By HARRY CLARKE
SUBSURFACE water has been spurting from the ground and coal seam gas has been bubbling in areas of the Condamine River catchment where it’s never been seen before, in a shock development that has landholders concerned about future farming viability.
Gas company Origin has been working around the clock on farmland south of Chinchilla to put caps over historical coal drilling holes, which in mid-July became fountains of water being pushed to the earth’s surface from underground coal seams.
The phenomenon has been occurring on the northern side of the Condamine River and west of the Chinchilla Weir where Origin, regional operator of the Australia Pacific LNG project, has been in its early stages of coal seam gas development.
It remains unclear exactly what triggered the sudden gas and water seepages but landholders say they have no doubt the problem is linked to changes in subsurface pressures caused by CSG development which recently began on properties in the vicinity.
“At first we thought ‘oh my goodness, this is a disaster'”RACHAEL PASCOE, LANDHOLDER
There are hundreds of coal exploration holes in the area which were drilled as far back as the 1980s under a coal exploration lease now owned by Yancoal.
Water suddenly surfaced from five of the holes, but there are concerns many more have the potential to also begin flowing with salty coal seam gas water.
“These coal exploration bore holes are not lined or cased like gas wells, providing a potential path for water and gas to move between the shallow geology in the area and in some cases lift and come to the surface,” Origin said in a statement to the Caller.
Origin has now successfully capped the holes and has also ramped up testing and monitoring of gas seeps in the broader area. Bubbling in Charleys Creek has now ceased, Origin said.
“Origin’s position is that while we aren’t responsible for the ongoing management of these old coal exploration bores, we are prepared to work with our landowners and government on a case-by-case basis to remediate from an environmental and safety perspective,” the statement said.
“We have been given authorisation from government under the relevant legislation to plug and abandon four of these coal holes on behalf of others.”
Yancoal purchased the coal exploration lease for the area in 2011, after the bore holes were drilled.
Yancoal said it was assisting Origin, landholders and the government where possible to address the issues, noting its lease for the area was separate to its nearby Cambey Downs mine operation.
“While Yancoal is not the subject of compliance action by the regulator on this matter, nevertheless we are providing assistance to both Origin and the regulator to address these issues,” Yancoal’s statement said.
“We are working constructively and collaborating with the government regulator and Origin to assess the situation in relation to other plugged and abandoned coal exploration holes that are not presently impacted by the current issues.”
“We have been given authorisation … to plug and abandon four of these coal holes on behalf of others”ORIGIN ENERGY
Origin has had to obtain approval from the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy before works to seal the water spills could begin, which delayed the mitigation process.
A statement by the Department said landholders were not responsible for remediating issues relating to boreholes from resource exploration or mining activities.
“Issues arising from legacy boreholes are assessed and managed on a case-by-case basis by a multidisciplinary team of experts from government, engaging with industry and the landholder,” the DNRME statement said.
“While most issues are resolved collaboratively and without difficulty, if responsibility is not clear, the Queensland Government can investigate and has the power to take compliance action that may include directing the relevant party to resolve the issue.”
BUBBLING IN CHARLEYS CREEK
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As well as from the coal holes, gas and salty water has also surfaced in farming dams and from within the bed of Charleys Creek, a tributary of the Condamine River which runs through the Chinchilla township.
Origin said the recent emergence of bubbles was “an extension” of the issue relating to the coal holes, but stopped short of attributing it to the company’s nearby CSG development, some of which began only this year on a property bordered by the creek.
See Origin’s full statement below.
Research by the CSIRO published in 2017 found underground coal seam gas seeps caused bubbling in the Condamine River to occur naturally.
Video of particularly vigorous bubbling in the Condamine River near the Chinchilla Weir – which can be ignited when combined with an accelerant – went viral online in 2012.
The CSIRO report attributed this to pressure changes resulting from widespread flooding which occurred in the catchment in 2011.
The report claimed the gas seeps had no “adverse environmental impact on the plant or animal life of the river and its surroundings”.
Bubbling in Charleys Creek has eased since the seepage mitigation work has been carried out.
However, the water surfacing from the bed of the creek had low levels of salt, creating great concern among local farmers about the potential for longer term water contamination, should the problem arise again.
CONCERN FOR LANDHOLDERS
The property where the water and gas spills have occurred is owned by Tony and Rachael Pascoe who, with two sons, are a fifth generation grazing and cropping family.
Before these incidents there was no CSG activity on their property.
The landholders were suddenly forced to spend weeks accommodating urgent mitigation works amid fears the gas and water leaks would damage the country and pose an ongoing threat to their business.
Ms Pascoe said her sons discovered the coal holes spurting water when they were checking on a herd of their cattle.
“At first we thought ‘oh my goodness, this is a disaster,’” Ms Pascoe said.
“Tony tasted the water and it tasted salty, so that hit an alarm bell. It was running down towards our irrigation channel, so we were worried about what the water was going to do to the soil and the crop.”
She said despite the recent spills having been remediated, the prospect of more gas and water problems related to CSG development would be an ongoing concern.
“We have a good relationship with Origin but at the end of the day, they are no different to any other business. They’re out to make money,” Ms Pascoe said.
“Unlike other businesses, we live where our business is, and sometimes I don’t think they get that whole attachment to the land that farmers have.
“We have an environmental responsibility. The generations before us looked after the land so that we can have a successful business, so it’s our responsibility to do the same for future generations.”RACHAEL PASCOE
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STATEMENT FROM ORIGIN
The edge of the Surat Basin is characterised by extensive contemporary and historical or legacy coal exploration. The underlying geology in this area is rich in shallow natural gas resources associated with coal formations. Gas companies like Origin and coal share overlapping resource tenure – and there are hundreds of coal bore holes within this area where the Walloon coals, the target zone for both coal mining and coal seam gas development, is close to the surface.
These coal exploration bore holes are not lined or cased like gas wells, providing a potential path for water and gas to move between the shallow geology in the area and in some cases lift and come to the surface. Any of these old coal bores which don’t have sufficient isolations in place may also provide pathways between gas bearing coals and shallow porous formations connected to underlying dams and creek beds.
While we aren’t responsible for the ongoing management of these old coal exploration bores, we are prepared to work with our landowners and government on a case-by-case basis to remediate from an environmental and safety perspective. We have recently completed remediating a localised cluster of these coal holes drilled in the early 2000’s that had started lifting water and gas. The authorisation to step in and undertake this work was given by government. We also sampled and tested water quality in dams and in the nearby creek, providing this information to the landowner and government.
There is no gas development on this property and no fracking has occurred in this area.