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Draining the Lifeblood – Fracking the Great Artesian Basin

The NSW Baird government is pushing ahead with plans to expand the state’s coal seam gas industry, after getting the green light from NSW chief scientist Mary O’Kane last week. O’Kane delivered her final report to the Baird government about the state of the CSG industry in NSW, following 19 months of research and investigations.

The report rubber stamped the expansion of CSG developments in the state, concluding that the environmental and health risks can be managed through rigorous monitoring and management. However, she did warn of the “unintended consequences” that inevitably come with the industry,

“It is inevitable that the CSG industry will have some unintended consequences, including as the result of accidents, human error and natural disasters… Industry, government and the community need to work together to plan adequately to mitigate such risks.” ~ NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane

Despite former Premier Barry O’Farrell placing a temporary moratorium on new Petroleum Exploration Licence applications in early 2014, it is expected that CSG exploration licenses will start being approved again shortly.

“I don’t wait for anyone — I’m a smash or smash through person and we are going to drive ahead” , NSW Energy Minister Anthony Roberts said on Friday. Premier Baird reiterated this stance.

“Do we want coal seam gas? Absolutely we do. Do we want coal seam gas in balance with ensuring there’s not damage to our water aquifers? That’s absolutely where we stand.”   ~ NSW Premier Mike Baird

Risking our most scarce resource

But another scientific report released this week has warned of a very real real threat to Australia’s water supply as a result of CSG expansion.

The report, ‘Great Artesian Basin Recharge Systems and Extent of Petroleum and Gas Leases’, was commissioned by the Artesian Bore Water Users Association and questions the ability of the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) to withstand the large scale water extraction necessary to support the coal seam gas industry.

Shockingly, it shows that “80% of the Great Artesian Basin has a gas, petroleum or CSG exploration or production license over it.”

Why is the Great Artesian Basin so important?

The GAB is the lifeblood of the eastern half of Australia, running from Cape York to Cooper Pedy, and covering almost a quarter of the Australian continent. It contains 65,000 cubic kms of groundwater, released to the surface under pressure through natural springs and artesian bores.

Bores are the sole water source for 22% of the Australian landmass. As such, the GAB has allowed life to develop in inland Australia over thousands of years, sustaining Aboriginal Australians who relied on the springs for freshwater and wetlands in our most hostile centre. Many dreamtime stories feature a connection to the groundwater, which provided oases in the desert for ceremonies, trade and travel.

Today, people in these rural, drought impacted communities continue to depend on the bores for farming – the livelihood of many in these parts.

The groundwater held in GAB has accumulated over tens to hundreds of thousand of years, from so-called ‘recharge beds’ primarily around the margins of the basin. Today, these recharge areas don’t add significantly to the GAB’s volume but crucially provide the pressure which keeps groundwater flowing to the surface.

Importantly, the waters of the GAB are a finite resource. If drained beyond its natural ability to regenerate itself, large scale environmental and social problems are a certainty.

Rapid expansion of CSG licenses in NSW

Gas and petroleum exploration and production are the greatest threats to the Great Artesian Basin today, These extractive industries require massive volumes of Australia’s scarcest resource, water, to frack, drill and mine the earth, impacting the water table and bore pressure. The waste water is then released back into the environment, containing a toxic mix of chemical pollutants and carcinogens.

With a high percentage of the GAB’s recharge areas covered by gas/petroleum licenses, the pressure of the Basin is under threat.

A key area for groundwater recharge has been identified in the Pilliga region in state’s northwest, where CSG company Santos has been conducting exploration drilling and rapidly expanding their operations since 2011. According to the report,

“The area of highest recharge within NSW is in the Pilliga Sandstones and associated colluvial fans of the East Pilliga. This area is almost completely covered with exploration licenses at this time.”

According to Queensland University soil scientist Robert Banks, the loss of water pressure due to CSG drilling may be enough to stop bore flow completely throughout the basin. In this scenario, pumps would be required to move water to the surface, which would cost billions of dollars. Who’s going to foot the bill?

Unintended consequences

The Great Artesian Basin is essential to life for almost a quarter of the country, but it impacts all Australians from coast to coast. If it dried up, Australia would be a markedly different place.

This week, as the NSW government indicated its intention to green light the expansion of CSG development, a town called Denton in North Texas became the first in the state to ban fracking. Texas is the birthplace of fracking, a state where the controversial method is still widely used today.

In recent years, entire nations have banned fracking outright – France, Germany, Ireland and Bulgaria – with many other countries and regions placing moratoriums on CSG operations until further impact studies are completed.

Are we willing to accept “unintended consequences” when communities are living within 200m of leaking CSG wells?

A major issue that needs to be addressed is the need for a Basin wide approach to gas and petroleum approvals and licenses. Currently the GAB is administered across four states – NSW, QLD, SA and NT – with no standards or coordination across the entire Basin.

But opposition to CSG in Australia is stronger than ever and growing daily. 5,000 recently turned out in Lismore to protest against gas licenses in the region. A blockade has long been in place in the Pilliga, supporting the local community against the expansion of Santos’ CSG drilling. Residents of Gloucester are also protesting against AGL’s proposed 330-well project. And with more and more small towns declaring themselves Gasfield Free every month, it’s not going to be an easy win for Big Gas.

Banjo Paterson’s 1896 ‘Song of the Artesian Water’’, best sums up the importance of the life-giving Great Artesian Basin to the Australian landscape. Risking this vital lifeblood is something we can’t afford to do.

“It is flowing, ever flowing, in a free, unstinted measure

From the silent hidden places where the old earth hides her treasure…

By the silent belts of timber, by the miles of blazing plain

It is bringing hope and comfort to the thirsty land again.

…To the tortured, thirsty cattle, bringing gladness in its going; 

It is flowing, ever flowing, further down”

~ Banjo Paterson

This article was first published on the Australian Independent Media Network on 09/11/2014

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