AGL's CSG blunders flare at Gloucester and expose EPA

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AGL's dangerous flaring of wells at its Waukivory Road CSG field in Northern NSW has again demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the NSW EPA in monitoring and regulating gas leaks, writes Lachlan Barker.

AGL are presently undergoing the process of flaring off at their controversial Waukivory Road CSG field at Gloucester on the NSW North Coast. This has raised high level of concern among the residents of the area.

The flaring off is deemed necessary due to increased gas pressure under the Waukivory road field. Normally when there are pressure issues with gas, water is used to equilibrate the pressure. However this method is denied AGL as the wells on Waukivory road are the wells that showed dangerous BTEX chemicals in the flowback water and so the NSW EPA suspended water movement in and out of these wells.

In general with CSG wells, if the pressure is too low, water is pumped in to force the gas to the surface, while, as in this case, if the gas pressure is too high, water is pumped out to reduce. However, with the water suspension, AGL’s only alternative is to flare off.

This however raises serious concerns over the long term ramifications of flaring off. While the flaring in the short term will reduce the pressure, there is no clear picture of whether AGL will now have to do this repeatedly, over time, to keep the gas pressure under control. AGL were contacted and asked this, but have not responded.

Flaring is a problem in itself. For this reason, in January, flaring was banned in the US. The ban came aboue because of the emissions from the flaring — something no resident wants to have floating over the back fence. This is particularly relevant to Gloucester, as the EPA have admitted that there is BTEX (benzenetolueneethylbenzene, and xylenes) and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the gas to be flared off.

In response to my email about the flaring at Gloucester, the EPA said:

The EPA is monitoring the controlled venting to ensure there is no excess smoke and to ensure it meets the requirements of the Clean Air Regulation. We are not collecting any data.

The EPA is satisfied that impacts on the environment from the controlled flaring are minimal, if it is done appropriately. Provided there is clean burning, gases (and any small amounts of residuals that might be in the gas) are adequately removed. BTEX or VOCs present in the gas will also be burnt. Carbon monoxide production is minimised during clean burning.

Which was an odd response for a few reasons.

I spoke to Dr Peter Tait of the Public Health Association of Australia about this and he made this point:

"If they’re not collecting any data, how are they monitoring it?"

What’s more, the EPA refers to ‘no excess smoke’ — yet the existence of smoke confirms the flaring will not be 100 per cent pure, meaning there will be some – even if minor amounts – of toxics in the flare plume.

It should be noted that the EPA in Australia is hardly the powerful body it is in the United States. A statutory body like this can, of course, only be as effective as the government it serves allows it to be and, of course, there are few governments on earth that want CSG to go forward more than the Baird Government of NSW.

A sign of this EPA weakness was paraded in appalling detail in a story by IA deputy editor Sandi Keane.

In it, Santos received a fine of just $1,500 for releasing radioactive water. Really. This $20 billion multinational company must be trembling in it's boots about the EPA.

However, Greens NSW spokesperson on mining Jeremy Buckingham is in no doubt about the dangers of this flaring now and in the future, saying:

Clearly AGL did not expect that they would have to flare to ensure the integrity of their fracked wells or they would have made that clear up front to the public and the regulators when the wells were suspended.

If the pressure in their coal seam gas wells is so great that they have to be flared to ensure their safety, then how can the government be confident that there will not be many more unexpected and potentially disastrous gas leaks in the years ahead?

This leak comes off the back of at least one in ten wells at AGL’s Camden CSG facilities leaking and underscores the CSG industry’s routine and systematic failures.

This latest incident further erodes the public faith in AGL’s ability to manage their gas fields and AGL need to take a long hard look at the impact that these regular scandals is having on their corporate reputation.

Flaring, by the way, is not an interesting and fun thing to do with the kids, like fireworks out on the harbour. It is truly a terrifying thing to behold.

A contact, Karen, who lives in the Surat Basin gas fields of Queensland, described it as follows:

"Some flares (Origin’s) are horizontal. I've seen and felt one from a kilometre away and it sounded like I was standing on the tarmac of a busy airport .... you can feel the vibration."

Furthermore, AGL have announced that they are doing this flaring in enclosed containers, which a local contact surmised will be shipping containers. This would seem to be extraordinarily dangerous for the AGL employees who have to do the actual flaring.

The video below gives you some feel for the ferocity of flaring; the idea that this can be done in an enclosed container seems fanciful and incredibly dangerous:

I contacted the politician responsible for CSG in NSW, Resources and Energy Minister Anthony Roberts, to ask if he would confirm that this flaring would be a one off, but received no reply.

The lack of reply from the minister and AGL seems to indicate this process of flaring is likely to be an ongoing one. This is conjecture only, however without water to control and change gas pressures, it seems that flaring off is the only “solution” for AGL to keep control of the Gloucester CSG fields. The water suspension was in late January and it only took ten weeks for the gas to build to dangerous levels. Does this mean flaring every two months from now on? No one seems to know, or if they do they haven’t responded to Independent Australia.

Heaping woes upon AGL and the NSW Government’s heads was a report out this week from Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) on the future of gas.

Controversial CSG projects like Gloucester and Santos’ Pilliga project at Narrabri are being pushed by the industry and the Baird Government because, it was claimed, that there is a gas shortage looming and all gas possibilities must be pushed forward with extreme haste to avert this.

However, the AEMO report also says:

'In New South Wales, where a gas supply gap had previously been forecast, no gap is now expected.'

The reason being the enormous Bass Strait and Victorian reserves are available for export to NSW, coupled with:

'... a 17% decline in the 2019 forecast for industrial, residential and commercial gas consumption [in NSW].

In the end, it seems that AGL have a tiger by the tail, having pricked the underground gas seams at Gloucester with their drills and now being unable to use water to control the pressure, they will have to flare off regularly to keep the thing under control.

The most likely conclusion is that extracting CSG from Gloucester is not worth the heartache, headaches and health risks. AGL will now have to either cap the wells and walk away, while continuing to monitor them for gas pressure build up, or go through the regular process of flaring off, thereby continuing to incur the wrath of the local community.

Lachlan Barker blogs at You can follow him on Twitter @cyclonecharlie8.

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