Joe Hill is a 70-something farmer from a little place called Columboola west of the Darling Downs town of Chinchilla. He runs a beautiful Angus cattle breeding property and has always opposed attempts by coal seam gas companies to come onto his property to explore for gas, produce it or put pipelines across it. In fact, Joe has very staunchly “locked his gate” and tells anyone from the companies who are silly enough to try to enter his property to “push off.” Joe’s main concern has always been that water from CSG operations might cause contamination in the beef he produces. One can only imagine his horror, then, when a recent heavy downpour caused an overflow from a holding pond on a neighbour’s property to push polluted CSG water to flood across his property, filling the melon holes on his rich, black, brigalow soil and his dam.
What has happened to Joe is merely one of an increasing number of serious incidents occurring across the western Darling Downs wherever CSG companies are active. In nearby Hopeland, 10 kilometres south of Chinchilla, officers from the Queensland department of Environment and Heritage Protection recently found high levels of carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide and hydrogen in the rich, alluvial soils and immediately set up a 15 kilometre radius exclusion zone where farmers were strongly advised to refrain from any excavation.
As the officers explained, these gases could only be the products of burning coal underground and so the likely source was a neighboring underground coal gasification pilot plant which had ceased operation in 2013 but was, in all likelihood, still burning. Incredibly, the same contaminants were found on a farm 50 kilometres to the west. Since these could also only have come from burning coal, investigators had to start thinking about possible underground conduits for this gas. This is where coal seam gas comes in.
The de-pressurisation of the coal seam that occurs when CSG companies de-water the seam allows the gases there (mostly methane) to flow much more freely and so the gas can flow to the well heads. But they can also go wherever there is a conduit, and that includes into the soils, other aquifers and the atmosphere itself - which we can see a few kilometres away where the Condamine River is bubbling like a spa bath. Much more investigation must be done but successive Queensland governments have let loose fossil fuel adventures on the Queensland countryside which are causing alarm to many farmers and the environment.
Other landholders in the area will also tell heart-rending stories of their children suffering nose bleeds, headaches and other serious health problems caused, they believe, by nearby gas operations. Sometimes these people have, years ago, naively allowed the companies access to their land and now find themselves unable to control what occurs on their property. Sometimes they have refused entry but the operations are occurring close enough to their homes and their farms to impact their health. Those who have drawn their water from the coal measures are now losing it and are having trouble negotiating satisfactory 'make good' agreements with the gas companies. Right across the Surat Basin region properties with gas on or near them have seen their land values plummet. Those who want to sell find that no one wants to buy.
The tragedy unfolding in Queensland awaits communities in other states where unconventional gas is planned. Fortunately, the Lock the Gate movement has moved in ahead of these developments and alerted the communities to the problems they could face. Many areas have set up gasfield-free communities which provide the social base for concerted community action if the companies try to move in. This happened in the Northern Rivers where the coal seam gas company, Metgasco, was seen off by a massive social movement.
The Greens have played a vital role in this resistance. With upper house spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham and other Greens activists so prominent on the issue, the party was rewarded with victory in the seat of Ballina in the New South Wales state election and came within a whisker of victory in the seat of Lismore — both with momentous swings away from the Nationals!
As a Queenslander I am appalled at what has happened to the beautiful Darling Downs. But at least our experience shows the rest of the country what will happen if they relax their vigilance with regard to the threat of unconventional gas. And, as a Green, I am very proud of the important role we have played in the campaign, and look forward to being a continuing part of the struggle.