Dart Energy have refused to rule out drilling for coal seam gas (CSG) in Sydney’s inner-west despite mounting community opposition and pressure from local councils.
Last night the company told hundreds of Sydney residents at a public forum held at Leichhardt Town Hall that it sees a "strong opportunity to provide gas to the domestic market," in NSW and that gas should form part of the State’s low carbon future.
Dart Energy currently holds seven CSG exploration licences in NSW including one that covers most of Sydney with a prospective drill site near Sydney Park in St Peters. Robbert de Weijer, CEO of Dart Energy, told the forum that while the St Peters site was no longer an immediate priority, exploratory drilling at the site could commence from mid-2012.
"The St Peters site is something we inherited," said de Weijer referring to Dart’s acquisition late last year of Apollo Gas, the company which had previously held the licence for exploratory CSG drilling in Sydney, "We are certainly looking at alternative sites," he said, noting "large industrial areas" were where the company would focus its interest.
The licence Dart holds to drill in St Peters is set to expire in October this year, however in a meeting with Leichhardt Mayor Rochelle Porteous, de Weijer confirmed that the company would seek to renew the licence.
"Dart Energy holds petroleum exploration licence 463 over the whole of Leichhardt council area, in fact, it’s the same licence that covers St Peters and most of the Sydney Basin," Porteous told the forum last night. She also noted that Leichhardt Council had recently voted unanimously for a moratorium on CSG in the area, "You’d think it’s a no-brainer: you don’t mine methane gas in densely populated urban areas nearby schools, parks, local streets, and people’s homes."
Dart says that gas should be seen as a "cleaner, transitional fuel" that can contribute to supplying the state’s increasing demand for energy.
"The total amount of gas potentially in our licence area in NSW is 19 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of prospective resource," said de Weijer. "Just to give you a little bit of feeling as to how much that is, 1Tcf is enough energy for a city of 1 million people for 20 years.
"That’s a huge amount of gas to provide to the people of NSW and QLD," he said.
The crowd heckled de Weijer with cries for investment in renewables when he posed the question: "Do we want to use coal, import gas, or make use of our resources available?"
The coal seam gas industry is currently supported by both major parties in NSW. The Department of Primary Industries website declares that, "NSW remains highly under-explored for petroleum compared to neighbouring States," and sets out "a five-year royalty holiday on production from petroleum discoveries" as one way of encouraging interest for exploration in the State.
National’s MLC Duncan Gay told NSW Parliament on Thursday 26 May: "The Government provides a number of attractive incentives to encourage exploration, development and utilisation of the coal seam gas industry in New South Wales to encourage the utilisation of gas drained from operating coalmines, et cetera."
However some efforts are being made to address community concerns. The NSW Energy and Resource Minister Chris Hartcher recently announced a moratorium on fracking until the end of the year, and new requirements for the industry to fulfil.
While de Weijer said that "there is a lot of legislation already in place" to regulate the CSG industry, Drew Hutton, President of Lock the Gate Alliance which represents over 100 local community, industry and environmental groups concerned about the CSG industry, told the forum that NSW could learn a lesson by looking to how the industry has been able to operate in Queensland.
He said that the area of Tara and nearby Chinchilla now looked like "a great spider’s web … intermingled with holding ponds for waste water, compressor stations, major pipelines, and access roads."
Hutton said that people need to "lock the gate" to coal seam gas companies: "In the last years of the fossil fuel industry we won’t let them lash out and take whole regions with them."
For his part, de Weijer was keen to point out differences that he said existed between the CSG industry in Queensland and Dart’s plans for NSW. BTEX chemicals would not be used, and the density of gas well heads would be less than in QLD with wells every "one, two or three kilometres", he said. De Weijer also said that the company would not use flares to burn off excess gas, nor would they use evaporation ponds for waste water, preferring instead to capture water in a tank and truck it off-site for process and potential reuse.
A key concern for many Sydney residents is the potential impact on underground water, and de Weijer said that wells would be "double cased" to prevent fugitive emissions and provide a "high level of assurance" against aquifer interference.
However Ross Dunn, CSG Communications Director for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) said that aquifers would be impacted. CSG activity "will to varying degrees impact on adjoining aquifers. The extent of impact and whether the impact can be managed is the question," he said.
Dart was unable to rule out the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in their operations; de Weijer explained that there is no current need or intention to frack, but that the method could be used if "deemed acceptable by authorities and after seeking community consultation."
Dunn said that there was no need to "be carried away about chemicals
because a name sounds bad," and that many of the chemicals used in the
CSG process "regularly appeared in food, cosmetics, and swimming pools,"
noting that "dose makes toxicity, not the presence of a chemical."
Dr Helen Redmond from Doctors for the Environment wasn’t keen. She said, "there are health impacts associated with CSG that are both direct and indirect and they are multiple. Direct impacts stem from process and chemicals from fracking."
And fracking is not the only health concern linked to the CSG industry, according to Redmond, who observed furthermore that there is no formal requirement for the treatment of CSG waste water. "The water is not just salty, it has a lot of chemicals including Volatile Organic Compounds, BTEX, which is naturally occurring, heavy metals, and radioactive compounds."
Redmond also raised concerns about potential for air pollution: "Methane gas leakage is common, symptoms can include tiredness, headaches, dizziness, and in enclosed environments can cause asphyxiation."
"A full life cycle analysis has not been undertaken. We need more data to make an informed choice about our energy sources," said Redmond. "CSG will delay the vital transition to renewables."
NSW Greens MLC and mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham shared this concern saying that a transition to gas would come at the expense of renewables: "Just as the CSG deals are worth millions, so is the infrastructure, so that capital won’t go into investment in baseload solar thermal, or wind, or innovation."
Buckingham, who has just returned from a tour of mining affected communities in NSW, told the crowd that the CSG industry faced strong opposition both in the metropolitan and regional areas of NSW.
"There is a very broad constituency saying no to CSG," he said.
Buckingham will introduce a bill into NSW parliament calling for a 12 month moratorium on the CSG industry in NSW, a ban on mining in the Sydney metropolitan area, and an independent inquiry into the economic, social and environmental impacts.
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