Case study 4: South-east Queensland coal seam gas assessments
During late 2010 and early 2011, the department finalised assessment of three large coal seam gas/liquefied natural gas (CSG/LNG) developments in south-eastern Queensland. The department recommended their conditional approval to the minister, who approved these projects in October 2010 and February 2011.
The CSG industry is relatively new to Australia. The scale of these exploration and production processes presented several challenges to the department, leading to refined approaches to assessment under the EPBC Act.
CSG activities in Australia have attracted intense public, media and parliamentary interest. The concerns raised often relate to economic and social matters, including competing land use, rather than the matters of national environmental significance—which are the main focus of environmental impact assessments under the EPBC Act. As a consequence, effective links with other state and Commonwealth agencies and within the department were important to the department’s assessment of issues such as water, climate change, land use planning, food security and health. In particular, independent technical advice from Geoscience Australia underpinned some of the most critical elements of the department’s advice to the minister on the three CSG/LNG projects.
The large set of stringent conditions the minister imposed on each of the three CSG/LNG approvals reflects an adaptive management approach intended to ensure that development of the gasfields can occur without compromising environmental standards. For example, plans for clearing vegetation, and for the management of aquifers, groundwater and surface water must be submitted to the minister for approval, and must be implemented as approved. The plans must include detailed planning and monitoring arrangements including methods to re-establish aquifer water pressure if conservative water pressure thresholds are breached.
The three CSG/LNG projects were very similar in nature and geographical location, with broad but diffuse impacts. The consideration of cumulative impacts, especially in relation to groundwater, was therefore central to their assessment. Groundwater reserves, including the Great Artesian Basin are of considerable economic and social importance. They also support threatened ecological communities, such as The community of native species dependent on the natural discharge of groundwater from the Great Artesian Basin. The department worked to protect values by obtaining internal and independent expert advice on cumulative hydrogeological impacts. Further work in this area is required through approval conditions.
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