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An article published in the Colac Herald today highlights the importance of local actors bringing attention to and taking action on local issues.  The article outlines community resistance to the recent interest of coal seam gas exploration in the region.

Miner abandons coal-seam gas search

…A Department of Primary Industries spokesman said ECI International had “submitted a surrender request” to the State Government yesterday for exploration licence 5277.  The DPI granted the five-year licence covering a 500-square-kilometre area of the Colac Otway Shire to ECI International in December last year.  The company has handed back its licence less than three months after Mantle Mining walked away from proposed coal mining in the Deans Marsh area.  Anti-mining campaigners, including Colac Otway Shire Council, will be celebrating the success of a campaign against ECI’s plans…

“This is an area of prime agriculture production,” Ms Wallace said.

…Forrest’s Karen Hansen and Teresa Price started the fight against CSG exploration and mining with a community awareness campaign in August.  They launched a petition and called a public meeting at Forrest in September attracting about 100 farmers, residents and representatives of Friends of the Earth and other green groups.  Opposition to CSG mining in the Colac district grew rapidly with politicians including Greens Senator Richard Di Natale and Corangamite MP Darren Cheeseman, and lobby groups such as the Victorian Farmers Federation voicing their concerns…

…Mayor Brian Crook said there were flaws in the government’s permit process, with mining companies not required to tell councils of their licence applications…

This comment from Colac Mayor Brian Cook informs the local population of the position that Council is in with mining.  It also highlights a lack of co-ordination within the planning system between local and State government.

Mining is not a prohibited land use, anywhere in Australia.  A  State provision (c. 52.08-2 Mineral Resources and Mining of the State Planning Policy Framework – see below) provides the relevant political by-pass for companies to obtain a permit for such exploration, land use and development – to be issued by the State.  It seems from the Mayor’s comment that it would be the mining company who would inform the Council of State-approved works to be carried out with  implied compliance.

Purpose

To allow land to be used and developed for mineral exploration, geothermal energy exploration and greenhouse gas sequestration exploration without the need for a permit.

Permit requirement

A permit is required to use or develop land for mining.

This does not apply if either:

An environment effects statement has been prepared under the Environment Effects Act 1978 and mining is exempt from the requirement to obtain a permit under Section 42 or Section 42A of the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990.

The mining is in accordance with and within an area covered by a mining licence granted or Order made by the Governor in Council under Section 47A of the Electricity Industry Act 1993.

The provision makes note that no permit is required for exploration.  In terms of CSG mining the exploration/feasibility stage requires seismic surveys to be carried out, followed by corehole testing over large areas drilling bore(core)holes into subsurface geology with results to be confirmed by ‘pilot testing’.  Pilot testing requires production wells to be drilled.  This 3 stage process may take up to two years.

Granted, the value of the industry is of State significance in terms of economic value,  however, the disruption and risk associated with  mining operations for the local and regional communities and the environment (at various scales) are proven time and again to be ill assessed and poorly protected.   The effect of strong community action has proved to be both an effective ‘check’ on the proposal has been comprehensively undertaken before approval.

Colac mayor Brian Cook said ECI would have to “fight the community all the way”

Clause 14.03-1 of the State Planning Policy Framework outlines the Natural Resource Management ‘strategies’ for Mineral resources and mining:

planning schemes must not prohibit or require approval for mineral exploration. Mineral exploration is to be managed solely under the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990.

The strategy disenfranchises local councils, local communities, and local industry, from being represented or being party to discussion in relation to mining matters.  The clause reads as an injunction on local government.  However the following strategic statement  could provide local government with the opportunity to participate in the process:

Protect the opportunity for mining where this is consistent with overall planning considerations and application of acceptable environmental practice.

Clearly Colac-Otway shire is one of the most significant forested areas, and agricultural areas in the State, introducing CSG mining would have some measurable detrimental effect to current land use and future development.

The absence of vertical integration between State and local government conflicts with the effectiveness of the planning system to achieve stated outcomes,  it also inhibits the full effect of State planning legislation – the Planning and Environment Act 1987 – the primary objective of which is to provide for the fair, orderly, economic and sustainable use, and development of land.  Especially in relation to primary industries, extractive industries, exploiting and displacing natural resources, in which long term futures of the local and regional impact and conservation of the resource and landscape is often overlooked.

