Kathy McKenzie lives in the Putty Valley, nestled between the World Heritage Wollemi and Yengo National Parks, north of Sydney in the Lower Hunter region. Lately she has been regularly checking the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ website, on behalf of her community, to see whether the O’Farrell Government has approved Dart Energy‘s plans to begin drilling for coal seam gas in her area.
While the company has paid the government for an exploration licence, it cannot drill unless a company Review of Environmental Factors (REF) is approved — and as soon as this is done it will be posted online. So far that has not occurred.
So McKenzie was surprised to learn, after a meeting between Dart and Sydney Residents against Coal Seam Gas (SRACSG) earlier this week, that while Dart’s licence to drill in the inner Sydney suburb of St Peters will soon lapse, the company plans to drill first in the Putty Valley in September and then at both Williamtown, near Newcastle, and the NSW coastal heritage village of Catherine Hill Bay while it seeks a renewal of its St Peters licence.
Dart originally planned to start drilling in the Putty Valley in May but the project was postponed because the company did not have the required permission of a landowner. The first the community knew of the drilling plan was when they downloaded a copy of an earlier Dart Energy REF from the website.
McKenzie then wrote to the government pointing out deficiencies in the environmental review including inaccuracies in the number of people living in the area and insufficient information about the risks of both flooding and fire in the fragile environment. The company later submitted a second environmental review.
In April, Dart agreed to meet with the Putty residents. A transcript of the meeting shows Dart Energy country manager Robbert de Weijer reassured residents that he believed in transparency: "I appreciate that we should have come here sooner and I apologise for not having done that."
De Weijer told New Matilda that he was pleased with applause he received at the end of the Putty meeting, although he acknowledges this did not necessarily indicate support. In fact, McKenzie says not one of the approximately 40 residents who turned up supports the Dart coal seam gas drilling project.
McKenzie says that if the REF is approved, the community will begin to "very strongly campaign to stop any drilling until scientific studies are done" to demonstrate that water sources and the environment are not at risk. "The valley and the world heritage area which both Federal and State governments are committed to looking after, is too fragile," she says.
Dart says that it has found an agreeable landholder but that it has signed a confidentiality agreement not to reveal his or her identity. At the April meeting, De Weijer said he understood some of the residents’ concerns and hoped that they could work together on a sustainable plan. So far, he has not been in contact with Putty residents again but in an email to New Matilda said, "we are happy to respond to any further questions or meet with them again if necessary".
Dart told Putty residents that only after a positive exploration phase will they plan how to get gas out the Putty Valley. One possible route is by underground pipe through the Yengo National Park which would attract even more widespread opposition to their plans
Meanwhile, it is not clear if the licence renewal for St Peters will be treated as a new licence with a formal public consultation period and an additional water assessment process. Dart has agreed however to hold public meetings with residents.
As New Matilda has reported previously, a company environmental review has already identified the risk drilling could pose for the fragile Botony Bay aquifer. In a press release issued after this week’s meeting, SRACSG spokesperson Jacinta Green said: "We were alarmed to find out (from the company) that there are no requirements for licensing under the Water Act to drill exploration core holes, even through the very fragile Botany Aquifer Sands."
As Dart exploration operations manager Jason Needham told the residents: "If the results of the exploratory well are as expected, then St Peters could be one of a series of production wells across Sydney" which would continue for around 10 years.
The company did not rule out fracking but said the preferred anticipated method would be for less wells with "in-seam lateral drilling along the coal seam up to 3.8km from the well, although up to 6km could be viable". This would reduce the number of surface wells necessary.
Needham said that the "current (St Peters) plan is to drill 24 hours a day" but that could be shifted to 12 hours after community consultation.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reported last week, Dart Energy’s plans for drilling in St Peters included feeding gas into Sydney City Council energy efficient trigeneration power plants, but De Wejeir has since told New Matilda in an email that Dart Energy actually had "no specific arrangement with the Sydney City Council but would be happy to have discussions".
