Key’s Report 13 February

Travelling the underground

Written by Tony Keys, The Key Report 13th February 2014

Fracking is causing upset in the south-east of South Australia. It poses a possible threat to the wine regions of Coonawarra, Padthaway, Wrattonbully, Robe, Mount Gambier and Mount Benson, or, collectively, the Limestone Coast.

Beach Energy commenced drilling on January 11 just  two kilometres south of Penola. The (Jolly-1 vertical) well is exploring the potential of shale and tight sandstone, which have potential for liquids-rich gas.

The map shows the situation of the well and just how far the company wants to explore. Can it be trusted to look after the land? The company, of course, says yes. But it also says the aim of Beach Energy is “to increase shareholders’ wealth through profitable investment in exploration, development and production” .

As we are well aware, wealth creation is often at the cost of the land.

As in other parts of Australia and the world, this is a sensitive issue, and an issue that has politicians arguing. The Greens are clear they are against it; other parties are confusing as they appear to want the product but not the method of obtaining it. They want to save jobs but not lose the vote of the farmers and landowners. It’s ongoing and will affect all our lives, and possibly those of our children as well.

The practical issue of concern as far as grape growers and other farmers is pollution of the aquifer. Beach Energy says the community is confusing the extraction of coal seam gas with shale gas extraction. The former requires a lot of water; the latter not as much and the water is reused. TKR asked Allen Jenkins, president of Coonawarra Grape and Wine Incorporated, to state the growers’ case. Jenkins is also senior viticulturist for Treasury Wine Estates in the region. He said:

“This issue is one of relevance to much of the Lower Limestone Coast (not just Coonawarra). If unconventional shale gas mining and associated high volume, high pressure slickwater fracking were to expand over this sort of area (180,000 hectares) a large number of wells would be required and the long term future of our water supplies in this important part of South Australia could be seriously compromised.

“A local newspaper has reported the wells would be five kilometres apart. If they were to locate the major well heads on a 5 X 5 km grid then 10 wells per year would cover around 250 sq km or 25,000 hectares.

“The whole Limestone Coast is absolutely dependent on the ground water supply which services our town water, our industry, our livestock, and our irrigated agriculture. We have no other options, we do not have access to the River Murray, or reservoirs, or desalination. We are not confusing coal seam gas with the unconventional shale gas (USG) exploration currently underway just south of Penola.  

“Our understanding is that all USG needs fracking and Beach Energy indicated in their Penola public consultation their intent to hydraulically fracture these first two exploration wells. (Evidently they have no approval for fracking as yet.)

“Despite the commentary about a long history of gas wells in the Limestone Coast, our understanding is they have all been conventional wells, not unconventional shale. This is a new deal with new risks and an array of unknown consequences.

“Beach in their Penola consultation indicated that approximately four megalitres of water would be required for establishment and fracking of each horizontal well. Our understanding is that at each major well pad around six horizontal wells are drilled through the shale layer, each up to 1.2km long. This would mean around 24 ML would be required at each major well site. How much is recycled and really required is beyond my expertise.

“The big issue for us is that wells don’t last forever – steel and cement decay. We are a long term industry and many vineyards are being replanted in Coonawarra, and the expectation is for a 40 to 50-year life span. If the gas wells fail in 30 years’ time, and the ground water is contaminated or potentially drained into lower geology then the future of this region is compromised. Short term thinking and financial gain should not be allowed to compromise this amazing water supply and landscape for future generations. Seismic activity potentially precipitated by extensive high pressure fracking and also naturally occurring is also a very real long term risk to well integrity.

“We also have just completed 12 years of negotiations and activity leading to a new Lower Limestone Coast Water Allocation Plan (WAP) which has a precautionary principle as its major tenet. As part of this WAP we are taking 15 per cent cuts to assist preserve our water resource, and so it is very concerning to see another industry come in and be given carte blanche access to water.

“Unfortunately, we don’t see any precautionary principle in evidence from our SA Govt re USG when compared to Victoria and NSW, who are taking a more measured approach. We also don’t know what contaminants the fracking water will bring to the surface when returned. Nor do we know what will be done to dispose of this waste in an environmentally safe manner.

“In essence, enough doubt exists that there can be no guarantee of zero harm to the precious ground water, and as a consequence we want to see a more precautionary approach to this issue.”