BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA — One year ago, I flew over West Texas in a small prop plane observing a landscape pockmarked with caliche drill pads and freshly plodded access roads. This July, I did the same thing halfway around the world and the view was remarkably similar. From the window of a chartered flight from Brisbane, Queensland, midway up Australia’s east coast, to a small town 160 miles inland, I saw large exposed pools of water used for extracting gas, sprawling industrial sites, a coal mine, and other signs of the rapid onset of fossil fuel development in a region known for its remoteness, pristine agricultural land, and natural beauty.
I’m in Australia reporting on energy and environmental issues for the summer, and aside from the ever-changing carbon scheme, currently caught up in a tumultuous political climate, Australia’s vast reserves of fossil fuels are the other major national environmental story. So when I got the opportunity to get into the countryside and talk to people who are literally at the gateway of the industry, I got right on it — even though it turned out to be an unpressurized plane flying in tight circles. I wanted to compare what I’d seen in the U.S. to what is happening Down Under, and to hear what people engaging the industry on a daily basis had to say about it.
In Texas my guide was a member of a homegrown oil and gas accountability group outside of Midland — made up of locals who in many cases had turned from fossil fuel company employees to distressed citizens — who took me up in his two-person plane to witness the proximity of drilling sites to residences. This time I was flying with Larissa Waters, Queensland’s first Senator from the Green Party. We were on our way to an anti-gas protest in Tara, a town of about 1,000 people, most of whom live off the grid on plots between 30 and 250 acres and refer to themselves as affectionately as “blockies.” Promoted as “Dayne’s Party: A Concert in the Gaslands,” it was an all day affair held on Dayne Pratzky’s block. Pratzky, a 39-year-old former tunnel digger from Sydney, has been leading the anti-gas crusade in the region ever since companies tried to drill on his land.
Coal-seam gas (referred to in the U.S. as coalbed methane), a form of predominantly methane natural gas extracted from coal beds deep underground, is a multi-billion dollar industry involving tens of thousands of jobs, numerous environmental issues, extremely influential stakeholders, the future of global energy economics, and a whole lot of water. Just like the process of extracting fossil fuels in the U.S., local communities — living near production sites, along pipelines, or at export terminals such as ports — are impacted by the externalities associated with bringing the fuel online. And just like in the U.S., the industry is moving ahead at a breakneck pace, often leaving government regulations and scientific studies scrambling to catch up.
In Queensland, companies have already invested up to $65 billion in projects that will transport the gas to ports along the coast, through the Great Barrier Reef, and then to energy-hungry nations like China in the form of liquid natural gas. Just like in Texas, the arrival of gas companies at landowners’ doorsteps has catalyzed a resistance movement of unlikely bedfellows: environmentalists and conservative, property-owning farmers and ranchers. In Australia, landowners don’t own their mineral rights, the Commonwealth does, and the law states that owners must give reasonable access to their minerals in exchange for compensation for surface disturbance. This differs from the U.S. where landowners often receive royalties for the selling the minerals under their property.
I already knew what Pratzky looked like when he greeted us because his picture had been splashed across the front page of The Australian weekend edition that morning, the only national newspaper in Australia. Sitting on the ground in front of a gas well, alight with methane gas burning bright into the evening sky, and wearing a baseball cap, collared shirt and jeans, Pratzky looks more like a company employee than a protester in the photo — and maybe that was the point.
“I’m not an activist or a greenie,” Pratzky said between efforts to manage the festival-like event, which had a Mad Max-during-peacetime vibe with campers and tents peeking out from behind trees and several improvised food stalls surrounding the main stage. “The companies came here and drilled all over the neighborhood, built compressor stations and central processing plants, and just expected us to sit back and take it. But instead we’re standing up with a campaign of direct, non-violent action and it’s working.”
Regarding the region where Pratzky lives, The Australian Environment Editor Graham Lloyd recently wrote:
“The size of the community revolt against the coal-seam gas industry has caught the industry and government flat-footed. It has sparked serious debate about the need for companies to have a ‘social license’ to operate. It is legitimate to ask whether the state government was railroaded to embrace an infant industry with too much haste, and too little regard for the community and environmental impacts it would bring.”
“Before taking direct action I wrote letters, spoke to Ministers, and did everything all the farmers are doing now, just talking, talking, talking,” Pratzky said. “And while we were talking they were drilling. So we just decided to stop talking and start acting because all the talking was just delaying us standing up. Drew Hutton gave us a lot of direction on that.” Pratzky has since been arrested three times for public nuisance charges.
Drew Hutton, one of Queensland’s best-known environmentalists stood nearby, possibly within earshot. Tall, thin and quick to laugh, Hutton is the mouthpiece for the national anti-gas movement, known as the Lock the Gate Alliance. After fighting for reform in the greater mining industry for years, he was just about to retire when he made the “mistake” of coming out to Tara in 2010 to see what was going on.
“This was the first place I came to see the impact of coal-seam gas,” Hutton said. “And as soon as I talked to some blockies I thought, ‘oh shit, this is terrible.’ I told farmers out here that they couldn’t win this on their own. They’ve got to align themselves with environmentalists.”
Hutton said farmers and ranchers didn’t want to hear how bad coal-seam gas or coal mining are, they wanted to hear a strategy for how to fight it — which he provided.
