Ursula Alquier reveals the shocking damage of unconventional gas to the the Victorian government inquiry
I first heard about coal seam gas 4 years ago when some locals in the small South Gippsland town of Poowong where my mum lives heard that there was a licence to explore over their community.
Before it became my job, I worked as a volunteer to learn and raise awareness about the massive area of Gippsland that sits under an approved exploration license for some form of unconventional gas or coal mining. This area covers more than 350,000 hectares of Gippsland’s fertile soil, rural townships and pristine coastlines.
Back in late 2012 the Poowong community decided to conduct a door to door survey of Poowong asking one question; “Do you want to declare Poowong Coal & Gasfield Free? Yes, No or Unsure” Of over 550 people surveyed, an overwhelming 95% said yes and that is how Poowong became the first community in Victoria to declare themselves Gasfield Free. Since then another 60 communities from Gippsland & Western Victoria have also been declared Gasfield Free with many more in the process of surveying.
Whilst we understand this has no legal bearing, it sends a strong message that these diverse, strong & healthy rural communities are removing the social license for the unconventional gas industry to operate here.
These surveys also represent the community movement against unconventional gas, one of the biggest social movements Victoria, or indeed Australia has ever seen.
So why are people standing up? Why are farmers, teachers, gas industry workers, tradies, blue collar workers, white collar workers, students and retirees running themselves into the ground to conduct door to door surveys of their communities, making contact with health, engineering, geology and economic experts to hold public meetings and get information out to their communities, to create huge signs out of people, utes or tractors to spell out their messages, writing thousands of letters to people in local state and federal government, creating community events that are bringing in hundreds of people each year, or threatening to take non violent direct action if drilling goes ahead, even if that means risking arrest?
Because the risks are far too great.
If allowed to go ahead these proposed onshore gas projects will cripple our rural communities whilst putting at risk our most valuable commodity: water.
Unconventional gas extraction involves highly invasive processes like dewatering, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
Concerns include lowering of the water table, contamination of groundwater and surface water and vast amounts of wastewater with no means of safe disposal.
Coal Seam Gas, Shale & Tight Gas require huge amounts of water during the fracking process. This water would likely be sourced from town water and underground water supplies. Water for irrigators has already been fully allocated in the Gippsland region with groundwater being used at a rate in which it is depleting faster than it’s being replenished.
The Australian gas industry provides a figure of 11 million litres per shale or tight gas frack, however a range of other sources suggest that water use is often much higher. According to one UN report, a single frack operation on a shale gas well will use between 11 and 34 million litres of water .
So where would this massive need for extra water allocation for unconventional gas mining come from?
Without clean, uncompromised water farmers cannot farm. Are producers expected to take on this risk here in Victoria? Once an aquifer is compromised there is no going back. We have an incredibly strong clean & green image here in Gippsland for producing some of the country’s best & safest food products. Why would we risk this and all the long term sustainable employment farming brings for an industry that has such an extensive track record of impacting farming operations & communities.
Is it fair to subject communities in Gippsland living in already seismically active areas to a greater risk of earthquakes?
In April this year, the US Geological Survey confirmed that in the last seven years, parts of the US have seen earthquakes like they haven’t seen for millions of years. And they were triggered by the drilling processes used for oil and gas extraction and the injection wells used for disposal of waste water.
Another peer-reviewed study released in July 2014 by a geologist at Cornell University, found swarms of small earthquakes that have surged in Oklahoma since 2008 can be blamed on wastewater from fracking being injected into the earth.
There are over a million hectares in Victoria covered in approved exploration licenses. This covers diverse communities, world renowned tourist destinations and fertile soil that produces food for all Victorians. For example, Mirboo North in South Gippsland produces 80% of Victoria’s potatoes. Whilst from Gippsland alone we produce over 23% of Australia’s milk.
We have seen vibrant towns in Queensland turned into industrial landscapes covered by gas pipelines, compression stations, toxic evaporation ponds, access roads and gas wells as far as the eye can see. Already if you fly across the darling downs you can see hundreds of wells, roads and pipelines forming grid patterns across the landscape. Many Gippslanders have visited these areas and do not want this future for our region.