The framework for planning (land use and development) and regulatory processes exists, however, ad hoc policies (party politics) and legislation which ‘short circuit’ these frameworks have worked towards fast-tracking the approvals process, competing with planning protocols. If the State government intervenes, the horizontal planning process, at State level, cannot adequately assess an application in light of the bulk of legislation applicable, often overlapping, conflicting and with a lack of enforceability.

The geographical data for energy and resource locations throughout the state is  available on the Department of Primary Industry website with copious analysis reports available presenting data on the size of reserves, tenement boundaries, requirements etc. Are the State government capable of planning for the future development of local resources in line with DSE, EPA, Planning and State objectives?  This parallels the responsibility of local government to plan for expected growth within the municipality.  Councils such as Whittelsea have prepared Structure Plans/masterplans for land available or marked for future  development (greenfield sites) which outline intended land use and development, amenity requirements (public and commercial) to support the future community, and provide design guidelines which consider energy efficiency of the site and individual developments, resource use (solar and water), street design, service infrastructure, landscape, vegetation, transportation plans (including alternative transport) etc. with the objective to achieve a high amenity development on what was previously undeveloped land.

The Council produces Structure Plans  to mitigate the effects of  broadhectare residential (greenfield) development as it acknowledges that there will be significant loss in the quality of the previous environment.  The Plans are then available to be fully utilised by developers.   This type of comprehensive natural resource management is a function of local government and engages both the community and developers.

If the State has yet to address energy and resource planning (with regard to the issues surrounding local industry, communities ecological environments and regional impacts) local government should perhaps acknowledge the resources identified to exist within the municipality and actively engage itself in the process, applying the same comprehensive approach which considers the local conditions, the intrinsic value of the environment, current and future land use and development to produce a plan which comprehensively addresses what the local response may be to State significant development, to state significant environmental areas?  Although there is a swath of environmental legislation with the aim of conserving the environment (just some are listed below)

  • Mineral Resources Development Act 1990
  • Extractive Industries Development Act 1995
  • Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (Cwth) 1999
  • Environment Protection Act 1970.
  • State Environment Protection Policy (SEPP)
  • The SEPP Waters of Victoria 2003 (WoV)
  • SEPP Groundwaters of Victoria 1997
  • Environment Protection (Scheduled Premises and Exemptions) Regulations 1996
  • Industrial Waste Management Policies
  • Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994
  • Water Act 1989
  • Water Act (Irrigation Farm Dams) Act 2002
  • Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988
  • Forests Act 1958
  • National Parks Act 1975

They all present standard principles which can be agreed on; however, no local solution will be found within legislation.

If the local government, as the planning authority, has comprehensively addressed mining as a potential future land use (as it would residential development) within the municipality setting out an environmental policy basis, strategic objectives (taking into consideration planning controls such as zones and overlays), and subsequent conditions for land use and development within its Planning Scheme a planning strategy would exist, relevant to the locality, created with community  consultation and representative of local conditions.

Subsequently if informed of a proposal Council could prepare a strategic document outlining the value and effect of a mining operation, the infrastructure requirements of the operation; the accommodation of local infrastructure, services and resources for the works and operation requiring information such as the activity times of the operation during the week and the life expectancy of the mine in order to co-ordinate the potential of mining activity within the shire.

*        *        *

Both the Environmental Defenders Office and Friends of the Earth – Melbourne have been instrumental in educating local communities about land use and development proposals which would adversely affect the health and sustainability of the community and the environment.

Coal Seam Gas (CSG) – a bi-product of water

On 27 September 2011 I attended a seminar organised by the EDO, ‘Coal Seam Gas Mining: What are the impacts and how should the industry be regulated?’  The comprehensive discussion by the panel clarified what CGS mining in Australia is and what it means to the local community, the State, the ecology and landscape of the region, and in terms of natural resource management, outlining in detail current mining practices in Queensland and projecting the effects of the industry if allowed in Victoria.  The speakers were: Peter Stone (CSIRO), Cam Walker (Friends of the Earth – Melbourne)  and Sean Ryan (EDO QLD)

…some people in the industry have a little joke that they’re in the water business and that gas is a bi-product of water because the cost of treating the water is more than the cost of extracting the gas…

…for the first year you’re just pumping water, the gas doesn’t come until the second year …

