Thursday, 5 March 2015
Coal Seam Gas
I, and also on behalf of Senator Wang, move:
That the Senate—
(a) acknowledges That the possible impact on human health and our water resources from coal seam gas (CSG) mining is not well understood; and
(b) calls on the Government to:
(i) act with caution and stop approving CSG projects until such time as CSG mining is considered completely safe by scientists and qualified professionals, and
(ii) establish a royal commission into the human impact of CSG mining.
As I said earlier this week, in the short time that I have been working for the people of Queensland as a senator for the Sunshine State, I have come across many issues. One of the most distressing ones involves the plight of farmers and property owners in rural and regional Queensland.
On the weekend I travelled to Dalby and Chinchilla to speak at a community forum on the harmful impact of coal seam gas mining in the region, and to tour properties affected by CSG mining. I should note it only took me four hours to travel by car from Brisbane to Chinchilla. When I arrived, to my surprise, I was told by locals that I was one of the first federal politicians to visit the area and inspect the damage caused by CSG mining.
The community forum I spoke at was organised by wonderful local people, including the lovely Shay Dougal. It was attended by some 100 people from across the area. Apart from me, speakers included industry experts, concerned landowners and farmers affected by CSG mining. It was clear from the forum and feedback from the locals that the people of Chinchilla have come together to support each other in the wake of a CSG mining tsunami, which is ripping the region apart.
Having toured properties affected by CSG mining on the weekend I can understand why. While most people in the cities and urban areas across Australia get on with their daily lives, the good people of rural and regional Queensland are being devastated by the impacts of CSG mining. This is one of the most contentious, environmentally and socially destructive forms of gas extraction known to the developed world. It involves drilling holes deep into the earth to tap into gas trapped in coal seams.
Coal seam gas is principally methane found in underground coal seams, where it is trapped by natural water pressure. Often the coal seam gas is found below premium agricultural land. To extract the gas, CSG mining companies undertake drilling—often horizontal drilling—across large areas of land to access underground coal seams. They inject a toxic and poisonous mixture of chemicals into the ground to ease the extraction of water and gas. In many cases, they need to undertake hydraulic fracking to break up the underground coal seams to extract the gas. This involves injection of vast volumes of water, under pressure, combined with a mixture of chemicals to break up the underground earth, to fast-track the process of gas extraction.
The chemicals and compounds used in fracking are mostly unknown. Gas companies do not like to disclose their toxic recipes. When gas companies drill down deep into the earth to extract the gas, they also extract vast volumes of water from the underground water table. The produced water, which is water that has been extracted and/or injected and then extracted with megatoxic cocktails of chemicals and compounds, is then dumped into ponds that sit on people's properties.
In Queensland landowners virtually have no rights. Incredibly, landowners in rural and regional Queensland do not have the right to say no to CSG mining on their properties. As a result, the industry has enjoyed unrestrained growth and, in the view of many, unlimited access to people's land. I need to stress that we are talking about land privately owned by our very own citizens. We are talking about land on which the people of Queensland live, farm, manage their stock, run their businesses, raise their families and play with their kids.
CSG companies simply knock on their doors and through bullying, intimidation, threatening behaviour, relenting pressure and other tactics force their way onto people's land. They threaten farmers with legal action or tell them they will take them to the land court. Landowners are left distressed and feeling like they have no option but to be forced into lifelong contracts to have CSG mining undertaken on their properties—because they cannot afford the costs of a lawyer to help them out.
People living on the land in Chinchilla are not connected to the town water. They get their water from rain tanks, dams, bores and wells. The people of Chinchilla, like many other Queenslanders living in rural and regional areas, survive on groundwater that they access on their own land. They also rely on rainwater to fill their tanks. This water is their lifeblood. They use the water to live, drink, shower, feed their stock, water their crops and operate day to day. Thanks to CSG mining, they now have no water, and the water they do have is being contaminated by CSG mining—mining which is taking place on their own properties as well as on properties nearby.
CSG mining rapes the land. It bleeds the underground watertable dry. Experts estimate that it will take hundreds of years for water to return underground, if at all. Farmers' wells and bores have gone dry. People in regional and rural Queensland have no water; instead, methane gas bubbles up from the bores and wells, and their water-tank water tastes like metal. There is so much dust and other pollutants in the air from CSG mining activity that the rainwater sometimes rains black, and the water collected in rainwater tanks is obnoxious.
