PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: One issue that seems to polarise farming communities more than most others is coal seam gas. An economic saviour to some, others fear the long-term damage the industry could do to underground water supplies. The latest front in this ongoing battle is South Australia, with a proposal to drill exploration wells near prime agricultural land in the state’s south-east. More from Leah MacLennan.
LEAH MACLENNAN, REPORTER: Over the past five years, anti-coal seam gas demonstrations have mostly been restricted to Queensland and NSW.
But the protests are now spilling over the border into SA. These farmers and environmentalists are trying to stop gas exploration in the state’s south-east.
Beach Energy is putting down test drills near Penola. If it finds gas, the company may have to extract it using hydraulic fracturing – fracking – a technique that uses a pressurised mixture of sand, water and chemicals to tap into underground gas reserves.
REG NELSON, BEACH ENERGY: Well first of all fracking is a term we don’t use because it encompasses so many different things. It’s a process that’s been around since the 1890s, but, as I say, it covers so many things and it’s evolved in so many different ways. What we’re looking to do, possibly, is to apply very precise fracture stimulation to the deep rocks at probably four kilometres depth.
LEAH MACLENNAN: If this so-called unconventional gas extraction goes ahead, it will be the first time the technique has been used in an agricultural area in SA, and that’s angered some of the locals.
Over the last six years, Anne Daw has gone from south-east landowner to anti-mining lobbyist.
ANNE DAW, ANTI-MINING CAMPAIGNER: We only have 4.6 per cent agricultural prime land and cropping land left in the whole state outside of pastoral areas and that is not much to ask to be preserved and exempt from mining petroleum and unconventional gas.
LEAH MACLENNAN: The protest movement has drawn the attention of non-Government MPs in the South Australian Parliament, who are pushing for new laws to restrict fracking and mining in agricultural areas.
ROBERT BROKENSHIRE, SA FAMILY FIRST MP: And we need to address it before we lose our best agricultural land. Some say the Mining Act is balanced; I say that the Mining Act is in favour of mining and makes it difficult for farmers. I’m arguing that in the state’s interests, you know, we – Family First are not anti-mining, but we say there are places where you can mine and places where you should be able to unquestionably proceed with farming.
LEAH MACLENNAN: But the State Government isn’t interested. It argues there are sufficient safeguards overseen by the Environment, Resources and Development, or ERD, Court.
TOM KOUTSANTONIS, SA MINISTER FOR MINERAL RESOURCES: Prime agricultural land is exempt from the Mining Act, but people can, if they find resources, go to the ERD Court and have that, of course, overturned. And that’s right, and that’s the right thing to do because you can have multiple land use principles that do show that mining and farming can co-exist.
LEAH MACLENNAN: That’s of little comfort to people like Jack England, a third-generation farmer near Kingston, and he’s the vice-chair of Livestock SA.
JACK ENGLAND, LIVESTOCK SA: Some farmers will probably want to sell out and they’re quite pro-mining and there are others that are against it. So we have to be careful that we represent the interests of all farmers, make sure all the drilling, if it goes ahead, is Mickey Mouse and they do the right thing in terms of biosecurity, sort of equity for farms and that sort of thing.
LEAH MACLENNAN: The biggest concern for farmers is the potential impact of deep drilling, mining and hydraulic fracturing on aquifers.
JACK ENGLAND: The best thing about the south-east down here is we can drill a hole, dig a hole and we either have a well or into the sub-Artesian Basin and we’ve got water for our livestock and/or irrigation and the wine crops as well. So that’s the most stable resource that we’ve got down here and we certainly want to protect it as much as possible.
LEAH MACLENNAN: Any threat to aquifers is of great concern to the local wine industry.
DENNIS VICE, HIGHBANK WINES: We know for a fact that there are three aquifers. We’re actually standing just a matter of a few feet above the first aquifer and it’s a very unique situation in vineyard areas around the country.
LEAH MACLENNAN: Dennis Vice makes organic wine from his vineyards in Coonawarra and he’s deeply worried about Beach Energy’s exploration drills.
DENNIS VICE: Beach conducted a local meeting here and invited everyone to come along to kind of put their position forward, and I think from then on people began to realise that it was a reality, that they were really seriously going to do exploratory wells and put wells down through the aquifers, trying again to use the fracking technique to be able to extract gas from these wells that are tremendously deep.
LEAH MACLENNAN: Because the wells will go through aquifers, locals want to make sure there’s no leaking or contamination.
REG NELSON: What we will do, and this is part of our normal practice, is to drill and case those aquifers so that they’re entirely separated before we drill and possibly encounter any gas. Now I say this because people have drilled there and we have drilled there for so-called conventional gas and made gas discoveries and there’s been no detriment.
LEAH MACLENNAN: This is not the first time there’s been mineral exploration in the region.
Debbie Nulty’s farm adjoins Anne Daw’s property. In the early 1980s, Western Mining explored this area for brown coal. The pair say this old drill well is an example of what can go wrong.
DEBBIE NULTY, FARMER: We noticed that it was falling away from the side and we were concerned about the aquifer.
LEAH MACLENNAN: Beach Energy says it wouldn’t leave its wells in such a state, using this photo as an example of one of their rehabilitated drill holes.
REG NELSON: I’ve been farming most of my life in various areas, presently broadacre cropping. I’ve lived in rural communities, I empathise with rural communities. I believe in the Golden Rule, you know: do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.
LEAH MACLENNAN: Initially the Nultys were told they would have to rehabilitate the well themselves, and if they didn’t, they could face a $15,000 fine.
And how much would it have cost you to rehabilitate yourself?
DEBBIE NULTY: I’m not sure about the costs because in my mind it wasn’t my drill hole and I really hadn’t even thought that I was ever going to fix the drill hole. It would have been – I would have, yes, yelled from the treetops before I would have fixed it, basically.
LEAH MACLENNAN: After long negotiations, the Government agreed to fix the dilapidated well.
It’s a small victory for Debbie Nulty and for Anne Daw, but these two women are fighting a much longer battle: trying to stop mining on agricultural land altogether.