Here are (some of) the fracs


Welcome to a cafe at Mt Warning, in the NSW northern rivers region.

THE PRESSURE on the unconventional gas industry in South Australia is being stepped up at both political and activist levels – despite the state government’s assurances that there have already been over 1,000 instances of fraccing here, with no ill effects.

Mark Parnell, the leader of the South Australian Greens, has introduced a Bill in the state parliament calling for an immediate ban on fraccking (or fracking) for coal seam gas in the state’s farmland, built-up areas, conservation areas and coastal zones, and a two-year moratorium everywhere else.

(He has since amended his Bill to ensure that it does not apply to fracking for geothermal energy and will not affect existing gas wells.)

He told parliament earlier this year that “the CSIRO and the National Water Commission have stated that the impacts on underground water levels, the amount of emissions and long-term impacts on local environments and farmland are still poorly understood, and the National Toxics Network has raised concerns about the environmental and health risks linked to the chemicals associated with hydraulic fracturing.”

A new pressure group, Clean Land, Air and Water SA (CLAW) has been formed, largely inspired by the recent ABC Four Corners program on coal seam gas, and drawing on support from the Lock the Gate movement in the eastern states.

One of the group’s first moves was to bring Lock-the Gate’s Communnity Mobilisation Coordinator Annie Kia over to Adelaide on July 1 for a workshop on the anti-mining community strategy she has used with considerable effect in the eastern states.

Her techniques are essentially the same as those used by politicians at election time, holding public meetings and door-knocking street by street to get the message out and rally support. The difference is that she is not touting for votes for a political party but for cross-party votes against fraccing and coal seam gas.

Parnell's amended Bill is expected to be debated later this month or in November.

(The Bill's chances of being passed are slight, given that both the state government and the Liberal opposition are keen to promote the development of mining, oil and gas in the state, but it adds to the political pressure on the regulators and companies involved).

The state government’s Roadmap for Unconventional Gas Projects in South Australia, released in December last year, quotes estimates that suggest that the Cooper Basin alone could hold the equivalent of 93,500 petajoules of gas.

That would be enough, at the current rate of consumption, to supply South Australia for about 800 years. And that doesn’t take any account of the potential additional supplies from the state’s Officer, Otway and Arckaringa basins.

Put another way, if the estimates are correct, South Australia is sitting on buried treasure worth about $320 billion at current domestic prices. (Assuming it was all recoverable).

Little wonder Tom Koutsantonis, the state’s mines and energy minister, gets excited by the state’s potentially “vast” reserves of unconventional gas, and the scope for lucrative exports to the eastern states and overseas.

It is already starting to happen. The first commercial shale gas well in the Cooper Basin – a Santos well on Petroleum Exploration Licence 191 near Moomba – has been producing around 2.3 mln standard cubic feet of gas a day since late last year.

Fraccing of the Paning-2 well, drilled by Senex in the northern Cooper Basin near the Queensland border earlier this year, prompted up to 90,000 standard cubic feet of gas a day to flow from the Toolachee coal seams during initial testing.

At the southern edge of the basin, Strike Energy has confirmed thick beds of gas-bearing coal and plans to drill up to three wells before the end of this year.

On the geothermal front, Geodynamics is already generating electricity in a three-month trial from “stimulated” hot rock near Innamincka in the far north-east of the state – the first time this has been achieved in Australia.

Petratherm, working at Paralana, east of the northern Flinders Ranges, believes it is not far behind, and it has recently been given $13 mln by the federal government to help it get there. Even "greenies" frac

The geothermal fraccing is more than three kilometres underground, well below the aquifers of the Great Artesian Basin in that area.

The coal being tapped by Senex is also deep, some 2,800 – 3,000 metres below the surface, and at least a kilometer below the GAB aquifers.

Strike's PEL96 exploration will evaluate coal seams below 1,500m deep. "The GAB aquifers sit hundreds of metres above the top of the shallowest of these coals," the company says.

This is significant, because the state government defends the use of fraccing in South Australia partly on the grounds that it is done at depth, unlike the coal seam gas developments in the eastern states.

The state’s top oil and gas regulator, Barry Goldstein, says “We’re talking about deep gas, 2,500 metres and deeper.

“Just think about trying to lift two kilometres of rock. There is no way that the kind of pressure you are going to put in a bore hole is going to lift that. Those cartoons of fractures coming back up to the surface – that breaks the laws of physics.” Keeping the roof on

It may not be quite that simple.

The Great Artesian Basin underlies 23 per cent of Australia (including the entire Cooper Basin), and for most of that area it is the only reliable source of fresh water. Rural towns, pastoral stations, cropping and the mining and oil and gas industries themselves all depend on it.

The water can be anywhere between three kilometres underground, to less than 100 metres down near the edges.

The federal Great Artesian Basin Coordinating Committee (GABCC), which advises ministers on all aspects of the GAB, is among those who have warned that our knowledge of this huge and complex system is far from complete.

As it acknowledges on its website ( )

“The GAB is a very extensive and complex aquifer system and although its structure and function have been researched for more than a century, significant knowledge gaps still exist and still limit the reliability of policy, regulatory, investment and management decisions . . . more research is needed.”

The Conservation Council of South Australia, which took part in the Round Table that produced the Roadmap, broadly agrees, and has particular concerns about the climate impact of methane gas released as a result of unconventional gas operations. Flying blind

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Adelaide Independent Reporter 2013