Far West in new gas backlash

Upset at snub in submission time for Far West gas tilt

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Coogee Station's Lachlan Gall, says gas exploration has a long and difficult history in the Far West and he is concerned at the disruption to farm activities if exploration goes ahead as planned. He says though there is a difference in the gas extraction planned for the Far West that does not require the intense fracking of central gas fields. Photo by Joanna Gall.

Coogee Station's Lachlan Gall, says gas exploration has a long and difficult history in the Far West and he is concerned at the disruption to farm activities if exploration goes ahead as planned. He says though there is a difference in the gas extraction planned for the Far West that does not require the intense fracking of central gas fields. Photo by Joanna Gall.

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New areas in NSW to be opened for gas exploration

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More than 60 landholders met in Ivanhoe to express their anger at a lack of consultation over new coal seam gas exploration in the Western Division.

NSW Farmers Western Division council chairman Greg Rogers said the meeting was told there had been a "pathetic attempt at community consultation by the NSW Government" and this had got many landholders off-side.

"Underground water is what everyone is concerned about because we rely on it," he said. "We are totally reliant on it. If this isn't done properly you end up destroying the aquifers."

A Preliminary Regional Issues Assessment has started for three regions in the Western Division.

Mr Rogers said the lack of time to get in submissons to the planned exploration in three areas, one over the Hillston area, had caused great anger.

"Everyone has the Condamine River disaster in their minds and we have very real concern about damage to our undergound aquifers that we rely on.

"They've managed to get everyone offside to start with."

Many landholders didn't receive letters about the proposed exploration until it was almost too late to put in a response. That time has since been extended.

Mr Rogers said: "what the government has done is a PR disaster."

Member for Barwon Roy Butler is extremely concerned about the NSW Government's exploration of large parts of the far west for conventional and unconventional tight gas exploration.

"The move by the NSW Government through the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment to put water resources at risk by investigating the release of land for conventional and tight gas resources around Hillston, Cobar, Wilcannia, Ivanhoe and Broken Hill does not have my support," said Mr Butler

"I do not support any extractive industry that puts our ground and surface water at risk, and opening up this land for gas would do just that.

"Frankly I am disgusted at the manner in which the Government has chosen to announce this exploration, by stealth, with the community only able to have their say if they're registered to do so.

"Water is our most precious resource, everyone deserves to be able to have their say on development that will put this resource at risk.

"The Government should be transparent on these issues, the fact that they have buried this consultation process shows that they already know there will be huge community opposition to this type of industry in the far west.

"Tight gas is hard to access, in order to obtain it gas companies would need to use hydraulic fracturing or fracking - this process can poison groundwater, pollute surface water, impair natural habitat, threaten wildlife and destroy agricultural land."

Lachan Gall, Coogee Lake Station, Broken Hill, a councillor of Pastoralists' Association of West Darling said: "the first thing landholders in western NSW knew about the restart to the Strategic Release Framework process was receiving letters inviting them to register an interest in the Preliminary Regional Issues Assessment, just days before the deadline of Wednesday 17th February".

"Many landholders did not actually receive their letter before the registration deadline. At least some of the letters were incorrectly addressed, which may have further delayed their delivery."

"If exploration drilling does eventually take place on my property, I am comfortable that there will be no impact on shallow underground aquifers in the area. I am more concerned about the potential impact of exploration activities on my property infrastructure such as roads, fences, dams and pipelines, or my livestock. Disturbance of lambing ewes or kidding rangeland goats would be completely unacceptable."

Mr Gall said it was important that stakeholders in the Western Division knew that the "risk profile associated with conventional and tight gas exploration is different to that of coal seam gas in central NSW".

Mr Gall provided an extensive history and background information for Land readers on what the PRIA means.

"On 6th June 2017 Minister for Resources the Hon. Don Harwin MLC announced that a Strategic Release Framework process would be piloted in western NSW, focussing on opportunities for conventional gas exploration in the Bancannia Trough, north of Broken Hill, and the Pondie Range Trough, north of Wilcannia. A Preliminary Regional Issues Assessment (PRIA) over these areas was subsequently completed by the Department of Planning and Environment. Consultation between the Department and the Pastoralists' Association of West Darling commenced in June 2017 and ran until March 2018, with representatives of the Department travelling to meet with PAWD Council to discuss landholder concerns with petroleum exploration on two occasions.

"The Strategic Release Framework process was subsequently put on hold prior to finalisation. This process has now been restarted, with the Neckarboo and Yathong-Ivanhoe Troughs now included in the Preliminary Regional Issues Assessment.

"The four Troughs being considered for petroleum exploration approvals by the State Government are located in the Darling Basin, which is the largest onshore Basin in NSW at over 100,000 km2, and one of the largest in Australia. There is up to 8000m of sedimentary rocks in these Troughs, which have potential to host oil and gas reserves. Exploration across the region commenced in 1963 and has continued intermittently at a low level since. The Darling Basin is considered to be very poorly explored, with only 12 wells deeper than 1000m drilled and 2400km of modern seismic data. None of the wells drilled in the Darling Basin encountered any significant hydrocarbon shows.

"Unlike the Gunnedah and Surat Basins, the areas under review do not have potential for coal seam gas. The geology of the Darling Basin is similar to the Cooper Basin, where oil and gas has been produced from deeply buried sandstone formations since 1963. Production wells in the Cooper Basin are typically around 9,000 - 11,000 feet deep. The target zones for conventional and tight gas in the Darling Basin are also sandstone formations at similar depths. Accordingly, some of the problems specifically associated with the production of coal seam gas that are a major concern for landholders in the Gunnedah and Surat Basins are not a feature of petroleum production in the Cooper Basin and are unlikely to arise if gas production should ever eventuate in the Darling Basin.

