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Thursday, 25 October 2012 11:17

Updates on Australian religious advocacy on coal seam gas mining

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Sister of Mercy Deirdre Gardiner of the CRA Justice Group works at the Toowoomba Refugee and Migrant Support Centre. "My faith constantly challenges me to become involved in overcoming prejudice, injustice and insensitivity wherever it is manifest," said Sr Deirdre."I believe that working for justice is an essential element of our Christian mission and, in particular of our Mercy mission." Her social justice involvement has been enriched by her earlier work in Bioethics as a Hospital Ethicist and Mission Director. Here she provides an update on the Justice Network's advocacy on the issue of coal seam gas.

Since the article on Coal Seam Gas appeared on the CRA website there have been some movements on this issue. These can be categorised into three areas:

1.Religious concerns

2.Pollution and health issues

3.Expansion in  NSW

Religious Issues

Late last year, the Discalced Carmelite Community at Yarroville began a campaign to stop AGL Energy sinking up to six coal seam gas wells next door to their community with plans to construct up to 72 wells within the area. The main concern of the Sisters was the noise pollution from the construction and then the operation noise. As theirs is a contemplative community, such noise pollution would interfere with the very essence of their life.  The Bishop of Wollongong, Most Rev Peter Ingram,  supported the Sisters in their opposition to the presence of CSG wells close to their property. He shares their concern regarding the rapid expansion of the CSG industry.

Other Congregations with communities in the Scenic Hills area south of Sydney who could potentially be affected by Coal Seam Gas wells include, the Marist Brothers, the Poor Clare Sisters, the Franciscan Friars and the Discalced Carmelite Friars. 

In the north of NSW, members of the Presentation Sisters of Lismore have protested against CSG and in May joined local residents at a Lock the Gate rally. A spokesperson for the Sisters said that they were standing up for their International focus on caring for the earth.

In August this year, the Sisters of St Joseph raised their concerns about CSG exploration. Sr Jan Barnett rsj from the Josephite Justice Office in Canberra, explained that “CSG is not a clean energy source, merely something cleaner than brown coal as it produces slightly less greenhouse gas.” The other concerns represented by the Josephite Justice Office is the impact that CSG can have on farming communities and even on built up areas such as suburbs like St Peters in Sydney. Another issue that they raise is that much of the data regarding outcomes of CSG exploration and operation is done by the mining companies themselves.

CLRI NSW has posted a paper on their website which can be viewed here

Another religious response to CSG has come from the Anglican Bishop of Gippsland, Rev John Mcintyre. Bishop McIntyre raised concerns on ABC Gippsland Radio. He also outlined his position in the August edition of the Gippsland Anglican newspaper. The Bishop stated that if he was a landowner, he too, would lock the gate to mining companies wanting to set up CSG wells on his property. He asked that the Victorian Government support environmental impact assessments at potential CSG exploration sites.

Pollution Issues

In July the CSG industry announced the establishment of technologies to combat CSG pollutants. Groups opposed to the rapid expansion of CSG wells expressed surprise at this announcement: “All this time, gas companies have been trying to convince impacted communities that CSG is a clean technology” says Jacinta Green, Vice President of Lock the Gate Alliance. 

In August, methane burning on a property near a gas field west of Dalby in Queensland raised concerns regarding the safety of gas. Arrow Energy who is licensed to operate this field denies that the methane leak has anything to do with the CSG operation in the area. Arrow Energy puts the blame for the leak on a nearby 30 year old coal mine.  Drew Hutton, President of Lock the Gate Alliance reports that he  saw similar incidents in a visit to the United States where local communities are frequently evacuated due to methane coming up through cracks in the ground from CSG wells.

Drew Hutton has released a video on YouTube showing that the Condamine River, near Chinchilla on the Darling Downs, is still bubbling like a spa bath as methane continues to pour out into the atmosphere. Coal seam gas company, Origin, recently released a so-called scientific report with no peer review and no clear description of its methodology claiming the bubbling is "natural". Mr Hutton refutes that claim and points to a growing list of incidents on the Western Darling Downs where methane is finding its way to the surface in ways no one has seen before.

Watch the YouTube video here. 

Health issues are constantly being raised by the residents in the Tara Estate in Queensland. This estate is in the middle of a gas field and where residents complain of chronic headaches, nose bleeds, ear bleeds and skin rashes. The Queensland Health Minister has told people living in the area to visit their GPs and hospitals so that patterns can be established. However, the Health Department does not have great concerns that the symptoms occurring in this population are due exclusively to CSG production. However, the local residents are keeping up their campaign to have their voices clearly heard as they continue to suffer health problems which have arisen since the gas wells were established.

NSW expansion of CSG exploration licenses

In September, Premier Barry O’Farrell announced a lifting of a moratorium on fracking and a freeze on licensing of CSG exploration.  This was part of a new Strategic Land Use Policy. The NSW   Government renewed 22 licenses for exploration and approved one for production. The production facility is to operate in the Northern Rivers district of NSW. Opposition to this project is strong and locals say that the Government is not listening to the community.

Other areas in NSW to be influenced by the Government decision include:

•A licence in the Sydney drinking water catchment. According to Lock the Gate Alliance this puts at risk water supplies for 4.2 million people

•A licence in the Pilliga Forest which is still under investigation for a litany of environmental failures

•A licence in the fertile plains of Bellata, near Moree, despite all 84 landholders joining together and submitting a detailed objection to the industry operating in this area

•At Fullerton Cove, a licence has been renewed despite a current legal challenge and entrenched opposition from the wider Newcastle area to drilling in their water supply.

It seems that the CSG industry is here to stay. Communities in which drilling is to occur will need to continue to ask for monitoring of environmental and health concerns. All concerned citizens are called to respond to reports of ill health and environmental degradation. All concerned citizens also need to keep pressure on the CSG industry so that it does not destroy much needed good agricultural land in this country.