Greenies on laptops and dirty new tricks

For the sake of accuracy it should be a macbook

At three pm this afternoon, Sydney time, a handful of senior environmental activists from organisations around Australia all stared into the glow of their respective computer screens, scrying for solutions in the crystal ball of the modern age. Revolutionaries don’t meet in darkened cellars any more. They Skype. Today’s online meeting is a strategic discussion on how to collectively respond to what could become the next biggest environmental issue to burst into Australian politics. For the Sydney activists meeting today, it’s an issue that couldn’t be played out any closer to heart. It’s coal gas seam mining and it’s knocking on our door reeking, muddy and uninvited.

Two weeks ago at the cinema I saw the trailer for the much acclaimed American documentary on the devastating effects of coal gas extraction, ‘Gasland’ , released in Australia this week. I was left with a mixed emotional response. I paused to reflect with dismay on the proposal for coal gas seam drilling currently under consideration that could put Sydney’s water supply at risk. I felt an odd blend of exasperation and horror that mining companies have developed and been allowed to implement yet another environmentally disastrous and highly profitable enterprise. And yet, I was simultaneously thrilled that someone has gone and made a film about it, and that said film was receiving such acclaim and attention. As HG wells once said, ‘We are in a race between education and catastrophe’. But it never once occurred to me that in just a week I would be faced for the first time with the news that a proposal for coal gas exploratory drilling in my very own inner city community of St Peters has already been given the green light.

Scene from the film 'Gasland', where gas polluted water is demonstrated to be flammable.

In an astounding display of disregard for community consultation so unfortunately typical of NSW politics, the proposal by Apollo Gas to drill a well in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of urban Sydney was approved without environmental assessment, and without the knowledge of local residents and councils. Apollo Gas unsurprisingly claim that the dangers are exaggerated because they will not be using the controversial ‘fracking’ technique. Other industry representatives such as Belinda Robinson (CE of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association) play down the dangers of coal gas extraction, decorate it as a ‘green’ alternative to coal power, and dismiss renewable energy technology as underdeveloped. If the barrage of negative press coming out of Sydney’s major newspapers is anything to go by, however, we have not been fooled. Unfortunately for Apollo Gas (whose mining license extends across the entire city) it seems that no mineral executive can convince us that mining anything under the centre of a city of five million people built on porous sandstone is a sensible course of action, no matter how minimal the known effects.

Proposed well site in St Peters, c/o the Sydney Morning Herald

In search of further information on Monday, I put out a few feelers. Alex Morrissey, Environmental Engineer responded to the news I sent with this somewhat reassuring deconstruction;

“Luckily we dont use groundwater to drink so most of the issues they(in the film gasland) have are non issues for us…I do however consider a project like this in an urban centre a very stupid idea. They have obviously tiptoed around local government and the community. Also an exploration licence is just that.. its for exploration.. any further development would likely have the land and environment court to go through. Surprisingly little is known about the effects on groundwater systems of this sort of work. The organisation would have to prove there was no irreparable damage to the environment (difficult) and no risk to people (even more difficult)”.

I agree that Apollo Gas will have a very difficult time getting approval for coal gas drilling in Sydney’s urban centre. In an ironic twist to the story, they have unwittingly chosen a site which is home to the largest number of anti-corporate anarchists, socialists and environmentalists in Sydney,  all of whom will be thrilled that they no longer have to travel to get to their sit in. But the expansion of coal gas seam mining in NSW will not stop at St Peters. Drilling proposals have all been submitted for sites near Casino, Gunnedah, Singleton and Camden, and there are already two mines in existence near Appin and West Rocks. With exploratory coal gas extraction wells in Queensland found to contain carcinogenic contaminants that the company responsible assured the public would not be there, it is supremely irresponsible to rush drilling proposals through without in depth, independent environmental assessment. But the real elephant in the room, however, is long term sustainability.

