QUEENSLAND landholders have some lessons for farmers in NSW and South Australia.
A nervous federal government is instructing other Great Artesian Basin states to open up country for coal seam gas (CSG) production, in the hope increased availability can curb soaring gas and electricity prices.
But the Queensland government’s draft management plan for its artesian water resources highlights the challenges CSG can create for other water dependent industries.
Groundwater is often a byproduct of CSG production.
Known as associated water, it is extracted to decrease pressure in coal seams, which liberates gas and allows it to flow to the surface.
The gas industry maintains that the extraction taps water resources which are too salty, deep and costly for agricultural use. In Queensland, treated associated water is made available to farmers.
But while associated water is measured, there is no upper limit on CSG extraction.
Queensland has released a draft water management plan that provides 35,055 megalitres of additional unallocated GAB groundwater for new development.
Conjecture remains over the extent of the impact on farmers’ alluvial bores from dewatering deeper coal seams.
But according to landholder group, the Basin Sustainability Alliance, the limited water allocation is “a direct consequence of the totally unsustainable unlimited water take by the CSG industry”.
Up to 80pc of the additional groundwater (28,610ML) is under state reserve and available to major projects like mining and gas development. There is another 16pc (5,615ML) for agriculture and 4pc (830ML) for indigenous community projects.
In the gasfields, across the 200,000 square kilometre Surat Cumulative Management Area stretching north west from Toowoomba to Emerald, the government issued a 2pc increase in the amount of groundwater available to agricultural production, or 840ML.
One potential consequence in the gasfields is new agricultural development would need to negotiate with CSG companies to access water.
Political and industry pressure to drive CSG development opens up issues, across the basin including competition for groundwater resources, salt production and disposal, and sustainable water extraction issues, such as capping and piping open bores.
Right regulation critical
GOVERNMENT regulation is key to balancing competition for water, says a former senior bureaucrat in Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management.
Tom Crothers, who is now a director of Stella Advisory Services, said it was “perplexing” that under the new plan artesian water allocation is managed by the Natural Resource and Mines Department, while the water taken by gas and mining companies was managed by the Environment Department, “and they don’t connect to each other very much”.
South Australia has a new royalty scheme to encourage landholders to open their gates to gas, while the NSW government is assessing Santos’ Narrabri project and Victoria is under pressure to lift its moratorium.
Mr Crothers said because there was “no upper limit on water extraction by the gas or mining industry for their associated water” the potential to expand agriculture was “virtually nil.”
Agriculture uses 50pc of Surat Basin groundwater, industry and towns 30pc and CSG about 20pc.