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Environmental Impact Statement: Coal Seam Gas Project, Cunnumulla, Australia

This is an example of an environmental statement for a coal seam gas project which was prepared by the author.

Section 1 – Introduction

Report Aims

The proposed site for the new CSG (coal seam gas) project will be located at Bowra Station, which lies near Cunnumalla, Queensland, Australia. This property was used as a cattle station for an extended period of time, but was purchased by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy in 2010, and covers 14,000 hectares. The gas well construction company, Beta Industries, intends to position wells in six various locations on the property. At the completion of the construction phase, Australian National Energy will commence the acquisition of the gas production. This impact statement will identify and assess any possible impacts and effects to the following factors which currently exist on the site:

  • Flora
  • Fauna
  • Geology and Soils
  • Surface and Ground Water

The report will concentrate on such issues as current/existing conditions, possible impacts of CSG extraction, mitigation and monitoring, and evaluation of the impacts. A risk matrix will be used to calculate the likelihood and consequences of any such impacts. There are three principle phases of CSG operations: Exploration, Construction and Production. Recent seismic survey data and test drilling has detected the presence of gas in the required abundance for sustained successful production.

Construction

The construction process for CSG wells require the following phases:

  • Site identification, exploration, lease acquisition
  • Well design, engineering and work order issue
  • Well drilling, logging and testing
  • Well running, cement casing and construction completion

There will also need to be a provision for access by personnel and machinery, such as surveyors, earthworks, water trucks, geologists, delivery trucks, various testing equipment and support vehicles and personnel (1).

Production

Coal seam gas is formed in the coal seam, and the gas is trapped inside pores which are held by large volumes of water. To access this gas, a hole is drilled into the coal seam. This hole is cased with steel and cement in order to prevent the mixing of aquifers that may be used for drinking water or irrigation. The depth varies on the position of the coal seam, however in Queensland it is usually at 600m in depth approximately. For the extraction of the gas, a mixture of water and chemicals are forced into the coal seam, causing fractures, or what is known as ‘fracking’. When this fracture occurs, the water flows out of the cracks and the gas is released from the pores, which is then processed in the well (2), (3).

Project Justification

As the demand for energy grows, natural methane gas is seen as a clean alternative which emits very low levels of carbon dioxide after burning (4). There are also many financial benefits that can be gained by accessing CSG (5).

Timeframes

All environmental impact statements are to be forwarded within 12 months of pre-approval. Construction time is estimated to be 18 months with a 30 year minimum in production.

Methods

This report will use a variety of methods to make its assessment and then conclusion and recommendations. Information was collected from a range of peer-reviewed publications and government websites and used in the appropriate areas.

The flora and fauna numbers were determined using the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection website tool ‘Wildlife Online’. A species list was generated to within 1km of each of the proposed well site coordinates.

Information on soils and geology was accessed from the Australian Natural Resources Atlas, which is an Australian Government website. Information was also collected from journal articles.

Information on surface and ground water was gained by using a variety of tools, including Google Maps to determine whether any surface waterways were near the proposed well sites, and also other Australian Government websites and journal articles.

A risk matrix was used to determine the likelihood and consequences of pre and post mitigation scenarios. A risk matrix is used to calculate the possibility of an event happening, and then calculates the consequences of such an event. This form of analysis is on a prediction based scenario, and can’t be used as an accurate measuring tool. Please see below the various indicators/terms that will be used in the risk matrix used in this study.

Likelihood Rating

The number of times within a certain timeframe in which a risk may occur either as a consequence of business operations or via the failure of operating systems, policies or procedures. Source: Griffith University (17).

Rating Description Occurrence Probability
Almost certainExpected to occur most of the timeMany/12 months > 80%
Likely Strong possibility of occurring Within 12 months 61% - 80%
Possible May occur occasionally Within 5 years 31% - 60%
Unlikely Not expected but may occur Within 10 years 5% - 30%
Rare May only occur in rare occasions > 10 year < 5%

Prioritising risks

What actions that should be taken in the event of such occurrences? Source: Griffith University (17).