– Peter Stone

Peter Stone (CSIRO) provided an overview of the process of CSG mining including, the geography of the coal seams (in Queensland), the installation of the infrastructure required to extract CSG, the extraction process and, to what end the industry exists (in Queensland), that is, for export purposes.  His discussion situated this industry within the context of concurrent broadhectare agricultural land use in the region, conflicting interests and the borehole-to-boat supply chain that is the resource industry in Queensland.  Stone presented a measured discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of this type of resource mining.  CSG was defined and acknowledged as different to shale gas (which requires heavy fracking).  This clarification of terminology depoliticised the discussion and set the agenda for the night in terms of objective discussion of the topic – CSG mining in (eastern) Australia. Interestingly, Stone raised the issue of the quantity and quality of the extracted water and when faced with such large scale extraction previous and current methods of treatment. Pumping the water into huge ponds to evaporate has been banned by the State Government of Queensland as the practice conflicted with the unreliability and unavailability of water faced by households and industry throughout the state.

Hunter Valley

The brine/saline solution which is extracted from the wells requires processing to reduce the salt content in order to be accepted for other uses.  The vast amounts of water which the industry extracts to access the gas seemed to be the major contention of the night.  Does this energy resource need to be mined if it is going to cause gross displacement of water, and therefore impact on the generative capacity of locality and region – such as in Victoria- to produce food?  And how useable is the water after it has been extracted?  The industry refer to the extracted water as ‘wastewater’, in quantities of 200 000Mt+ the significance of displacement which would otherwise not occur is the point of debate – is the industry necessary?  What planning has been undertaken to address options and timelines of resource access and production?

Cam Walker (Friends of the Earth Melbourne) followed on to discuss the state of the CSG industry in Victoria, which currently has no commercial operations.  7 applications for CSG mining have been made, as well as many applications including CSG as one of a swag of minerals to be included under the license.  The State Government is in a position to advocate a comprehensive assessment of the impacts and advantages of the industry (a moratorium) in Victoria; however, since winning government the Liberal Party have strongly supported and invested in expansion of the coal industry (despite the closure and compensation of Hazelwood).   In the words of Walker, ‘entrenching another fossil fuel industry’ as a ‘transition’ to renewables is problematic with the Governments current intervention in the Wind energy industry what can we really expect?  Using the language of ‘clean coal’, and ‘alternative’ energy is propagandising scientific fact that coal is a non-renewable fossil fuel.    Walker positioned debate in the broader context of regional development and natural resource management, sustainable land use, and regional impacts.   (Perhaps Government direction would be best served by focusing on achieving policy objectives of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 and Climate Change Act 2010?).  Questions of agriculture futures (food security), the current and future energy strategy of the State, regulatory water policies and lack of community consultation presented CSG as a state issue with questionable net benefit.

Sean Ryan (EDO Queensland) a former employee of the CSG industry related the  industry in terms of size, scale, machinery requirements, water, transport, trucks, distance, time, neighbours (agriculture industry, communities), and noise (80-100 decibels)… the experiential and unexpected yet day-to-day realities of an operation.  A picture of the industry was established: the circuit arrangement of the wells (see below) link to a fuel compression station then to a central compression station which pipes the product to port for export.

Well heads and compressor stations (larger square pads, in Tara, QLD (Suerat Basin)

The future geological impact of such large scale extraction of water and disturbance to geological form has not been fully examined in Australia.  Emphasising  the poorly understood impacts and interactivity between current agricultural bores and aquifers lead to the question of how the industry can ensure the integrity of the structure and form surrounding the resource with the current set of regulations which support rather than manage development? Ryan remarked “how little we know about groundwater systems” in a drought stricken country, this seems to be a gross oversight and mismanagement of a resource essential for future growth, productivity and ensuring ecological stability in a region.

The presentation successfully delivered this complex issue in a manner  which related the facts of the industry and industrial processes, the legal frameworks regulating the industry in Queensland and Victoria, and the future effects of State and national significance.  The presentation underscored the uncertain implications for the environment, local risks, natural resource management and population health.  This was not a rally against the industry rather an informative evening in which various speakers had offered their time (with invitation from the EDO) to inform the community on a current and pertinent issue which is being inadequately addressed in the media.  The historical context in which mining is considered and assessed by government is still entrenched within a colonial mindset simplifying mining news and proposals to a for-or-against debate.  Coupled with the disconcerting yet anticipated boosterism from the media who contextualise the majority of development issues within a vacuum presenting economic data with no justification or accountability.  The seminar highlighted gaps in planning, gaps in policy, gaps in discussion -presenting grounds for an assessment of natural resource management within a comprehensive social-ecological-economic context.

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