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People are right to be worried about how thoroughly coal and gas’s affect on water is being assessed. cobalt123/flickr

Coal and gas fail the test when it comes to environmental impact

There has been an acceleration in the number of coal seam gas and mining proposals approved in Australia.

Since 2010, eight projects have been given the green light in Queensland alone. All projects have been through a state environmental approval process and some through the Commonwealth process as well. But now the application of science and a recent appeal have have found the process wanting.

An expert scientific committee has been looking at how mines will affect Australia’s water resources, and their findings are not reassuring. Meanwhile, local communities are mounting appeals against approved mines and a recent court ruling found the community right: the mine’s impacts are indeed unacceptable.

An independent committee looks at water impacts

The Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC) on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Developments provides expert scientific advice on proposals referred to it by federal, state and territory government regulators. The Australian Government can seek the committee’s advice on projects being assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. And the Queensland, New South Wales, South Australian and Victorian governments can seek the committee’s advice through a National Partnership Agreement.

Most of the environmental impact assessments the expert committee has given advice on were found to have major deficiencies. Most commonly, those assessments failed to take account of the cumulative impacts of projects on water, specifying volume and rates of discharge and recharge.

Unless cumulative impacts are considered, there is no way to gauge a project’s effects on ground and surface waters at regional and national scales. The table below shows that 14 of the 17 environmental assessments the expert committee reviewed were deficient because they did not take proper account of the cumulative impacts the project would have on water.

The table also shows that of the 17 environmental impact statements the expert committee has advised on, 12 were also deficient in analysing how interference with ground and surface water would affect swamps, wetlands (including Ramsar sites), ecological communities and threatened species.

Table 1: Advice provided by the IESC on deficiencies in the environmental impact statements of coal seam gas and large coal projects;, accessed April 20 2013.

Two proposed developments the expert committee looked at were Arrow Energy’s Surat Basin project and its Bowen Basin project. The Committee said of Surat Basin:

The proponent’s modelling predicts a cumulative drawdown in the Condamine Alluvium of approximately 2.5m … There is limited information provided to determine the project’s contribution to cumulative impacts, including impacts to Matters of National Environmental Significance from changes to hydrology and water quality.

And in relation to the Bowen Basin project, the committee notes:

that the project consists of approximately 7,000 coal seam gas wells and associated infrastructure. The regional scale of the project will result in interactions with other coal seam gas and coal mine proposals in the area. The committee considers that information relating to the potential impacts of this project should be commensurate with its scale.

A solution to water may be on the way

The minister can’t currently impose conditions directly relating to impacts on a water resource. However, The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013, which passed the House of Representatives on March 21, 2013, will, confer those powers if passed by the Senate.

The Bill is designed to protect water resources from CSG and large coal mining developments as a matter of national environmental significance.

This amendment thus adds water as a trigger in its own right. The minister can then set appropriate conditions as part of the project approval process so any significant impacts on a water resource are acceptable.

The Commonwealth has been imposing a long list of conditions on some contentious development projects when approving them. It is expected that many of the approvals for the coal and gas projects will, likewise, be replete with conditions - as the recent approval by Minister Burke of the Boggabri/Maules creek mine in NSW shows. Experience suggests, however, that monitoring a large number of conditions to ensure compliance will be challenging.

But what about impacts on communities?

Water has been the Commonwealth’s main focus for research and triggers. But there is no such “trigger” to let the Commonwealth intervene when there are negative economic and social impacts, including on local human communities. In fact in most environmental impact statements for coal and gas proposals there is little hard information on the economic and social costs of projects.

The Warkworth coal mine extension in the Hunter Valley provides a landmark case study. In February 2012, the mine was given conditional approval by the NSW Government. But on April 15, 2013, the decision was made to refuse that extension.

Chief Justice Preston of the NSW Land and Environment Court considered a wide range of environmental social and economic impacts. He was not satisfied that Warkworth’s economic analyses supported the conclusion, urged by Warkworth and the NSW Minister, that the economic benefits of the project outweigh the environmental, social and economic costs.

The case demonstrates two important elements in the comprehensive assessment of resource projects. First, the coverage must be wide: it needs to take in environmental, social and economic issues. Second, communities and civil society can provide and organise crucial evidence that countervails that of resource companies and governments.

The judgement, together with the Independent Expert Scientific Committee’s advice, highlights the deficiencies of environmental impact statements. Both will heighten the public’s awareness of the impacts of CSG and coal mining projects.

They will also encourage community groups to, where possible, contest approvals of projects in the courts; the opinions of communities do matter.

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