The Darling Downs coal seam gas bomb

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Will this be the year the Darling Downs coal seam gas bomb goes up? Lachlan Barker reports.

IT ALL STARTED with this picture:

Taken by Darling Downs resident John Jenkyn, it shows flaring from a CSG well through a highly flammable stand of eucalypt.

As soon as I saw this picture, my immediate thought was "that must be an extraordinary bushfire threat".

So I contacted John and some other residents of the Downs with whom I regularly interact and asked them if they were worried about the threat of bushfire now that their community has been turned into a giant gas field.

The short answer was "yes".

These fears were best articulated by spokesperson for a local community group at Hopeland, Shay Dougall.

We had a general conversation about the appalling state of things on the Downs, with Shay saying gas companies were putting residents under a “gut wrenching and soul destroying and life destroying” level of stress.

Shay outlined her fears regarding the bushfire/explosion threat:

Yes, we have real fears about that. The gas companies have brought thousands of cubic metres of highly flammable gas to the surface, and are uncontrollably venting the gas from hundreds of high point vents all over our communities and piping it under pressure to the LNG plants at Gladstone. In addition to this, they are trialling underground storage of the gas in some locations.

Clearly, now the threat is much greater. Bushfires in Australia are always a giant fear and now the gas companies have added all this flammable gas to the mix. When I have asked the government for details of how our community is to respond to an emergency with regard to the presence of gas, there is no answer to the question.

Shay was scathing of the likely emergency response. She first referred to the Kate 6 incident. That occurred this year, where a gas well began leaking raw gas and CSG water due to a failed pressure relief valve.

Said Shay:

The water and gas leaked out of that well during the incident for approximately 48 hours.The gas company involved has long been telling us that they can shut down all pipes and infrastructure on the gas fields from a remote control centre. In this case, it was determined due to the incident that ‘this well (and how many others) could not be remotely controlled from the control room’.

On the one hand, they are telling us they have these great systems in place for any emergency and here in a clear case where they could show us how well it works, but their fabulous system failed. How many other wells have the same fault and a bushfire is not time to figure out there is a problem with this control measure.

So, to put it mildly, Shay is less than assured that there will be any effective emergency response.

Consequently, I contacted Queensland emergency services minister Jo-Ann Miller to ask of the government’s attitude to this threat. She didn’t respond. This is surprising, as the Palaszczuk government has been strongly supportive of gas and seem unwilling to contemplate the idea of people dying in a gas field fire.

Another resident of Chinchilla, Karen, attended a meeting in the Tara estates to discuss options for an emergency in the area.

As Karen reported to me after the meeting:

Rural Fire Service in the Tara estates have NO liaison with gascos whatsoever.

They have NO mapping of infrastructure. If they think a situation is unsafe, retreat/ evacuation is the order. They have NO gas detection monitors and would call Urbans in with a situation like that.

In the event of a "wildfire'" the evacuation order is given. As we have seen with unidentified substance/ liquid found running down a roadside near the RFS shed, Urbans and Police were called.

Police took instruction from QGC to state that it was all AOK and tried to move onlookers (and John Jenkyn filming) away from scene.

This happened next to a gas well.

Karen’s reports, by the way, are not attacking the Rural Fire Service in any way. She feels it is up to the gas company – in this case, QGC – to go out of their way to provide liaison and staff to assist the RFS in case of an emergency.

Indeed, as Karen indicates, if there is a fire, QGC would seem more concerned with an immediate news blackout than providing an emergency response.

So how bad is the gas fire risk? Well, this summer is of serious concern.

During our conversation, Shay opined that the last big fire on the Downs was in 2002. That fire burnt badly in the area where the wells are now. There has not been a fire in the well area since.

However, back then, there was nowhere near the number of wells in place on the Downs. The number has grown rapidly since and now stands at upward of 7,000 wells in Queensland, some thousands of these are on the Downs.

The fires of 2002 came at the end of a period of extended drought in Queensland, when obviously the countryside was dry — very dry.

Currently, Queensland is in drought — indeed a record severe drought, in which 80% of Queensland is drought declared.

The following map shows the extent of the problem:

Bushfires frequently follow hard on the heels of drought.

So this summer the threat is real and immediate.

What’s more, it seems there is a fire burning underground in the area, increasing the risk dramatically.

Linc Energy has recently been taken to court for their underground coal gasification (UCG) project.

This is a technique – an appallingly risky one – where streams of oxygen are pumped into underground coal seams and the ensuing gases collected to burn for energy production.

We still don’t really know what happened with Linc Energy’s project, it seems to have caught fire and has got away from them badly.

And now, in the area indicated on the map below, no landholder is allowed to dig deeper than two metres:

Beyond two metres, they apparently encounter escaping combustion gases — toxic and flammable.

So, it seems the residents of the Downs are now caught between the fire below, and the threat of a surface bush fire above.

So then I contacted first officer of Bennett Rural Fire Service, located just north of Tara, Peter McGowan.

He raised another issue that would probably take most by surprise, which is access to the fire front.

Due largely to the horrendous breakneck speed with which CSG was forced upon the Darling Downs, there has been little or no contingency planning.

Peter McGowan said: 

“The gas companies have laid a network of pipes, underground all over the place. Now we don’t know how solid the earth is over the pipes. So we could drive out in the fire truck, cross a pipe and get the truck stuck. Then as we extract the vehicle, we may have to then drive around for kilometres trying to find a solid access way to the fire.”

Clearly this is a considerable fear for the rural firies, as the one thing you don’t want with a bushfire approaching at speed is a stuck truck.

People die in situations like that.

I asked McGowan of the general danger coming with the approaching bushfire season. He replied that he was concerned. He confirmed Shay Dougall’s assertion that there hasn’t been a fire in the area where the wells are now in place since 2002.

Now, with the gas wells and pipes in place, this summer is looming as a great fire and explosion risk for those of the Downs. How can government allow the citizens to be subjected to such an appalling, life-threatening risk?

McGowan is a typical Queensland bush character, tough and laconic. He spoke, indeed, as if he was being charged dollars per word and so we had our conversation, then it was time to ring off.

I finished by saying:

Okay, great, thanks for your time this afternoon Peter, and good luck with this bushfire season."

McGowan responded:

Thanks, we’ll need it.”

Lachlan Barker blogs at cyclonecharlie88.blogspot.com.au. You can also follow him on Twitter @CycloneCharlie8.

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