Farm gate gas protest gathers steam
Updated: 12:01, Sunday August 14, 2011
Thousands of farm gates across Queensland and NSW bear a yellow triangle with the words 'lock the gate'.
The triangle hangs like a talisman, desperately trying to ward off a great evil.
It's part of a campaign to stop mining giants from walking on to properties and drilling in the search for coal seam gas (CSG).
So far farmers swear by it, believing their efforts are hampering the companies.
The situation has forged an unlikely alliance, with farmers and environmental activists alike willing to stand in front of bulldozers.
More than 2000 land owners in Queensland and New South Wales have adopted the lock the gate signs, and some are prepared to roll up to protests.
They're concerned that fracking - the injection of chemicals, water and sand at high pressures to crack rock and release gas - will poison underground water, contaminate good agricultural soil and cause serious health problems.
CSG companies are yet to provide proof fracking won't impact on ground water farmers use on crops, animals and in some cases for their own consumption.
In the United States, fracking has contaminated aquifers with some residents able to set their water on fire.
The US department of environmental protection has found dangerously high levels of methane, iron and aluminium in the drinking water of residents in Dimock, Pennsylvania, where shale-gas drilling and fracking takes place.
England, France, New York and South Africa have banned fracking because of environmental and health issues.
Australian farmers fighting the industry have attracted high profile support from Olivia Newton-John, Alan Jones, Bob Irwin and Senator Barnaby Joyce.
Gas leases in Queensland and New South Wales already cover an area ten times the size of Tasmania, the campaigners say.
They want a moratorium on CSG mining until all health, social and environmental risks have been fully explored.
But despite the groundswell of support for the farmers, they face one major hurdle.
In tricky economic times, state and federal governments are banking on the gas rush to boost the economy.
Just one of the three CSG export projects approved in Queensland is expected to earn the governments $1 billion a year in taxes and royalties.
CSG wells are spreading like bushfire across Queensland, a state struggling to regain its AAA credit rating, reduce debt and create more jobs.
It's mainly affecting agricultural land, including the major food bowl area of the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane.
Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser says the CSG to liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry will generate more than 20 million tonnes per annum and, crucially, create 18,000 jobs.
'It's a critical part of the economic policy we've pursued,' Mr Fraser said.
'We committed to delivering this industry at the last election and that's what we're doing.
'It's a whole new export industry for the state.'
Mr Fraser said he understands the concern over fracking but argues that Queensland has 'world class regulation'.
'There's more than 1700 conditions on these projects,' he said.
'It's also not a new industry.
'Coal seam gas exploration and extraction has been conducted safely now for more than a decade (in Queensland).'
The government has also banned the use of cancer-causing chemicals, collectively known as BTEX, in fracking fluids.
But a group of medical experts, including 1996 Nobel Prize winner for medicine Professor Peter Doherty, argue this doesn't go far enough.
Their submission to a Senate inquiry into CSG says fracking itself can release BTEX chemicals that naturally exist in the coal seams.
'The fracking process itself can release BTEX from natural gas reservoirs, allowing them to escape into aquifers or the surrounding air,' the submission says.
'BTEX chemicals have been found after at least two fracking operations in Queensland.'
The experts say long-term exposure to the chemicals can cause leukaemia, affect the reproductive system and harm unborn children.
'BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) are frequently found together in petroleum compounds,' they write.
'They are in a class of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds which easily vaporise so people can be exposed through drinking water, bathing or breathing in vapour.
'Long-term exposure to benzene for instance, even in very small amounts, can affect the bone marrow, causing anaemia and increasing the risk of leukaemia, and can affect unborn children.'
But CSG companies say there's no proof fracking will contaminate aquifers.
QGC, a subsidiary of global gas giant BG Group, says 99 per cent of the fracking fluid is sand and water.
'If I went into the kitchen I could find many of those chemicals (used in fracking),' QGC senior vice-president Jim Knudsen told a Rural Press Club address in July.
'Ketchup has some guar gum in it. Potassium chloride is a salt substitute.
'The chemicals are used in such small dosage it is immeasurable once we're done.'
Mr Knudsen said the chemicals allow the gas to flow more easily and limit the number of wells needed.
He said good design of pipes or wells would stop groundwater contamination.
But his assurances give Lock the Gate Alliance president Drew Hutton no comfort.
He's driving the resistance in the bush and is vowing to up the ante at the next Queensland election due by March next year.
'The next election will be won and lost on this issue,' Mr Hutton said.
'We are going to put pressure on the political parties and will campaign against anyone who won't install the appropriate protections.'