Fired up over gas extraction

LESSONS TO LEARN: Australian conservationist Drew Hutton before touring the coal seam gas mining near Huntly.
LESSONS TO LEARN: Australian conservationist Drew Hutton before touring the coal seam gas mining near Huntly.

An Australian environmentalist fired warning shots about coal seam gas extraction in Huntly yesterday.

President of Lock the Gates Alliance and the founder of the Queensland Green Party, Drew Hutton, says the extraction process has had damaging effects on groundwater and productive farmland near his home town of Chinchilla, and the same could happen here.

Coal seam gas development is about five years behind Australia, he said.

And New Zealand needed to learn from that instead of repeating their mistakes, he warned.

He spoke at Waikato University last night and tonight he'll speak in Taranaki as part of a nationwide speaking tour to share his experience of working with farmers threatened by coal seam gas and underground coal gasification (UCG) in Queensland.

The former involves drilling down into a coal seams to release water and gas - about half the time the process involves hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The latter is a "nasty business".

"Basically it's burning coal underground," he said outside Solid Energy's pilot plant west of Huntly yesterday.

"You've got the coal seam and you isolate it, then you have a burn site and pump down oxygen and steam, across the face of the coal then you have an outlet pipe bringing up syngas - that's mostly methane.

"You get a lot of contaminants, especially the BTEX chemicals, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes as a byproduct of burning the coal."

He said one of three pilot UCG plants in Queensland had to be closed because of pressure problems in the coal chamber. "If the pressure goes up it can push contaminated water out into the aquifer and they were getting benzene in the cattle nearby."

Solid Energy has shut its coal seam gas operations near Huntly to focus on Taranaki but the UCG pilot is still running.

Gas developments manager Dr Steven Pearce said the company was confident that it meets stringent, world class and best practice standards.

"As always, Solid Energy sees the protection of the environment as paramount in all its projects. We carefully selected the site after extensive testing to ensure minimal environmental effects and, in addition, have located the plant well away from drinking water, aquifers and major fault lines. In designing and constructing the plant we have rigorously identified and addressed potential health, safety and environmental issues."

Mr Hutton has met staff of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, who is conducting an official investigation into fracking.

Mr Hutton was impressed with their research but recommended taking the precautionary principle seriously.

"Make sure that they are right across the potential impacts before any projects are allowed to go ahead. What happened in Queensland was that they were so anxious to get these projects off the ground, and they are massive projects - about $80 billion worth altogether - that the environmental impact assessments are badly flawed."

He urged Kiwis to form networks, educate themselves and prepare for an influx of coal seam gas extraction in coming decades.

Waikato Times