Strangely enough for such an environmentally controversial practice, as a lower emitting energy source coal gas seam approvals in Sydney are being pursued as part of the Sustainable Sydney 2030 project. Aside from issues of contamination, replacing one polluting finite fossil fuel energy source with another  does not fit particularly well with the principals of sustainability. Eventually we are going to have to transition to a grid made mostly of renewables anyway. Why draw out this transition by investing in a host of potentially environmentally damaging ‘interim’ technologies?  It seems that ‘sustainable’ has become a flexible term, imbued with an almost religious power to absolve ill thought out decisions for the sake of reducing a few tonnes of carbon emissions..never mind other greenhouse gases or the host of other pressing environmental issues we face. 

My further email enquiries bore little fruit. My local greens councillor responded with the firm and expected statement that the Marrickville Greens are “calling for a moratorium on coal seam gas exploration and extraction by the state government until they put some environmental assessment parameters around it”. Meanwhile, the office of my local state MP has so far not responded to any of my enquiries.

Therein that last fact, I think, is the second big issue here again. Environmentally damaging enterprises seem to go hand in hand with political systems that allow government and business to ignore local communities and bypass local development approval processes. As Jeff Angel, Director of the Total Environment Centre pointed out rather ominously today; ”The gas companies and their coal mining allies have very ambitious plans in and around Sydney about which they have not told the public,”. In his opinion, a public enquiry into coal seam gas extraction around Sydney is needed. I couldn’t agree more. It’s entirely possible that such a demand will be borne from this afternoon’s modern green revolutionary Skype Session. Watch this space.


Update; 17th November, 2:46 pm

The activist conference concluded last night with a fracture between some environmental groups, and possible alliances between others. Government funded and more conservative environmental  research bodies argued in favour of coal seam gas, claiming that if contaminants are controlled the resouce could present us with a cheaply acquired alternative to higher emitting fossil fuels. Coal gas extraction is low tech, does not require the development of new infrastructure and uses the same or similar technology and expertise as we already have. It could assist in mitigating climate change while we transition to more technologically advanced harvesting of renewables. So it goes.

This appears to be a reasonable argument, if one assumes that contaminants are the only problem associated with this form of energy. Recent research by scientists such as Robert W. Howarth, professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University,  demonstrates that coal gas seam extraction frequently involves significant amounts of methane leakage, to the extent that this offsets the reduction in other greenhouse gases (methane is 72 times stronger than CO2  as a greenhouse gas). So the advantages are in question.

marcellus shale is the source of coal seam gas

The other side of the online activist debate last night consisted of a range of Non-Governmental Organisations and groups, from small local groups to national organisations dating back half a century. They responded to support for coal gas extraction with a break down of the real politik of the situation as well as questioning the science. They argued that not only will coal gas involve the replacement with one environmentally damaging, finite resource with another, but that political and economic investment in this technology will divert resources and support away from the development of renewable energy sources that are truly sustainable. So, (they argue), while it may seem cheaper and easier to use gas in the short term, in the long term it will prove to be a costly and dangerous diversion with no real benefit at the expense of real positive change.

The division of the environmental movement on this is fascinating as an exercise in the evolution of the human organism. Like species, different ideas contend with each other until the strongest survives. In political terms though, it could seriously hinder their capacity to affect change. With environmentalists more divided than the consistently hostile press coverage, the joe bloggs of Sydney may form the steering force of politics on coal gas extraction. ‘Gasland’ couldn’t have arrived on our shores at a more opportune time.

As usual, I find myself coming back to the same questions. If it just means more of the same, then why bother even changing at all? What is it exactly that we are trying so hard to preserve? Why are we as a society so reluctant to turn away from the fossil fuel industry for the provision of our energy? Turn any stone over, and the answer will be there wriggling away like nest of grubs. Its politics, baby, and it’s a stingy creature of habit, easily led by powerful vested interests and always looking for the easy way out. If you’re in Sydney, expect an increase in civil unrest over this hot potato.

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