Santos to pay the price for contaminating Pilliga forest

The New South Wales Land and Environment Court is prosecuting for the first time an oil and gas company for spilling a toxic gas waste into the forest killing acres of trees.

The Sydney court is expected to announce its verdict on Santos Ltd. after the New Year. Santos is prosecuted this week for 10,000 liters of coal seam gas spill in the great inland of the Pilliga Forest, northwest of Sydney, in June 2011 without reporting it as required by law. Santos is the first-ever to be prosecuted under 1991 forest law.

Santos-rally

Community groups form a blockage to denounce Santos and the risks associated with fracking (Photo: Supplied)

On Wednesday, the company pleaded guilty on the spill and three counts of failing to file accurate environmental reports. Each charge carries a maximum fine of AU$110,000. Santos is also ordered to pay an additional AU$110,000 for the costs of the investigation and prosecution. The court’s prosecutor, Stephen Rushton, said the penalty serves as deterrence for others to follow.

Santos, acquired Eastern Star Gas July 2011 for AU$626 million. ESG ran a water treatment plant in the Pilliga forest. The polluted water spilled into the forest in June 2011, killing 77 percent of the trees in a 1.75 hectare area, the prosecution said.

The Wilderness Society claims that the senior management of Santos at the time knew about the June 2011 spill, but tried to cover it up. The Society said the court proceedings would then be a test for NSW Government regulation of the coal seam gas industry.

Wilderness Society Newcastle Campaign Manager Naomi Hogan said Santos deserves the maximum penalty for the cover up and that any penalty should be a serious deterrent to other companies.

The Society notes that communities across NSW are watching the ruling closely, as this court case exposes the reality of the water pollution and environmental damage associated with coal seam gas fracking operations.

The damage considered in this case was just from a handful of wells, yet now residents of north-west NSW are facing Santos’ plans for 850 production wells across the Pilliga and Narrabri region, the Society adds.

Local farmers had to report the toxic spill to the media before Santos took action, according to the Society, and this is ”a scary prospect to think that community members will have to continue to monitor coal seam gas pollution if gas fields expand across the north west as planned by Santos and the NSW Government.”

pilliga forest

Community leaders inspect the affected area of the Pilliga Forest (Photo: Supplied)

The Pilliga is considered the last great inland forest, home to many threatened species including the koala and Pilliga mouse. It’s part of the Murray Darling basin, Australia’s largest food bowl, and a major recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin, an essential source of water for Outback Australia.

About 40 community members blockaded Santos’ Pilliga forest operations on Tuesday and another 25 protests outside the court on Wednesday. Dozens more protested outside Santos offices in Gunnedah and Narrabri.

Santos has always insisted people needs education when it comes to understanding the processes and benefits of fracking.

Drawing from its rich history for 40 years, Santos has been fracking for natural gas from sandstone in the Cooper Basin in outback South Australia. The gas is piped thousands of kilometres to Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney.

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Largest port to kill the Barrier Reef

The “Asian Century” has arrived in Queensland. The world’s largest port will rise soon that will pave the link between the Australian state and Asian market– India in particular.

Aerial view Abbot Point T2 and T3

Aerial view Abbot Point T2 and T3

The Federal government gave the green light to the massive expansion of three major port terminals at Abbot Point, 26 km north of Bowen in Central Queensland– positioned to become one of the world’s largest industrial sea ports.

The approval gives Adani Enterprises Pty. Ltd. and GVK, among other mining companies, a breakthrough in the multi-billion coal industry which will exploit the potential of the coal-rich Galilee Basin.

Adani’s most recent performance at T0

Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced the decision on Tuesday after a ”rigid assessment” and the project’s environmental impacts. After a long delay, the minister approved four Queensland projects under the National Environmental Law, including the capital dredging program for the proposed Terminals 0, 2 and 3 at the Port of Abbot Point, the Adani T0 project, the Arrow Liquefied Natural Gas Facility on Curtis Island, and the Arrow Gas Transmission Pipeline to Curtis Island. The terminals will provide the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the ”bullish” coal industry within the Galilee Basin.

The approval of Terminal 0 (T0) is sure to boost Adani’s ambitious prospect to ship the coal to India. “Coal from this project will predominantly service the Indian market,”  Adani admitted. The group acquired the terminal for about two billion Australian dollars under a 99-year lease in 2011. T0 is estimated to have a 70 metric tonnes per annum mtpa (35 mtpa x two stages) handling capacity. T2 will be built by an Australian-own company, while T3 will be undertaken by GVK.

But the New York Times reported Adani bought the port in 2011 for 1.8 billion Australian dollars taking advantage of the area still recovering from a series of floods.

 “Abbott Point is our contribution to India’s global ambitions,” said Gautam Adani, chair of Adani. Adani. “An Indian billionaire and real estate magnate, runs the largest private sector coal importer in India, a country hungry for energy resources. He already has other investments in Queensland….”

The T0 alone is projected to generate  a financial value of A$ 1.4 – 2.8 billion annually in gross revenue which will contribute significantly to the Queensland and Australian economy. It will directly benefit Bowen locality and the wider Whitsunday region, Adani said in its presentation paper earlier this year.

