liquefy the gas as well as clear land for infrastructure — a huge volume of greenhouse gases (GHGs). While burning coal seam gas might produce fewer emissions than burning coal, extraction, processing and transport of the gas will add considerably to Australia’s total emissions— and make the national GHG targets for 2020 and 2050 even harder to meet. How will the federal government possibly meet future international GHG reduction commitments with such a new and energy-consuming industry?
It also remains unclear what will be done with the huge amounts of water extracted for processing — and what impact this will have on the Great Artesian Basin. The water management plan is the missing component from the Santos EIS on which final approval for the project hangs.
A large area of the Surat Basin covers the Queensland section of the Murray-Darling. Large tonnages of salt lying around southern Queensland as a by-product of the extraction process will have downstream implications, especially for New South Wales. Fertile land will be put at risk for an industry with a 20-year life span — all because the Queensland Government can’t say no to mining companies.
Governments can be re-elected on the back of billions of dollars in royalties and thousands of jobs in construction and mining. If thousands of hectares of prime farming land and precious underground water systems are sacrificed to an industry lasting 20 years, well, you can see why a lazy, incompetent government might think that is a small price to pay. The question is, will ordinary Queenslanders think the same when mining is no longer out of sight and therefore out of mind?
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