Risk Score What should be done
Extreme Immediate action is required
High Senior management attention and action plan required
Medium Specific monitoring and procedures needed, management responsibility
Low Manage through normal procedures. Not likely to need more specific resources

Assessment

Flora and Fauna

Current Status

There are six areas in which the gas wells are proposed to be constructed. Currently these areas are not being used for any agricultural purpose. Please find the relevant current flora and fauna surveys as per below:

Location 1: latitude -27.95859, longitude 145.5768

Please see Flora and Fauna frequency for this location as per Table 1.1 (source: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (8)).

Table 1.1 Species frequency and endangered status (within 1km)

Description Number of species Number of endangered species
Amphibians 6 0
Birds 168 0
Mammals 2 0
Reptiles 2 0
Higher Dicots (Flora)22 0
Monocots (Flora) 11 0

Location 2: latitude -27.9852, longitude 145.5996

Please see Flora and Fauna frequency for this location as per Table 1.2 (source: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (7)).

Table 1.2 Species frequency and endangered status (within 1km)

Description Number of species Number of endangered species
Amphibians 7 0
Birds 167 0
Mammals 2 0
Reptiles 2 0
Higher Dicots (Flora)19 0
Monocots (Flora) 10 0

Location 3: latitude ‐27.99305, longitude 145.6106

Please see Flora and Fauna frequency for this location as per Table 1.3 (source: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (7)).

Table 1.3 Species frequency and endangered status (within 1km)

Description Number of species Number of endangered species
Amphibians 7 0
Birds 153 0
Mammals 2 0
Reptiles 3 0
Higher Dicots (Flora)10 0
Monocots (Flora) 13 0

Location 4: latitude ‐27.961, longitude 145.585

Please see Flora and Fauna frequency for this location as per Table 1.4 (source: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (8)).

Table 1.4 Species frequency and endangered status (within 1km)

Description Number of species Number of endangered species
Amphibians 2 0
Birds 84 0
Mammals 2 0
Reptiles 2 0
Higher Dicots (Flora)8 0
Monocots (Flora) 5 0

Location 5: latitude ‐26.949, longitude 145.5379

Please see Flora and Fauna frequency for this location as per Table 1.5 (source: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (7)).

Table 1.5 Species frequency and endangered status (within 1km)

Description Number of species Number of endangered species
Amphibians 6 0
Birds 130 0
Mammals 2 0
Reptiles 3 0
Higher Dicots (Flora)10 0
Monocots (Flora) 13 0

Location 6: latitude ‐28.04778, longitude 145.5379

Please see Flora and Fauna frequency for this location as per Table 1.5 (source: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (7)).

Table 1.5 Species frequency and endangered status (within 1km)

Description Number of species Number of endangered species
Amphibians 2 0
Birds 96 0
Mammals 2 0
Reptiles 2 0
Higher Dicots (Flora)6 0
Monocots (Flora) 9 0

Impacts

As indicated by Tables 1.1 – 1.6, there is a very diverse range of flora and fauna residing within one kilometre of the proposed well sites. The construction process is likely to have a significant impact on the flora and fauna in these areas (8). The initial clearing of flora for the building of roads, parking areas and ultimately the final position of the well will mean the total eradication of the plants/trees that are currently located in that area. Whilst there are no endangered species within 1km of any of the wells, there will also be a significant impact on the fauna. These impacts will affect both terrestrial and bird species. There will be a reduction of area for animals such as snakes and lizards in which they can find food resources. Birds will be affected by having a reduced number of trees in which they can nest and breed, thus increasing the competition for the remaining trees with other similar species. Both flora and fauna can also be affected by the by-products created by the CSG mining process (9) (see also Surface and Ground Water section).

Mitigation and Monitoring

The impacts outlined above can be reduced by considering the following recommendations:

  • Minimising the width of any proposed road and parking areas
  • Where possible, avoid removal of any existing trees by plotting areas around them
  • Implementing a traffic management plan, which includes speed limits, type/sizes of vehicles, times of use and appropriate signage
  • Applying a strict policy of driving any vehicles only on designated areas
  • Conducting 12-monthly flora and fauna surveys
  • The implementation of a revegetation program
  • Monitoring, treating and recycling any water and by-products
  • Strictly abiding by relevant Australian Government policies/regulations

Impact and Evaluation

Please find below a risk matrix which will evaluate the likelihood and consequences of this project on local flora and fauna:

Risk Matrix 1.1

LIKELIHOOD CONSEQUENCES> InsignificantMinor ModerateMajor Catastrophic
Almost Certain Medium High High ExtremeExtreme
Likely Medium MediumHigh High Extreme
Possible Low MediumMedium High High
Unlikely Low Low Medium Medium High
Rare Low Low Low Medium Medium

Geology and Soils

Current Status

The soil of this area is predominately sandy and infertile; with soil erosion is being common (10). It is considered to be an area which is semi-arid, and is predominately red earth (11), which covers approximately 40% of the total area of the Mulga Lands. The majority of the nutrients are found in the upper 10mm of the soil. This soil is considered acidic, being low in phosphorus and high in potassium (10).

Impacts

CSG mining can have significant impacts on soil and soil composition. The water which is brought to the surface after the fracking process may contain high levels salt and also the possibility of heavy metals and radionuclides (2), (12). This water is commonly stored in salt pits and brine ponds, as there is currently no solution as to how to neutralise this water (2). Any release of this contaminated water into natural surface or underground waterways can have an extreme negative impact (13).

Mitigation and Monitoring

The impacts outlined above can be reduced by considering the following recommendations:

  • To reduce, as far as possible, the amount of topsoil disturbed during the construction and drilling processes
  • Create a stockpile of topsoil which can be re-distributed after the cessation of mining activities
  • Planting of temporary flora species which can help reduce the soil erosion of exposed areas
  • Implementing strategies to neutralise contaminated water where possible
  • Ensure any salt pits/saline ponds are kept below levels which may pose a risk of contaminating surrounding land in any rise of level during a flood event
  • Keep strict monitoring levels of the composition of the contaminated water

Impact and Evaluation

Please find below a risk matrix which will evaluate the likelihood and consequences of this project on the soils and geology of this area:

Risk Matrix 1.2

LIKELIHOOD CONSEQUENCES> InsignificantMinor ModerateMajor Catastrophic
Almost Certain Medium High High ExtremeExtreme
Likely Medium MediumHigh High Extreme
Possible Low MediumMedium High High
Unlikely Low Low Medium Medium High
Rare Low Low Low Medium Medium

This has been assessed as Likely/Major at the pre-mitigation stage, which is in the extreme impact zone. Post mitigation would put this into the Unlikely/Major zone, which reduces it to likely medium impact.

Surface and Ground Water

Current Status

There are no surface waterways within 200m of any of the proposed well sites. However, these sites lay above the significant Great Artesian Basin, which is the largest underground body of water in the world. The depth of the basin in this area is approximately 300m.

Impacts

The possible contamination of surface and underground water caused by CSG mining is an area of great concern (13). The contaminated water which is brought to the surface by the fracking process may contain very high levels of salt and also heavy metals and radionuclides. There is also potential for below ground aquifers, and more critically, the Great Artesian Basin itself to become contaminated during the drilling process. Such a contamination could have disastrous effects for both people reliant on the bore water but also for flora and fauna (5). Any contamination of water in creeks and rivers can have a devastating effect on fish and other marine inhabitants, and have a flow on affect which may be felt hundreds of kilometres away (15).

Mitigation and Monitoring

The impacts outlined above can be reduced by considering the following recommendations:

  • All due care shall be used when drilling to avoid contamination of basins and aquifers
  • Monthly testing and monitoring of surface and underground water around well sites and 3 monthly testing of waters downstream
  • Ensure any salt pits/saline ponds are kept below levels which may pose a risk of contaminating surrounding land in any rise of level during a flood event
  • Implement strategies to neutralise water where possible
  • Ensuring there is no runoff of any liquid from either the well or service vehicles into any surface waterways

Impact and Evaluation

Please find below a risk matrix which will evaluate the likelihood and consequences of this project on the Ground and Surface water in this area:

Risk Matrix 1.3

LIKELIHOOD CONSEQUENCES> InsignificantMinor ModerateMajor Catastrophic
Almost Certain Medium High High ExtremeExtreme
Likely Medium MediumHigh High Extreme
Possible Low MediumMedium High High
Unlikely Low Low Medium Medium High
Rare Low Low Low Medium Medium

This has been assessed as Almost Certain/Catastrophic at the pre-mitigation stage, which is in the extreme impact zone. Post mitigation would put this into the Unlikely/Major zone, which reduces it to likely medium impact.