Estimated employment stands at 500 jobs in construction and 200-250 jobs in operation, while it provides opportunity for expansion of permanent working population at the Port of Abbot Point. This projection, however, is based on the estimated export of thermal coal from Adani’s Carmichael Coal Mine and Abbot Point Coal Terminal 0 projects.

GVK, on the other hand, will undertake the expansion of  T3  port facilities and Galilee Basin coal assets including the Alpha, Alpha West and Kevin’s Corner coal projects. It will also construct a rail connection to the Abbot Point Port. “Together with the previously received clearances for the Alpha mine, the rail to Abbot Point ,GVK Hancock has solidified its leading position in the Galilee Basin of Queensland, Australia, ” the company said in a press release.

GV Sanjay Reddy, Vice Chairman  of the GVK Power & Infrastructure Limited, said the approval will enable the “provision of billions of tonnes of high quality, low sulphur, low ash, and cleaner burning coal for consumption in the Indian and Asian market.” He added, “this approval takes our projects in to the final stageof project development and we look forward to successfully developing and consolidating our position as the leading Indian infrastructure development company.”

The North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation  (NQBC) has been commissioned as the port authority responsible for managing the project.

The extensive industrial projects along the eastern coast of Queensland. The darker blue line sketches the boundary of the world heritage area (Image: Fight for the Reef)

State Premier strengthens economic ties with India

The Galilee Basin is strengthening the economic ties between Queensland and India. Premier Campbell Newman admitted the potential of the region which could be a bigger contributor to Queensland’s economy than the coal seam gas industry.

Newman had visited Adani’s operation in India and believes in the export potential of the region. Further, he considers a long-term strategic business partnership with Indian companies. Mining Australia quoted him as saying, “They want coal to come for their thermal power stations day in, day out, week in, week out, month after month, for not 10 years or 20 years or 50 years; they want it to come for 70 to 100 years” .

On Gautam Adani, Newman is mesmerized with his business empire-building enthusiasm: “He owns the power lines, he owns the retail, he wants that coal. Now, the current coal price is not really a big thing in his calculations,” Newman said. “What he wants is supply security, and he wants to get that supply chain cost down as low as possible.”

Environmental concerns

Greenpeace lambasts the dredging and dumping of industrial waste into the vicinity of the reef.

Environmental groups, however, are enraged with the developments.

The terminals will require dredging of about three million cubic meters of sediments from the bottom of the sea. Local communities and environmental groups are outraged on how and where would the dredging spoils be dumped. The long-term effect after the area after the mining projects is also a matter of concern.

Hunt said he made an agreement with the Gladstone Ports Authority that they will not dispose of up to 12 million cubic metres of spoil within the Marine Park, but will instead use the material for land infill.

Hunt and Newman are already under fire from Green groups. The WWF, for one, is now pressing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park not to issue a permit to the NQBPC to dump the dredge spoil into the reef waters.

The WWF-Australia, in partnership with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, has also launched a nationwide and international campaign, Fight for the Reef, that educates people about the implication of the large-scale industrialization of Australia’s east coast- more significantly its impact on the world-listed heritage site – the Great Barrier Reef.

After carbon tax, coal to power the economy

Following economists’ recent prediction of the impending end of mining boom cycle, the Federal Government is scrambling to find an alternative solution to power the Australian economy and is now turning to seam gas and brown coal projects.

New South Wales and Victoria received the green lights to go ahead with the projects, respectively – stirring rounds of uproar from local industries, farmers, consumers, and environmental groups.

Hunter Valley in NSW is home to one of the world’s finest wineries and is now under seam gas exploration threat.

In January this year, the Federal Government created the Independent Expert Scientific Committee to provide impartial advice on the environmental effects of coal mining and coal seam gas projects. But ABC’s Lateline revealed that four out of the six members have financial links with the mining industry.

  • Professor Chris Moran – director of the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland. In 2010 the institute received $17 million, more than half of its funding, from coal seam gas and mining giants Santos, BHP Billiton, BG Group, Rio Tinto and many more.
  • Associate Professor David Laurence – head of the University of NSW Centre for Sustainable Mining Practices. It’s funded with a $1.1 million grant by Mitsubishi Development, a Japanese-controlled coal miner with significant investments in Queensland.
  • Professor John Langford – shareholder in coal seam gas and coal companies for his self-managed superannuation funds.
  • Professor Peter Flood –  a regular consultant for the resource industry.

Affected by the coal, the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association represents stallion farms, broodmare farms, the largest equine hospital in the Southern Hemisphere.

The committee is chaired by Professor Craig Simmons who said the committee is made up of distinguished academics with long and credible public records. He rejected any suggestion that the committee’s work is influenced by industry.

Professor Gary Willgoose, a hydrologist who holds a prestigious position of Australian professorial fellow said it is virtually impossible to find an independent expert as the coal seam gas industry funds and provides the vast majority of research and consultancy work.

