sydney dam
Warragamba damn, Sydney

SAVING WATER, summer series: Decisions to push ahead with coal and coal seam gas (CSG) projects in NSW and Queensland are entirely at odds with ensuring good management of water supplies and reducing carbon emissions.

Last month, credit rating agency Moody’s warned that water supply pressures and climate risks posed a genuine, long-term challenge to NSW’s credit rating.

The agency noted that drought and bushfires have disrupted economic output, and pointed to real challenges ahead in terms of water supply.

“In addition to hindering agricultural production, the prolonged drought is also exacerbating future water stress risk in Greater Sydney – an area that accounts for a growing share of NSW’s overall economy,” says John Manning, Moody’s vice president and senior credit officer.

“We currently consider water stress to pose the greatest risk to this part of NSW over the longer term.”

Sydney’s catchment future

In addition to drought and fire, Sydney’s water catchment is under threat from the expansion of coal mining. A halt on new project approvals was announced in October last year but it’s only temporary at this stage.

The government says it will review the Independent Expert Panel for Mining in the Catchment’s final report on the impact of mining activities in the Special Areas of the Greater Sydney Water Catchment before any further approvals are granted.

However, it is hard to forget all the times governments ignore independent expert recommendations.

As it is, the report found that current mining activities in the catchment are responsible for water losses of up to eight megalitres a day.

That is, up to eight million litres a day lost from the catchment – the equivalent of the average daily use of nearly 40,000 people in the catchment, based on Sydney water average use figures. 

Meanwhile, outside the Sydney catchment, fracking is expanding  in almost every state except Victoria, where a ban remains in place on onshore unconventional gas extraction projects.

Do the rules work?

The 2013 “Water Trigger” amendment introduced into the federal EPBC Act – the nation’s core environmental protection legislation – is supposed to  ensure coal and coal seam gas (fracking] projects are independently assessed for their impact on water resources.

However, it is hard to find any examples of projects knocked back on the grounds of water impacts. As RMIT hydrogeology lecturer Matthew Currell said in an article at The Conversation in 2013, the federal agenda has been to fast-track approvals of new projects, which would appear to defeat the purpose of the Water Trigger.

“Most of the proposed mines will affect groundwater; in many cases from aquifers already used by people and important ecosystems,” Currell said.

“It’s not realistic to expect proper groundwater assessments be conducted in a nine-month period, or under any other form of ‘fast-tracking”.

The lack of concern for water resources is also evident in last week’s agreement between the NSW government and the federal government to increase CSG production across the state.

Queensland’s track record

The Queensland government has an EOI open for proponents to take up a swathe of petroleum exploration licences, in addition to its controversial decision to greenlight a massive water extraction licence for Adani.

Mining companies under the control of Clive Palmer and Gina Reinhardt are also set to expand operations in the same region as Adani.

Coal mining harvests water to use for production, washing product, dust control and other processes. In comparison, water is at the heart of the fracking process. The seams where gas is present also contain subsurface water, which has to be drawn to the surface to access the gas.

The water tends to be high in salts and other substances that make it unsuitable for re-use in agriculture or for general purposes such as adding to community water supplies, unless it is heavily treated.

When a well is decommissioned, due to the complex hydrogeology of subsurface aquifers, putting the water back underground in its untreated form may risk contaminating other parts of an aquifer.

But the precautionary principle, as enshrined in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, appears to be entirely ignored. The absence of full scientific certainty around irreversible harm, instead of raising a red flag, has pushed the go button, with a lot of the information assessed by consent authorities appearing to be optimistic estimates.

A groundwater impact and management document produced by Santos, for example, states that no drawdown of local aquifers of more than five metres is predicted, so the project is not required to meet the obligations of the Make Good obligations of the Queensland Water Act (2000). This regulation would mean the proponent has to somehow restore the aquifer to prevent negative impacts on other users, such as bore-reliant communities or agriculture.

Overall, the number of CSG wells approved in the Surat and Bowen basins is staggering: at the end of 2014, Santos had approval for up to 2,650 wells in the Surat Basin, Queensland Gas Company had approval for 6,400 and Australia Pacific LNG approval for up to 10,000 wells.

Cumulatively, that represents a vast quantity of fugitive emissions, a vast quantity of future emissions once the gas is combusted, and a massive collective drawdown of the aquifers underlying the Surat Basin.

According to the Queensland Gasfields Commission,  in 2016, the rate of water extraction by CSG projects was 65,000 megalitres per year. This was expected to peak at about 110,000 megalitres per year in the next few years.

However, since that information was published, the number of projects given the greenlight in Queensland has boomed.

To put that in perspective, NSW Farmers estimates that more than 120 towns that rely on the Great Artesian Basin for their water supply collectively consume a bit more than 40,000 megalitres of water, or about eight per cent of Basin water, annually.

CSG wells threaten whole communities

Artesian water relies on the pressure below ground for bores to work, which is why both state and federal governments have been supporting capping of unused bores in the Great Artesian Basin, to counter a concerning drop in pressure.

However, CSG operations pull water out, thus reducing pressure, something the industry appears keen to downplay. There are also documented reasons for concern around the quality of water produced during the CSG extraction operation.

Research at CSIRO has found a method for re-injecting the water back into aquifers. However, ensuring it does not also inject problematic pollutants is a challenge. An article on the research by Sreekanth Janardhanan and published in The Conversation in 2015, noted that post-extraction monitoring of environmental impacts and issues will be required.

But we have seen again and again that extractive industry operations, CSG among them, are not inclined to invest time and money in long-term monitoring and maintenance once they’ve made their money and decommissioned a well or pit.

There’s something you can do

With climate change impacts already altering historical rainfall patterns and exacerbating periods of hot and dry conditions, firm decisions have to be made about whether industries that contribute to emissions and suck up precious water supplies are truly viable.

The current EPBC Act review could be an opportunity to start that conversation. Submissions are currently being taken.rRead the background and have your say here.

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