Sydney City Council has not been consulted on the St Peters site by either the NSW Government or the company. In December, Greens Councillor Tony Harris successfully moved a Council resolution opposing coal seam gas drilling. This week Council officers issued a briefing note explaining that coal seam gas "couldn’t be used in the city’s decentralised energy masterplan."
The note says that "Trigeneration cannot run off coal seam methane as this contains damaging trace elements which would destroy the trigeneration engines. The effect would be similar to filling up a petrol car with diesel fuel."
Next on Dart’s agenda is Catherine Hill Bay, which like Putty Valley is surrounded by national park and state conservation areas, and is alive with strong opposition movements from local residents who are already dealing with applications for massive residential developments.
Dart Energy told New Matilda it planned on having "community engagement sessions" with Catherine Hill Bay residents as with "all communities where we intend to drill", and that understanding local residents’ concerns is a priority — but first news of fresh drilling at Catherine Hill Bay was also delivered to residents as a result of the St Peters meeting.
Dart has already drilled once at Catherine Hill Bay. Sue Whyte, President of the Catherine Hill Bay Progress Association, complained that drilling went on for much longer than originally planned, and whenever she tried to find out what was happening she was "fobbed off the whole time".
The imminent second round of drilling came as complete news for geologist and part-time Catherine Hill Bay resident Bill Laing — bad news. He said "any drilling would have to be very carefully situated so as not to destroy the heritage values of the town and not to harm the immediate environment, which is rare original coastal forest".
And if gas was to be found at Catherine Hill Bay, Laing said extraction would most likely damage the town’s surrounding forest. Exploratory drilling may be just one drill hole, said Laing, but coal seam extraction is a "much more serious issue again" because one or more drill holes are established permanently like an oil rig, with coal seam gas coming out of pipes for five or 10 years. He warns that if drilling was allowed on headlands and ridges contaminants could leach into two creeks just a few hundred metres away that cross Catherine Hill Bay and flow into the ocean.
News travels fast as campaigners become citizen journalists and share information through Facebook and blogs. Dart suggested at their April meeting with Putty that residents should visit gas sites in Camden on Sydney’s outskirts. Kathy McKenzie took their advice and was not impressed as she reported with photos on her blog that wells were near creeks and are "inconspicuous but once you see one you see lots more".
While Dart downplays fracking, which is more likely to occur in the full production phase, it is less defensive about fracking in Scotland where it has bought a company called Composite which has applied for permission to drill the country’s first exploratory hydraulic fracturing well 2000 metres deep in a bid to exploit the shale gas near Airth near the coast in East Scotland.
As the Glasgow Herald reported last week, the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups are opposed to fracking for shale (another similar form of unconventional gas). "Scotland saw the birth of the shale-oil industry over 150 years ago but times change and shale gas is the last thing we need," WWF director, Dr Richard Dixon was quoted as saying.
Peter Roles, the managing director of Composite Energy in Stirling, has defended the search for shale gas: "It’s worth the investment". Contamination of groundwater could be avoided by ensuring fracking was contained in certain areas, he claimed.
But it appears his confidence may be misplaced as just across the border in England, a company has suspended gas mining after two small earthquakes were found to have possible links to its operations. And across the Channel in France where coal seam gas exploration licences were first allocated last year, the French Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, under pressure from environmentalists, cancelled all current and further exploration and exploitation licences while the French parliament investigates the matter further, with a study due in June this year. Since March, the European Parliament is also debating coal seam gas, in particular looking at a legislative framework for approvals.
Dart will be hoping that these environmental concerns do not spread to Belgium. In April this year, it went into joint partnership with NV Mijnen (NVM) to explore for gas in the Campine Basin in North-East Belgium. The company has exclusive rights to explore a 350km squared area currently held by NVM under the company’s existing coal mining concessions. As far as New Matilda has been able to discover, so far there have been no protests.
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