Larissa Walters, Federal Green Senator, however said, “These people have been appointed to scrutinise the impacts of coal seam gas and coal mining. You want to make sure that they’re not getting paid by the industry and therefore might turn a blind eye to some of the more dastardly impacts of the industry.” Read ABC TRANSCRIPT.

In Victoria, the brown coal investment is in full swing under the Ted Baillieu Government. The federal and Victorian governments today announced the creation of a $90 million fund for new brown coal projects in the Latrobe Valley.

North brown coal power station in Gippsland, Victoria. (Photo: Aaron Francis/The Australian)

The Sydney Morning Herald said each government will contribute $45 million to pay for the development and rollout of brown coal technologies, including drying for export, conversion into fuels and fertilisers, and reducing emissions from coal-fired electricity generation. The announcement comes ahead of the Victorian Government opening its controversial tender for new allocations of brown coal in the Latrobe Valley.

Federal Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said the program will create jobs in the LaTrobe Valley region, spur economic growth, and create a sustainable source of energy for Victorian industries and households.

The Minister also said,

There is a potential for brown coal to develop into a valuable export, which would not be possible without the technological innovation that may also assist in meeting the Government’s emissions reductions targets of five per cent fewer emissions than 2000 levels by 2020.”

Victorian Energy Minister Michael O’Brien said,

Our brown coal resource has for a long time benefited all Victorians, delivering a reliable and affordable power source that has underpinned our economic growth and been a competitive advantage for the state.

There is a long term viable future for the Latrobe Valley based on the sustainable use of brown coal.’

Expressions of interests for grants will close on November 19. The governments said construction of the  first funded project will be scheduled for 2013-14.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth campaign coordinator Cam Walker released a media statement to express his group’s disappointment over the government’s sneaky plan of scrapping clean energy projects.

The Yallourn brown coal power station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. (Photo: News Limited)

Last week, the Federal Energy Minister announced it will cancel the $100 grant to the proposed HRL coal-fired power plant in the Latrobe Valley. He said the announcement is devastating for the Victorian communities. The $45 million Victorian government contribution could be use to invest in clean energy technology. Walker said the announcement is a massive lost opportunity.

Instead of continuing to peddle the notion of ‘clean’ coal technologies, the government should be putting public funds into job rich renewable technology. The state government has shut off much of the state to wind energy, and refuses to listen to community concerns about coal and CSG. Having done a U Turn on climate action, it seems the government of Ted Baillieu is determined to take Victoria back into the 1950s by continuing to support the expansion of the obsolete brown coal industry.

Queensland slams UNESCO, defends gas on the barrier reef

UNESCO has released its damning environmental report on the Great Barrier Reef, but the Queensland State Government hits back saying the report poses an obstacle to the multi-billion dollar seam gas business.

The report came in time when the mineral boom is underway and the Queensland Government is excited about financial gains. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said his Government understands the issues raised in the report but could not accommodate some of its chief recommendations, News Corp. reports.

Newman said his government is in coal business and he is not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down.

UNESCO sent a team of experts in March to assess the status of the reef confronted by both natural and man-made threats. While natural threats could be beyond control, the impact of the latter can be minimised if the Queensland Government can review and adopt strategic solutions.

The international body said the World Heritage listed site is under enormous pressure amid increased developmental activities, including additional port infrastructures in and around the Great Barrier Reef and ongoing management of major liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants at Curtis Island and Gladstone Harbour.

The dredging in Gladstone Harbour for the seam gas has been blamed by local environmentalists for the area’s poor water quality and a skin disease affecting marine life. Green activists say dredging has adversely affected whales and dugongs in the area.

UNESCO recommended to the State Government to stop port facilities expansions and to undertake a comprehensive review and strategic solutions to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the reef.

It warned the reef could officially be listed “in danger” if the federal Government fails to convince the international body it has improved its performance before February next year.

Whether Queensland would be able to help improve environmental conditions of the reef or not, both state and federal governments have already given mineral explorations a go. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke supports the developmental projects saying the approval of applications has been in full swing. He said there was not much he could do to prevent development applications already in progress.

Mining magnates Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart have likewise secured government’s approval of their mining ventures in Queensland. Further, the two mining lords have  been pressuring the Government to allow them to build the world’s largest coal export facility right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The facility is envisioned  to double Australia’s coal exports. The mining moguls expect to hear of Government’s decision in 36 weeks time, GetUp noted.

GetUp, an activist group, said mining billionaires are used to getting their way,” but they’re not the only ones who know how to fight.”  The group has forged a tie up with Greenpeace and BankTrack to undertake an advertising campaign in key financial market in Asia and India to warn potential investors not to invest in these projects.

It’s not just UNESCO who are against the massive expansion of coal and coal seam gas facilities. We’ve just released an opinion poll that found 79 per cent of  Australians are already concerned about the expansion of mining along the Reef’s recognised heritage area — and that was before UNESCO’s  scathing criticisms started to make headlines nationwide.

GetUp is optimistic the ad campaign will work.  It claims that  in 2009, it funded ads in the European Financial Times to discourage potential investors who were previously considering to fund Gunns’ pulp mill in Tasmania.

Blog Link: Asian Correspondent