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Blowback against Australia's new gas rush

Categories: Food and Wines Articles - Monday, 19 September 2011


BROKE, Australia (AFP) - Across the spectacular valley sprawling before Eden Anthony's Australian homestead a new mountain has risen in the gritty distance -- a towering heap of coal mine waste.

It is a cautionary tale for the Hunter Valley, a picturesque winemaking and hobby farm area north-west of Sydney, which finds itself at the centre of a growing resources controversy: the hunt for coal seam gas (CSG).

Mining is not new to the coal-rich Hunter region: vast open-cut pits dot the landscape, linked to power stations and the nearby Newcastle docks -- the world's biggest coal export port -- by a complex network of rail and road.

But CSG has got people worried, and a growing backlash which began in Queensland state, the epicentre of Australia's new gas rush, has seen landholders across the country uniting under a simple mantra: Lock the Gate.

"This is the most radical transformation of rural Australia we've seen since the expansion of the pastoral frontier in the 19th century," says Drew Hutton, founder of the Lock the Gate alliance.

"And the Hunter Valley's the tipping point. If coal seam gas comes into this region, well you can forget about it being an iconic area for farming, for vineyards, thoroughbred racing or tourism.

"It'll just be a great big industrial wasteland."

The fears are about water, and they're big ones.

Most Australian farms rely on underground bores to grow crops and raise stock, and gas fields are popping up along the edges of the world's largest underground aquifer: the Great Artesian Basin.

Farmers and scientists fear CSG mining -- a highly invasive process in which the rock is hydraulically fractured or "fracked" with a toxic cocktail of chemicals and water to release the gas -- could devastate underground water supplies.

Some properties in Queensland have already seen aquifer levels drop by two thirds due to CSG mining and what water is left is so salty it is toxic to animals and plants.

But what is of deeper concern to most are the unknowns, says Anthony, a proud member of Lock the Gate and long-time campaigner against CSG in the famed Hunter wine region.

"They need to put chemicals down there to create the fractures that are needed to release the gas, and the chemicals that they use are a secret," he told AFP.

"And it's a pretty rough science as we've seen in Queensland, people turn their kitchen taps on and can set fire to the water because of the gas coming out."

Limited testing by activists of what is used or can be released from the seam during fracking has shown cyanide, arsenic, and a group of carcinogenic and nerve-damaging agents known as BTEX in the mix, they say.

A recent BTEX scare at Arrow Energy's Queensland operations and blowout at a well on the outskirts of Sydney have reinforced public unease about the industry's untested environmental impacts, according to Senator Larissa Waters.

Waters has travelled the country as part of a government panel examining the CSG industry's impacts and says "communities are up in arms" about water issues and their very limited rights to keep miners out.

Anything below the topsoil is considered state property and short of haggling over compensation, farmers cannot stop mining on their land.

A six-month moratorium on fracking by the New South Wales government has seen projects halted in the Hunter -- a "small win" for Anthony and his neighbours, but Waters thinks it should be national, and more lasting.

"It's incumbent upon the government to just press pause on this industry until we've got some answers on those unknowns," she says.

Waters is also pushing for national laws to allow landholders final say on what happens to their land.

A landmark court challenge against CSG firm AGL could provide some hope, with lawyers from the non-profit Environmental Defender's Office (EDO) challenging a development in the Upper Hunter region on groundwater and contamination issues.

"Ideally we'd like to see it stopped basically because the risks are too great," explains the EDO's Natasha Hammond-Deakin, who is leading next month's case in the Land and Environment Court.

"And if you have a look at the pollution that's occurred in the United States and in Queensland we don't think it's worth risking ... water, biodiversity, agriculture and food security."

A victory in the case would have significant implications, requiring CSG firms to satisfy state planners to a much higher standard about the impacts of their activities.

Recommendations from Waters' government panel, due in November, could also see water become an environmental protection trigger meaning Canberra would have to review and green-light all future CSG projects.

It could be too late in Queensland, where Lock the Gate's Hutton says a "suck it and see approach" has prevailed, allowing the CSG industry to make mistakes which could be felt for centuries.

Thousands of farmers have joined his campaign and Hutton believes there will be thousands more as the high-stakes search for cleaner energy alternatives to coal ramps up.

"Every valley that I go into has a coal seam, and a coal seam gas company poking around trying to see if there's a resource there," he said.

"It's just massive. It will be the biggest social movement this country's ever seen."


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