Project Alternatives

Due to the high level of biodiversity in this location, combined with the still significant unknown factors surrounding CSG mining, the primary alternative suggested by this report is that such mining should not go ahead in this location. Alternative sites should also be explored, however the impacts as per described in this paper will not vary significantly. If the project does go ahead, the recommendations/mitigations as outlined above should be adhered to as an absolute minimum. Further consultation should be sought from experts in this field, and the financial gains should not outweigh the need to protect this sensitive ecosystem. Other impacts can be minimised such as restricting the size/weight of vehicles that access the area, more frequent testing and frequent environmental impact studies. Furthermore, a single test well could be implemented and the impacts measured over a limited trial timeframe (e.g. 3 years) before the complete project is given approval. It is also critical that the companies involved are diligent in regards to self-reporting and being as truthful as possible when reporting data (16).

Summary

Overall, this paper concludes that the proposed project poses too much of a risk to the fragile environment of this area. Whilst the impacts can be controlled to some extent, the cost of any failure of one of these controls poses a significant risk to the environment. Even in the event of a successful project, the impacts will last for long periods of time or be irreversible, for example the placing of roads and salt pits/saline ponds.

References

1. Queensland Government. CSG Code of conduct. 2011 [cited 2013 May 10]. Available from: http://mines.industry.qld.gov.au/assets/petroleum-pdf/csg_code_of_practice.pdf

2. Australian Broadcasting Commission. Coal seam gas: By the numbers. 2011 [cited 2013 May 8]. Available from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/specials/coal-seam-gas-by-the-numbers/

3. News notes. Fuel processing technology. Elsevier. 1996; 47: 295-9.

4. Jarvie O. Q&A: Coal seam gas. Chemistry in Australia. 2011 78(6): 25-7.

5. Hamawand I, Yusaf T, Hamawand SG. Coal seam gas and associated water: A review paper. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 2013. 22: 550-60. 7. Queensland Government. Department of environment and heritage protection. Wildlife Online. No date [cited 2013 May 10]. Available from: http://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/wildlifeonline/generate_a_species_list_for_a_specified_point.php

8. McColl GD. The mining industry and the natural environment. Resources Policy. 1980. 6(2): 153-65.

9. Harrison S, Molson J, Abercrombie H, Barker J, Rudolph D, Aravena, R. Hydrogeology of a coal-seam gas exploration area, south-eastern British Columbia, Canada: Part 1 Groundwater flow systems. Hydrogeology Journal. 2000. 8(6): 608-22.

10. Australian Government. Australian natural resources atlas. 2009 [cited 2013 May 4]. Available from: http://www.anra.gov.au/topics/rangelands/overview/nsw/ibra-ml.html#soils

11. Baker DE, Miles RL, Eldershaw VJ. Vegetation Cover Classes and Soil Nutrient Status of the Mulga Lands of South-West Queensland. The Rangeland Journal. 1992. 14(1): 40-8. 12. Mirmohammadi M, Gholamnejad J, Fattahpour V, Seyedsadri P, Ghorbani Y. Designing of an environmental assessment algorithm for surface mining projects. Journal of Environmental Management. 2009. 90(8): 2422-35.

13. Osborne K. Is coal seam gas polluting groundwater? Australasian Science. 2012. 33(8): 22.

14. PNR Online. Is the great artesian basin in danger? No date [cited 2013 May 11]. Available from: http://www.pnronline.com.au/article.php/211/1496

15. Wang GGX, Zhang X, Wei X, Fu X, Jiang B, Qin Y. A review on transport of coal seam gas and its impact on coalbed methane recovery. Frontiers of Chemical Science and Engineering. 2011. 5(2): 139-61.

16. Overell M, Chapple L, Clarkson PM. Environmental reporting in the Australian mining industry: complying with regulation or meeting international best practice? Australian Business Law Review. 2008. 36(2): 1-12.

17. Griffith University. Risk Matrix. 2012 [cited 2013 May 15]. Available from: https://intranet.secure.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/161744/HRA_Risk-matrix_161744.pdf

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