“You lock the gate, don’t let them in, and get as much consensus as you can within the local community,” Hutton ticked off. “If you do that it puts the pressure on, dramatizes the situation, gets media interested, and pretty soon the government is going to have to listen — either that or we run the companies out of town.”
Part of Lock the Gate’s strategy is to be such a nuisance that it not only postpones companies’ operations but in some cases, makes it financially unappealing to pursue the projects. Often companies exploring for gas are not multinational conglomerates, but smaller enterprises looking to sell, and long delays may force a reassessment of the business operation’s viability.
This is not the case, however, in Tara or the greater Darling Downs region of central Queensland, where development is further along. The three existing projects there are led by Santos, Queensland Gas Company, and a joint venture by Origin Energy and ConocoPhillips. Each project costs about $20 billion, equating to an investment of $14 million a day, every day, over four years, according to The Australian. Another company, Arrow Energy — a joint venture between Shell and PetroChina — has yet to make a final decision on its project.
Hutton and Pratzky both recently visited the U.S. to get a firsthand impression of the industry stateside. Josh Fox, activist and filmmaker who created the documentary Gasland, visited Tara and interviewed them for his newly released film Gasland Part II.
Hutton reflected on his time in Texas with shock. “There were wells right next to schools, next to apartment buildings, next to hospitals, even at the airport — it was unbelievable,” he said. “The problem with the anti-gas movement in the U.S. is that people think they’re going to become zillionaires, or Texas oil millionaires. It takes maybe a decade for them to find out that their land has been completely fucked.”
Pratzky had a similarly eye-opening experience, but in this case it was due to what he didn’t see. “I was surprised by the lack of visibility the issue had and by the contempt that people had been treated with,” Pratzky said. “A main difference here is that the U.S. police scare me as much as they scare normal U.S. citizens because they’re flaming cowboys at the end of the day. Whereas here police are a little more receptive to us, at least in Queensland so far. I’m sure that will end at some point.”
“Those companies in the U.S. are criminal,” Praztky continued. “Your political system has been so badly hijacked that until the political system is fixed it’s going to be hard to fix the gas drilling industry. It’s a drill-at-all-cost policy over there and it doesn’t matter about the human cost or the environmental cost . That’s why we come back here and we fight harder, because we know what’s happening to the U.S.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of 2010 there were 18 trillion cubic feet of coal-seam gas reserves in the U.S. and 0.18 trillion cubic feet of production, about three-quarters of which occurs in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. For comparison, in 2010 there were 97 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of estimated production.
Shale gas and coal seam gas are often confused one with one another. Shale gas is methane held within shale layers, rather than a coal seam. Shale is much harder than coal and always requires fracturing to allow the gas to flow. Currently there is no shale gas production in Australia, and according to the Queensland Government, fracking has been used at about eight per cent of the state’s 4,500 coal-seam gas wells since 2000.
There was 0.2 trillion cubic feet of coal-seam gas production in Australia in 2010-2011, around 10 per cent of the country’s total gas production. About 97 percent of that production occurred in Queensland. Estimates of coal-seam gas reserves in Australia range up to 400 trillion cubic feet, with around 200 trillion cubic feet in Queensland. So what’s been produced so far represents the mere tip of the coal-seam gas iceberg.
Much like hydraulic fracturing, coal-seam gas extraction uses a lot of water. According to The Australian the three big LNG projects in Queensland will extract a total of about 150 megalitres, or 150,000 cubic meters, a day on average from next year to 2040. QGC and Origin Energy have built reverse osmosis water-treatment plants that have permission to release the produced water, which has a high saline content, back into rivers after being treated.
“Salt in the Australian countryside is one of the deadliest pollutants,” Hutton said. “Only a few things can grow and most stuff just withers and dies. Millions of tons of salt are going to come to the surface and we still haven’t got a way of dealing with that.”
Before departing, Senator Waters, who is 36 with blond hair, blue eyes and a youthful energy often absent in politicians, took the stage. The crowd of around 50 people listened intently as she spoke.
“I think it’s criminal that we have governments giving the tick to coal-seam gas when there are still huge unanswered questions,” Waters said.
Waters said that Australia doesn’t need coal-seam gas or new coal mines because the country can meet its energy needs though clean energy production that doesn’t have all the drawbacks for communities, groundwater or climate. For most of the day, climate change didn’t come up — local issues took prominence — but Waters made it an important part of her address.
“We’re expecting a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation report in December to conclude that coal-seam gas isn’t much better for climate than coal,” Waters said. “There is just no good news associated with this industry, unless of course you’re one of the overseas shareholders in the company making a motser out of it.”
Waters reinforced the point that the local is the global when it comes to energy production, with environmental and economic issues tied together in a tightly knit fabric. This is why I could fly over Texas and Queensland and see the same things, then land and hear the same stories.
A group called the Knitting Nannas had a booth at the event. Stocked with knitted caps, badges and other items, a middle-aged woman behind the table said they are a global group, started in Queensland, that protest by, “sitting, knitting, and talking to people about their concerns.”
“We’re basically against any unconventional gas mining because of the destruction that it creates on the earth,” she continued. “You don’t have to be a nanna to join Knitting Nannas and you don’t have to knit — if you have the same concerns about the planet that we have then you’re welcome to join.”
And if you choose not to join, you just might find yourself knotted up in it anyway. Like Pratzky.