Ormil Energy managing director Tom Fontaine was grilled on Sunday at a public forum to discuss coal seam gas (CSG) exploration in the Illawarra. Indeed, he was clearly frustrated by the event.
"The best way to stop CSG Illawarra, to stop CSG everywhere, is to turn your bloody lights off and quit using your air conditioners. If there was not the demand for energy, I wouldn’t be out there trying to find energy," he exclaimed.
Fontaine was unable to allay the fears of the 200 locals who packed into the Thirroul District Community Centre for information on the industry’s plans for the region.
Appearing frustrated and bemused at the level of concern raised, Fontaine compared CSG to the region’s long standing coal mining industry.
"We’re honestly confused … if we’re taking less things out of the ground, how can it all of a sudden be worse?", he asked. "We’re capturing the gas, we’re not releasing it into the atmosphere, we’re producing the same water that has come from all these millions of tonnes of coal that have already been mined, and we’re disposing of it in similar ways."
Fontaine reiterated his company’s vow never to use fracking to extract potential coal seam gas deposits in the area.
However, Southern Highlands farmer and former executive director of Caltex, Alan Lindsay, expressed doubt about whether Fontaine could make such a guarantee.
"I don’t think we are actually dealing with the people who are actually going to produce the gas from the field," he said. "I am worried, and I think all you should be worried, about who comes next, and whether they think fracking is a good thing or a bad thing."
Lindsay outlined that it was very likely that the two companies that hold Petroleum Exploration Licences in the Illawarra, Apex Energy and Ormil Energy, would not be the companies extracting the gas should vast deposits be found during exploration.
The discussion about fracking continued, with Dr Helen Redmond from Doctors for the Environment citing a lack of transparency on the chemicals used in the controversial process.
"In Australia, the chemical additives that are used in fracking haven’t actually been assessed for that use, and most haven’t been assessed at all by our national chemical regulator. Nor is there any mandatory requirement for gas companies to disclose exactly what they use," she said.
Redmond outlined how one particular exploration licence held by Apex and Ormil surrounds Lake Burragong, which is a part of Sydney’s drinking water supply vessel, Warragamba dam.
The response from the crowd was unanimous when she asked, "Do we really want to take the risk with the drinking water catchment for 4.5 million people?"
Redmond also addressed the uncertainty surrounding the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from CSG.
"A full life-cycle analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions of CSG has not been undertaken in Australia. Fugitive emissions of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas in itself, and production methods of CSG, need to be taken into account," she said.
The O’Farell Government did not send any representatives to the forum and was criticised in absentia for allowing the industry to proceed before considering the full environmental and social impacts of coal seam gas extraction.
"The legislation that governs this industry dates back to 1991… and doesn’t even mention CSG. The sorts of issues that we have with the nature of CSG are not covered by any legislation at the present moment, and that has to change," said Alan Lindsay.
Principal Solicitor at the Environmental Defender’s Office, Kirsty Ruddock, supported Lindsay’s call for tougher regulation of the industry.
"One of the biggest problems that we’ve seen at the EDO is the cumulative impacts … the fact that we’re not looking across the spectrum at what’s going on at a particular water catchment, or we might not be looking at what’s going on in a particular local government area," said Ruddock. "These assessments are done project by project, and that is one of the big deficiencies in the law," she added.
The crowd was not impressed when Fontaine became fed up with the barrage of questions directed at him during the Q and A part of the forum. That was when he told the locals to turn their lights off.
Commenting on his performance during the forum, local resident Toni Riddell said, "it was platitudinous, it was inaccurate, it was scientifically vague. And if that’s the degree of their skill for their mining, then I have grave concerns about letting them dig a hole two foot deep."
Jess Moore of Stop CSG Illawarra, the group who organised the forum, also rejected Fontaine’s claim that Ormil Energy had engaged in ongoing dialogue with the community about their projects.
"To this day, Tom Fontaine has never returned a phone call of mine," she said, "and I think he did nothing to alleviate people’s concerns."
Apex Energy has approval to drill 15 CSG exploration boreholes in the Illawarra. In June they were, together with Ormil Energy, granted authority to drill a single exploration well within the Burragorang region south west of Sydney.