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Coal seam gas extraction in the Pilliga Forest

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Carmel Flint, a conservation volunteer with the Northern Inland Council for the Environment digs into the murky depths of coal seam gas extraction in the Pilliga Forest.     
The Pillaga Forest, between Narrabri and Coonabarabran in north-western New South Wales, is the largest temperate woodland left in eastern Australia and consists of mostly cypress and ironbark forests over its half a million hectares. Gazetted as state forest, the Pilliga forest has been protected from clearing and remains in tact. Unfortunately there is now a threat to this area, one coming from below the ground.

A view of boreholes and evaporation ponds in the Pilliga.
Photo by
T Pickard

To extract coal seam gas, essentially methane, the mining companies drill down into the earth to extract the gas. Not only do they capture the gas, they also capture large amounts of water from deep within the earth.
Of course, before drilling can take place, the area is cleared of vegetation, ready for the drills, roads, traps and pipelines used in the extraction process. Curiously, those areas of the Pilliga Forest that are deemed State Conservation Areas, mining activities are still allowed and in the areas designated as State Forest, special exemptions have been granted for this mining activity to proceed.

Dead trees caused by a spill of saline water from an evaporation pond in the Pilliga.
Photo by 
M Atkinson

The company, Eastern Star Gas, has been exploring for some six years and has recently applied to build 1100 wells along with thousands of kilometres of pipeline. Its chairman is John Anderson, a previous National Party leader with strong ties to the new coalition government in New South Wales. The water released in the extraction process is pumped into holding ponds to evaporate. It is extremely salty and full of naturally occurring toxins (think radioactive and carcinogens) which, when it spilled in an accident in 2001 killed a significant area of bush which has not recovered. At this stage the water is treated with reverse osmosis and then piped into a creek that flows into the Namoi River, the briny reside taken to the local Narrabri tip. A move to full production mode would see an increase in the water flow although it is not yet clear how the waste will be treated. That is not the only hazard. Drilling involves lots of water and the pumping of chemicals as well as hydraulic fracturing to make the coal seam release the gas, a process known as fracking.

A 'pilot production' coal seam gas borehole in the Pilliga.
Photo by C Flint.

Natural aquifers are at risk from the chemicals used and in the Pilliga Forest that aquifer is The Great Artesian Basin which lies just above the coal seam targets. Given that approval is sought for 1,100 wells that basin faces numerous threats. The group, Friends of the Pilliga, is opposed to this mining and one local farmer has only just learned that his property was a target. The petroleum laws in New South Wales allow coal seam companies to seek access to freehold land and can take landowners to arbitration if access is denied. Unlike Queensland, with over 4,00 wells, this latest coal seam proposal represents a major ramp up in drilling and hence a larger threat to the Pilliga Forest. The Northern Inland Council for the Environment wants a moratorium implemented, with no more approvals until detailed, independent scientific studies have been undertaken. With aquifers and water tables under risk, the group sees such activities as damaging with impacts on the land and landowners alike. A website, is currently the best place to be informed about coal seam gas extraction. At present such mining activities are, perhaps, unseamly.

A useful website is: Friends of the Pilliga, www.nccnsw.org.au/campaigns/mining-and-gas,

Carmel Flint was interviewed by Ruby Vincent for A Question of Balance.  All images provided by Carmel Flint and authors are acknowledged. Summary text prepared by Victor Barry, June 2011.

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