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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 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


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  1. June M Bullivant OAM

    I have never seen such disgusting behaviour in my life, where is the common sense, where are the people who were elected to give us protection.

  2. Rotha Jago

    Thank you Kate for drawing attention once again to the travesty that is proceeding apace no matter how many people protest. Fracking anywhere on the Australian continent should be banned. To frack anywhere near the Great Artesian Basin is crazy. Funny how many scientists and politicians are screaming about Climate Change, but are silent or quietly approving the pumping of chemicals into the earth and into water tables. We could sum up the new Environmentalism thus. All chemicals are good. Whether they are carcinogenic, totally destructive of health or destructive of soils and future vitality, they are somehow immune from critism. From dishonestly promoted pharmaceuticals to nameless cocktails used for Fracking and ‘harmless’ herbicides, they all get excused and promoted.

  3. Kerri

    We need to calculate the costs in returning the GAB to it’s pre fracking state.
    Then we need to get that amount of money from the miners BEFORE they get a license as an insurance policy.
    But seriously, the damage done will be irreversible.

  4. Anomander

    Short-termist thinking at it’s best and a prime example of our politicians putting the interests of the miners ahead of local communities, farmers, and the environment upon which we all depend.

    Repeated lies are being told about NSW facing a gas shortage, when the truth is, most the impetus behind this push is so the companies can make massive profits shipping vast quantities of gas overseas at inflated prices.

    Our lives and the lives of our children hang in the balance. Our ecosystems are in a perilous state with many already under pressure from land clearing, salinity, species decline, resource overuse, and of course the impacts of climate change.

    Fracking may indeed be the straw that breaks the back of our environment. We live in an arid nation and an effectively managed Artesian Basin means we have the means to grow food in marginal areas – food that supports our whole nation. By despoiling our vital water resources, we risk our very survival.

    This is not just a minor protest by a bunch of ‘rabid greenies’ intent on destroying jobs and economic growth – this issue is a major threat to the very fabric of our society, because if we destroy or contaminate our only water source and therefore can’t grow food enough to sustain us, we are all in serious trouble.

    We don’t need this gas, which is only going to make a handful of already wealthy individuals ever richer. By managing the supplies we have on-hand and taking decisive action to develop alternative renewable energy sources, we can ensure a viable long-term future for ourselves and our children, including jobs and economic growth, all without destroying our precious environment.

  5. roma guerin

    @Anomander, too true. I would like to quote you if it is okay.

  6. CMMC

    This is where the Free Trade Agreement/Understanding with China gets difficult.

    China/S.E.Asia are eager for the high quality produce our farming industries deliver, to the extent that they currently import %95 of N.Z. dairy product.

    Now all that fracking gets a shit-load of chemicals into the water table, into the soil, grass and into the cows’ belly. (Or all four bellies to be agriculturally correct)

    The hydocarbon frenzy is bad news for agriculture.

  7. Scott

    Excellent article Kate very well written.

  8. Peter Ball

    well if the water goes then the Liberals should be jailed and all their assets stripped from them

  9. Möbius Ecko

    Don’t know the veracity of this. Someone with better research skills than me might be able to find out. The story is that it’s being silenced by a $1m compensation to keep those affected silent.

    There has been a major CSG incident near Chinchilla. An incident apparently involving both Arrow and Origin. It involves the blowing of an aquifer, a water bore blowing out very impressively as told to the person reporting it. The CSG compliant unit has attended

  10. David Spry

    Fundamentally important decisions such as those related to CSG should be based on scrupulously objective scientific investigation and balanced assessment and reporting. Unfortunately you will not find these standards when you read the final report of the NSW Chief Scientist, but you will see that what was produced complies with the Terms of Reference that were given for preparing the report. The Chief Scientist was only required to ‘study’ the industry and ‘identify and assess’ or just ‘identify’ issues and practices and to ‘produce information papers’. She therefore did not have to accept the conclusions of any of the reports she commissioned and as is confirmed by her statement about ‘unintended consequences’ she clearly learnt about the risks but decided to recommend taking them without providing scientific justification. It should be noted that it was not within her brief to make recommendations on economic or other grounds. That she only recommends ‘working towards’ mitigation of damage shows that she clearly did not find any report that clearly showed how to mitigate the damage.
    The Chief Scientists report does not constitute a scientific justification for CSG exploration or extraction. The Terms of Reference allowed it to be a tool of political expediency – and that is all it is. When the damage starts to occur the Chief Scientist may well appeal to the politicians as a tempting scapegoat.
    Hopefully millions of Australians are concerned for our environmental future and oppose CSG. But even those who have supported the politics of unrestrained growth should pause to reflect that if you consider reality rather than rhetoric you can’t create the Tony Abbotts ‘food bowl of Asia’ is you permanently soil that bowl or possibly even break it.
    Perhaps if the documentaries Gasland an Gasland2 were more widely viewed there would be a better community understanding not just of the risks but of the ruthless nature of the industry. They are about CSG in the US but ask the farmers on the Darling Downs if they are apposite here.

  11. lucychili

    what happens if you consider that these might be intended consequences. no messy life on the country, no obstacle to mining, no leaners. i think it is a nihilist anarchist approach to climate change sponsored by mining money. remove redundant humanity from your economics. no need for all those government experts on environment, health education, science, just please youself and act in your own interests.

  12. Maynard Heap

    The people of Australia are slowly but surely becoming aware of the extent to which this example of corporate greed has endangered our very existence on our dry continent. The blatant persuit of short term monetary gain defies logic and demands answers from politicians. The donations to political parties do nothing to encourage voters to support either side of politics as a solution. The only course of action which has proven to be successful in stopping the insanity which threatens to poison the GAB is massive nonviolent resistance. We saw at Bentley Blockade how politicians cave in to thousands of people clearly ready to place themselves in the path of gas mining corporates, their sponsored police and their politicians and say “No!” I only hope we gain that critical mass of active people power before the damage is done. Spread the word, follow the developments and be ready to act. Your country needs your support.

  13. Pingback: Aquifer Depletion – Water Tables dropping in Australia | Belldesigns - Maryanne Bell Permaculture Landscape Designer

  14. Truthseeker

    “Stealing from our children ?”
    I bet this wasn’t covered in Hockey’s “Intergenerational Report”

  15. Pingback: The Great Artesian Basin | Frack Free Tas

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