"It is possible that any gas discovery in the Darling Basin will require hydraulic fracture stimulation ("fracking") to improve production rates from "tight sands", which are low permeability sandstone formations. However, the great depth of the target formations and several thousand feet of vertical separation between target formations and water aquifers practically eliminates the risk that fracking might have any impact on stock and domestic water bores in the area. Fracking of wells in the Cooper Basin to improve production rates of oil and gas from low permeability sandstone formations has been occurring since 1968, with over 700 wells now fracture stimulated and no harmful impacts reported.

"It is not a fait accompli that this review process will result in the release of all or part of the areas under review for exploration. Based on the inconclusive exploration results recorded so far, the Darling Basin is most likely to be viewed as a high risk area by exploration companies and drilling activities are unlikely to commence any time soon, if at all.

"In 2010 junior explorer Orion Petroleum held Petroleum Exploration Licences over the Bancannia and Pondie Range Troughs. Orion identified "ready-to-drill" prospects in Bancannia and Pondie Range Troughs, at depths of 9,200 feet and 10,500 feet respectively. Drilling a well to these depths is a multi million dollar undertaking, and Orion Petroleum needed a joint venture partner to "farm in" to the drilling of the wells. A "cashed-up" joint venture partner was not forthcoming and the prospects remain undrilled to this day.

"The lack of interest in the Darling Basin from explorers with the capacity to finance drilling activities is a good indication that there are better exploration opportunities elsewhere in Australia.

"The Preliminary Regional Issues Assessment is step two in the seven step Strategic Release Framework process, so any final decision to release areas for exploration is some time away. It is only after the issue of a petroleum exploration licence that "on-the-ground" exploration activities could commence, so landholders can expect that several years will pass before it is even possible that an exploration company will seek to enter their property.

"The first thing landholders in western NSW knew about the restart to the Strategic Release Framework process was receiving letters inviting them to register an interest in the Preliminary Regional Issues Assessment, just days before the deadline of Wednesday 17th February. Many landholders did not actually receive their letter before the registration deadline. At least some of the letters were incorrectly addressed, which may have further delayed their delivery. I contacted the Department to explain the realities of slow mail delivery in the far west of NSW, and was able to secure an extension on the deadline for landholders to register an interest in the process.

"It is fair to say that the Department is not off to a good start with the process of consulting burdened landholders. A failure to provide greater detail and clarity about what petroleum exploration in the Darling Basin could look like has left landholders confused and angry, and rightly so. I understand that sixty landholders attended a meeting at Ivanhoe on Sunday 21st February, which should tell the Department that they have a lot of work to do. The people of western NSW are already disillusioned with the State Government's performance regarding management of our river systems, and many are feeling that this issue is more of the same. It could have been handled so much better, but mistakes were made and instead of taking a step forward it looks like the consultation process will be confrontational instead of consultative.

"PAWD provided a significant amount of feedback to the Department when the Preliminary Regional Issues Assessment for Bancannia and Pondie Range Troughs was run in 2018. Concerns regarding underground water security were raised, as well as impacts to the environment, property infrastructure and livestock production arising from seismic acquisition and drilling activities. I pointed out that feedback had been supplied in 2018 and should be on the Department's files, and this seemed to come as a surprise. An invitation has been extended for project representatives to meet with PAWD Council to talk through the issues and establish some timeframes and outcomes, and I expect that this should occur in due course. PAWD will be working hard to ensure that our members are not disadvantaged as a result of any petroleum exploration activities in western NSW.

"Interestingly, the Darling Basin has also been reviewed for its potential for the sequestration of carbon dioxide by injecting it into deep sandstone formations.

"Landholder rights are outlined in the letter that has been sent to stakeholders. Pastoralists should note that they are entitled to receive compensation for resource exploration and production, and a company that holds an exploration licence must have a written access agreement with the landholder before any activities commence on that land. It is important for landholders to engage in the consultation process, whether it be on an individual basis or through a representative organisation.

"My property, Coogee Lake Station, is located 120 kms north east of Broken Hill and in the centre of the Bancannia Trough. In 1969 the wildcat exploration well Jupiter #1 was drilled to a total depth of 6008 feet. Testing of the well did not produce any significant results and it was plugged and abandoned, with several cement plugs set at different levels in the borehole to prevent the vertical movement of formation waters. Orion Petroleum reprocessed the seismic data for the area in 2010, and came to the conclusion that Jupiter #1 was drilled off target. Orion proposed to drill an exploration well to 9200 feet depth 2kms west of Jupiter #1, but this project did not proceed past the desktop review stage. I have no expectation that this exploration well will be drilled in the near future, if at all. If it is drilled, I am comfortable that the well will have no impact on shallow underground aquifers in the area. I am more concerned about the potential impact of exploration activities on my property infrastructure such as roads, fences, dams and pipelines, or my livestock. Disturbance of lambing ewes or kidding rangeland goats would be completely unacceptable, and livestock should not have their usual access to waters disrupted.

"One of the most important aspects of exploration drilling is that the highest standards for the cementing of casing in place when completing a successful well for future production, or setting of abandonment plugs in dry wells, are mandated by the regulator and met or exceeded by drilling contractors. Cementing of casing or setting of abandonment plugs is performed to to prevent the movement of water between different aquifers. PAWD will be seeking assurances that appropriate well completion and abandonment standards are in place."

Meantime, Lock the Gate Alliance is alarmed the government is considering "opening up large parts of the Far West of the state to fracking".

The Planning Department announced it was exploring whether to release three large sections of land between Hillston, Cobar, and Broken Hill to conventional and unconventional tight gas exploitation. Gas companies would need to use hydraulic fracturing to access it, it said.

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