In Australia onshore mining operations, including coal seam gas extraction, are primarily licensed and regulated under state or territory legislation.
The Australian Government becomes involved when a coal seam gas project has the potential to have an impact on matters protected under national environment law, such as nationally threatened and migratory species, wetlands of international importance, or national or world heritage places.
Such projects must undergo a thorough environmental assessment to determine whether their likely impacts are acceptable under the legislation. The assessment process under national environment law is rigorous and includes opportunities for public comment.
The federal assessment process
When deciding whether to approve coal seam gas projects under national environment law, the minister considers likely significant impacts on matters protected under national environment law. In making decisions on whether to approve a project, the minister must also take into account other matters such as economic and social matters and the principles of ecologically sustainable development.
If an approval is granted, strict environmental conditions are usually attached to ensure the environmental impacts are minimised. State/territory conditions are also considered in the development of federal conditions.
Further information on national environment law can be found at: www.environment.gov.au/epbc/index.html
Under national environment law, three coal seam gas projects have been approved under the EPBC Act, all of which are in Queensland. The minister imposed around 300 detailed conditions on each project. Under those conditions, the companies are required to submit, for the minister's approval, water management and monitoring plans detailing how impacts on aquifers, groundwater and surface water will be minimised. Plans must include strict groundwater drawdown thresholds, aquifer connectivity studies, and coal seam gas water treatment, management, and monitoring programs.
Water management plans must also address components and toxicity of any fraccing agents and other reinjected fluids. If that information indicates that it is required for the better protection of matters of national environmental significance, the minister can impose additional requirements. In relation to fraccing fluids, both Queensland and New South Wales governments have announced bans on the use of certain chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, or 'BTEX' chemicals).
Water and sand make up 99 per cent of the additives used in the fraccing of coal seams. The small percentage of other materials is typically made up of compounds commonly used in households such as sodium hypochlorite, detergent additives and vinegar (acetic acid). These chemicals are in very dilute form, and the risk to public health or the environment from their use is negligible.
Agricultural land impacts
The states and territories are responsible for land access for mining operations. If a project is approved under national environment law, impacts on agricultural land must be considered where they are a relevant economic and social matter.
If land is proposed for clearing and this land is protected under national environment law federal conditions will be placed on the project to minimise impacts.
Human health matters that may relate to coal seam gas projects are regulated by state and territory agencies. Any relevant issues relating to human health must also be considered in the assessment process under national environment law, as social matters.
In assessing coal seam gas proposals, the minister may consider cumulative impacts. For example, in making decisions on three large coal seam gas projects in southern Queensland, the minister considered cumulative impacts and imposed conditions in response. Accordingly, those conditions require the proponents to undertake ongoing regional modelling to ensure that any cumulative impacts from their projects are appropriately minimised or avoided.
National environment law establishes a strong framework to protect the environment and conserve biodiversity. It includes a broad range of enforcement mechanisms for managing suspected or identified instances of non-compliance and for reviewing the compliance of approved projects, including coal seam gas projects.
The department investigates all allegations of non compliance and has a range of enforcement mechanisms available to it, in accordance with its Compliance and Enforcement Policy. If you are concerned about an action and believe that it may have a significant impact on a matter protected by national environment law, you should contact the department. Contact details are available at www.environment.gov.au/epbc/breach.html
Approved projects are continuously monitored to ensure any potential risks are managed. This is usually done by states, which are responsible for regulating state conditions imposed on mining and coal seam gas operations.
Coal seam gas operations approved under national environment law require regular reporting and allow for independent audits to ensure the companies are complying with strict federal conditions.
The Australian Government recognises the importance of research in its assessment process and is committed to furthering understanding of the coal seam gas process and its impacts.
The Australian Government is investing $150 million over five years to support the work of a new Independent Expert Scientific Committee that will provide scientific advice to governments about relevant coal seam gas and large coal mining approvals where they have significant impacts on water. The Committee will commission bioregional assessments and research into the impacts of coal seam gas and coal mine developments on water resources and methods for minimising those impacts.
A new National Partnership Agreement will also be established with the states through COAG, agreeing that the Commonwealth and states have to take into account the advice of the Committee in their assessment and approval decisions. A further $50 million will be provided in incentive payments to the states to deliver this outcome.
In addition, a number of research projects have already been commissioned by the Commonwealth and state governments to improve information relating to coal seam gas proposals. That information will inform future assessment processes. These include:
- The $50 million National Groundwater Assessment Initiative which is the centrepiece of the Groundwater Action Plan under the National Water Initiative is funding hydrogeological investigations to help overcome critical groundwater knowledge gaps. For more information visit:
- Five million dollars of the Healthy HeadWaters Program (managed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management and funded under the Australian Government's Water for the Future initiative) has been allocated to examine the use of CSG water in addressing water sustainability and adjustment issues in the Queensland section of the Murray Darling Basin (QMDB). For more information visit:
- Up to $1.5 million has been contributed by the Australian Government towards a joint study into the surface and groundwater resources of the Namoi Catchment in New South Wales. The Namoi Water Study is intended to provide high quality information to help identify the risks associated with mining on water resources in the region, and to inform the NSW and Commonwealth governments' decision-making processes. The completed report and its findings are due mid 2012.
In 2010, the department commissioned an Assessment of impacts of the proposed coal seam gas operations on surface and groundwater systems in the Murray–Darling Basin (Word - 8.9 MB) by the University of Queensland.
In that same year, the department also commissioned detailed advice from Geoscience Australia and another independent hydrogeologist on issues relating to large coal seam gas projects in Queensland. A summary of that advice is available on the department's website:
The website also contains information on an independent expert panel, appointed by the minister to provide advice on water management and monitoring plans for those projects.
State governments, and not the Commonwealth, are primarily responsible for land use and natural resource management issues, and therefore issues concerning mining, land access by mining operations, and the loss of productive farmland are primarily a matter for State and local governments.
State governments also have primary responsibility for licensing CSG extraction. Licensing applications are, in general, regulated under a combination of the relevant state water, environment, mining and petroleum legislation.
- Coal seam gas - Frequently asked questions
- Interim Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Coal Mining
- Announcement of a national harmonised framework for coal seam gas
- Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance
- Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association - Information about coal seam gas in Australia, with further links to fact sheets on coal seam gas industry, fraccing, groundwater, and environmental performance.