Tests have revealed that the water contains chemicals as well as heavy metals. Farmers and their families are becoming ill. They are suffering from headaches, breathing issues and a range of other health problems. Children are having seizures and waking up with blood noses. Farm animals are losing their hair and dying. The toxic chemicals used in coal seam gas extraction are making their way into the land, air, water and people.
From above, the land in Chinchilla is littered with CSG wells, networks of piping, plants, ponds, low-point drains, high-point valves and other infrastructure. The value of properties affected by CSG mining has plummeted. Farmers cannot sell their land, and their land is now worthless because it no longer includes clean, safe water. Many local property owners in Chinchilla estimate that they will die before CSG mining projects are completed on their properties. Once CSG mining companies set up on a farmer's property, it is impossible to get them off, regardless of the damage caused, and the projects usually last for up to 30 years.
My trip to Chinchilla was an eye-opening experience and, to be honest I was deeply distressed. I visited properties that have been decimated by CSG mining. One property owner took me on a tour around his property. He has some 15 CSG wells on his property, and the CSG mining company is proposing to put more on his property. The wells are running constantly, sucking up vast volumes of water and gas, which is piped to a nearby processing plant.
On the property next door, large open ponds of toxic water used in the CSG mining process are exposed to the air. The toxic water is seeping into the ground and evaporating into the air. As the property owner was explaining that his land, his life and his future had been destroyed by CSG mining, he was wiping his eyes. His eyes were red and inflamed. He is unable to spend much time on his property as the air stings his eyes and causes his nose to bleed.
The feeling of despair being felt across this area of Queensland is palpable. Property owners and farmers throughout this area are not only being affected healthwise; their properties have lost all of their water. Their bores have simply gone dry.
While CSG mining companies have an obligation to make good if damage does occur as a result of CSG mining, landowners are put through the most extraordinarily complicated processes and hoops to have issues addressed and fixed. On top of this, property owners have to prove that they have suffered damage and that the damage has been caused as a direct result of CSG mining. In fact, the processes are made so complex that landowners break down from the stress associated with the damage and of trying to get help.
What good is a 'make good' arrangement, if the region is raped of water. As I have already said, underground water does not just reappear in days; it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years for underground water channels to be replenished. And even if this does happen, the chemicals and toxins, which have been injected into the earth by the CSG mining companies, would recontaminate the water as the chemicals take aeons to break down.
While I support the resources sector and value its role in our society, we cannot and must not allow the health of our people to be compromised. Therefore I would like the government to establish a royal commission into the human impact of mining, in particular CSG mining; and establish a resources ombudsman. An independent resources ombudsman will provide the people of Australia with a point of contact to resolve mining and CSG mining issues.
The ombudsman would be an advocate for the people. It is about time these people had someone on their side. In my home state of Queensland, all levels of government have let the people of Queensland down. We provide legal aid, at the expense of taxpayers, to assist people charged with sex offences against children; and yet we are allowing the decent and hardworking people of rural and regional Queensland to have their lives decimated by CSG mining without any assistance or access to taxpayer funded support.
I cannot believe that this is happening in Australia, but it is. All Australians should be very, very concerned. Farmers and landowners across Queensland are being treated in the most deplorable manner. These people are Australians—Australians who have served in our military to defend our country, lost relatives, and fought and died for our nation. These people are the very fabric of our country. They do not deserve this treatment and they deserve our help.
Let us start to make things right today. A royal commission into the human impact of CSG mining and the establishment of a resources ombudsman would take us in the right direction. A royal commission would look into all aspects of the human impact of CSG mining. This needs to include how many people have been treated, exploited and harmed as a result of CSG mining. In addition, as outlined in our motion, we call on the government to cease the approval of any further CSG mining projects until such time as a royal commission has been undertaken and scientists and industry experts determine CSG mining to be safe.
Yes, there is no doubt that CSG mining is bad for the environment but, importantly, it is also bad for health. The human impact is deeply, deeply concerning. The government has an obligation to ensure that we put the rights and health of people first. I strongly urge my Senate colleagues to stand up for all Australians and support this motion.