Every one of those wells represents an amplification of risk. There are inherent and well –recognised risks with every gas drilling operation, conventional or unconventional. But with unconventional gas, these companies are asking us to drill hundreds to thousands of wells across our rural communities. This means any inherent risk in any one drilling operation, whether its risk of well failure, of a surface contamination accident, of flaring creating a fire, of toxic air pollutants affecting people or animals, it is multiplied by hundreds or thousands of times.
Is it fair to risk our state’s food and water security just to line the pockets of a handful of mining companies that have no obligation to clean up their mess and that have no intention to listen to what communities across our state are saying?
Our agriculture industry is worth $48 Billion dollars annually. This industry is growing every year, it has sustained us for 100 years and will do so for another 100 years but only if we actively protect our farmland, our water and our producers. Any form of unconventional gas industry would pose a huge risk to farming. We deem this risk totally unacceptable.
Is it fair for the thousands of people employed in the agricultural and tourism sectors to have their jobs put at risk?
The gas mining industry claim that they will bring a huge number of jobs to local areas. But despite claiming that the unconventional gas boom in Queensland created 100 000 jobs, the entire oil and gas industry in Australia, both unconventional and conventional, only employed 20,000 people in 2013 according to the ABS. And these jobs are short-lived. A boost in employment may last two or three years during the construction phase of an gas project, but many communities are beginning to find that after the boom, there is a bust.
At the moment industry is foreseeing a reduction in the workforce of up to 75% in Queensland gasfields, as they move from construction to maintenance phases.
Even during the construction boom, an increase in the number of gas-industry related jobs does not paint the whole picture. Increases in rent, the price of labour and increases in the demand on contractors can drive up prices for agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and other parts of the economy that could be devastating for farmers and small business.
Is it fair to expose rural communities to further risk of bushfires?
We have already seen a local mining company here in Gippsland heighten this risk. In January 2010, a grass fire was started by Lakes Oil during a gas flaring operation at one of their Wombat well sites in Seaspray.
The company did not have the right equipment to be able to fight the fire and it got away on them. Local CFA volunteers put it out after it jumped into nearby bush. It burnt about 10 hectares and could have been a disaster for the local community if locals hadn’t got on top of it so quickly.
We understand the risks and our message is clear; Gasfields are not welcome in Victoria.
Unlike the executives of these large mining companies who sit behind their polished desks far away from the mess they create we understand the importance of caring for our land and waterways and that everything here and everyone here is connected.
Unconventional gas mining is destructive. It’s invasive above & below the ground and there are documented cases of the industries processes causing water contamination right here in Australia.
In February last year mining company Santos was fined by the EPA for contaminating a water aquifer, with uranium at levels 20 times higher than safe drinking water guidelines.
EPA chief environmental regulator confirmed the contamination was caused by water leaking from a water storage pond and that lead, aluminium, arsenic, nickel and uranium had been detected in an aquifer at levels ”elevated when compared to livestock, irrigation and health guidelines.
And in January this year, the NSW government suspended AGL’s operations at its pilot coal seam gas field in northern NSW after it had detected banned BTEX chemicals in flowback water from two of the wells and in an above-ground water storage tank.
Why would we risk all of this to support an export driven industry that will benefit only a few gas mining corporations?
We need all parties to commit to securing a safe and clean future for all Victorians.
To protect jobs in manufacturing, agriculture and tourism and to allow our rural communities to be protected from invasive gasfields.
We are here to say that the things we seek to protect from unconventional gas developments are worth fighting for and we will not back down.
What we are asking for from this committee and this government is a total ban on all unconventional gas mining.
A ban may seem like a huge step but please consider that other industries have been considered too risky, too dangerous and banned outright. Asbestos, for example, was a substance that many suggested was risky to human health for decades. The industry claimed that it was safe but it was not.
Let’s not make the same mistake again. Let’s keep Victoria gasfield free.
Presentation by Ursula Alquier, Lock the Gate Victorian Coordinator, to the Victorian Unconventional Gas Inquiry, 30/06/15 Sale, Gippsland
 APPEA: The Natural Gas Revolution- Natural gas from shale and tight rocks.
 Kargbo D, William R & Campbell D, (2010) Natural Gas Plays in the Marcellus Shale: Challenges and Potential Opportunities, Vol. 44, No. 15 Environmental Science & Technology; CIWEM UK, 2012 Policy Position Statement ‘Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) of Shale in the UK’;
 UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service: Gas Fracking: Can we safely squeeze the rocks?