Lock the Gate appears to be a fitting name for Australia’s protest movement against hydraulic fracturing. It took activists years to identify threats to public health from "fracking," a classic case of getting mobilized only after the proverbial horse has escaped.
Australians in the rural reaches of Queensland greeted fracking with gusto when the northeastern state’s political leaders began about seven years ago to tout the profit potential of the unconventional extraction method that blasts sand, water and chemicals into coal and shale seams. Ambitious projects were drafted. More than 4,500 wells were drilled in barely two years, and work has begun on a 250-mile pipeline from the gas fields to Gladstone Harbor and a massive liquefaction facility there. Once construction of the port complex on Curtis Island is completed in 2014, gas will be converted to liquefied natural gas and shipped north to energy-hungry Asian neighbors.
It wasn’t until the buildup got into full swing about three years ago that locals began complaining of distressing side effects of fracking. Activists claim drinking-water aquifers have been contaminated, groundwater depleted and greenhouse gases released along a three-mile stretch of the Condamine River, which at times appears to be boiling.
Dredging in Gladstone Harbor has been blamed for disease outbreaks among fish and mud crabs. Marine scientists attribute the sickness to toxic metals being stirred up from the seabed. Port developers say the defects and deaths were caused by an excess of fresh water from seasonal flooding.
“What was a wonderful fish nursery has turned into an industrial harbor, with ships that will be driving straight through the Great Barrier Reef,” said Matt Landos, a University of Sydney researcher and private consultant in aquatic animal health.
A greater irritant for Australians, Landos said, is the lack of information being provided on the environmental and health costs entailed in the race to make Australia the No. 1 LNG exporter in the world by 2020.
Gas output in historically coal-dependent Australia took off in the last decade, beginning with undersea extraction off the northwestern coast. It quickly swept to the more populous east coast with the discovery of major coal-seam deposits in the Bowen and Surat basins that extend from Queensland into New South Wales.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration in its 2011 world energy outlook reports that Australia, already the fourth-biggest exporter of LNG, has the largest proven natural gas reserves in the Asia-Pacific region, with 110 trillion cubic feet. It has nearly four times that volume in technically recoverable shale gas, the agency estimates, leaving it well positioned to fill the booming energy needs of the region.
Queensland’s new premier, Campbell Newman, campaigned on a platform of support for the LNG buildup but insisted before his election in March that it wouldn’t be “at any cost,” that the agricultural state's farmland had to be protected.
But activists charge that pursuit of the gas bonanza has been unbridled. And the acrimony has only intensified since the appointment of rancher John Cotter as “gas sheriff,” charged with resolving disputes between landowners and gas industry interests. Cotter’s son, John Jr., is founder of a private company that does consulting and project management in mining operations, including contracts with the multibillion-dollar Queensland Curtis Project expanding coal seam fracking and helping build an underground pipeline.
Lock the Gate Chairman Drew Hutton accuses the Cotters of having an “intolerable” conflict of interest and calls the appointment “a most appalling, short-sighted decision,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported last month.
Landos accuses the Queensland government of being blinded to the environmental threats of expanded fracking by “starry-eyed economic forecasts” of Australia emerging as the new LNG global powerhouse.
“It’s a false accounting that doesn’t take into consideration the costs of environmental cleanup,” the veterinary scientist complained in a telephone interview from Sydney. Expectations of jobs and export income, he added, “are leading to tremendous enthusiasm among our politicians to push the industry forward with minimal impediment.”
He worries that the all-out drive for LNG dominance will destroy coastal fisheries and damage sites of natural beauty in exchange for an economy dependent on gas that could be exhausted in 25 years.
The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warned the Australian government in June that its rapid LNG development plan was posing “a significant risk” to the Great Barrier Reef, which has been under World Heritage protection since 1981. It extends from Gladstone Harbor northward along the Queensland coast and would be traversed by gas exporting ships headed for China, Japan and Taiwan.
UNESCO asked the Queensland government to provide assurances by February 2013 that port development will be brought under control and the reef protected, warning that otherwise the site may be designated as "in danger," a shaming censure for any First World national steward.
Campbell, the state premier, responded to the world body report with assurances that the environment would be protected, "but we are not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down."
Lock the Gate and other anti-fracking groups have exploded over the last year as farmers have seen their water tables drop and their land littered with mine tailings, said Mariann Lloyd-Smith, a lawyer and senior advisor to the International POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Elimination Network. The groups seek clarity on what is being injected into the coal seams. Companies often refuse to disclose such information, saying the formulas are industrial secrets.
Groups such as Australia’s National Toxins Network have been collecting data on pollution and waste to use in legal challenges that have become so prevalent that some fracking companies are giving up and handing in their exploration permits, Lloyd-Smith said.
Unlike in the United States, where property owners hold the rights to resources beneath their land, the Australian government owns everything below the topsoil. The Gasfields Commission has the authority to compel landowners to accommodate energy exploration, typically resulting in compensation of about $1,500 per well, Lloyd-Smith said. That's turning out to be too little to clean up the mess once drilling is over, driving up opposition across Australia.
Temporary bans on fracking in the two states south of Queensland -– New South Wales and Victoria –- have been enacted in response to public demands for investigation of environmental damage claims.
“When one farmer locks his gate, the companies have the right to take the case to arbitration or to the courts, and they often do. But when 100 farmers lock their gates, it’s a case of diminishing returns for the companies,” Lloyd-Smith said. “It’s that sort of consolidation of the community opposition that to a degree is winning the battle.”
"To a degree" may be the operative assessment, as energy industry leaders are fighting back. In a speech in Melbourne this month, ExxonMobil Australia President John Dashwood blamed the fracking bans on “those who run agendas on emotional messages.” He pointed to reduced greenhouse gas emissions as a tangible benefit from replacing coal-generated power with natural gas from shale and coal seams.
With more than $500 billion in LNG-purchase commitments from Asian neighbors already on the books, even the more vociferous cries of fracking opponents are being drowned out by the drilling and blasting from new wells cropping up by the dozens each week.
As Hutton of Lock the Gate recently warned, "The Queensland environment is going to die a death of 1,000 cuts with this industry that it cannot control.”
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Photo: Protests against the proliferation of coal-seam gas fracking have swelled in size and number in recent months as farmers, ranchers and rural residents confront industry and government leaders over the alleged polluting side effects of the unconventional gas extraction process. This protest last spring targeted plans to frack in New South Wales. Credit: Courtesy of Andrya Hart