The Baird government will increase its monitoring of groundwater, starting with three coal seam gas flashpoints, in a bid to ease community concerns about the impact of the emerging industry.
The NSW Office of Water will drill additional bores and introduce advanced computer modelling to provide baseline water assessments of the Gloucester, Gunnedah and Clarence Moreton basins, three regions where CSG developers have faced fierce local opposition.
“Once complete, this mapping will provide real-time data from bores across these basins that will be used as an ‘early warning system’ to quickly identify threats to water resources, tackle the causes and prevent future problems,” Water Minister Kevin Humphries said.
Phase one will see 10 bores drilled at five sites at a cost of $3.1 million, with the second phase involving 12 bores at six sites with a bill of $4.3 million.
Water consultant Philip Pells welcomed the additional research, noting “it’s very hard to define the impact if you don’t know what the starting point is”.
Any monitoring would have to cover the “very long term because the systems have to be monitored over climatic cycles that extend over decades”, Dr Pells said.
More important, though, was the need to model the probable impacts of the CSG and longwall coal mining projects rather than existing baselines, he said.
Earlier this year the government suspended the exploration licence of Metgasco at Bentley in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, citing a failure to conduct sufficient community consultation.
Last month Energy Minister Anthony Roberts approved hydraulic fracturing of four wells near Gloucester in the mid-north coast region. Local opponents say they are prepared to blockade the project’s developer AGL to prevent the fracking proceeding.
“The Water Monitoring Framework will provide honest, independent and consistent oversight and further strengthen NSW’s claim to have the toughest regulations for mining and gas in Australia,” Mr Roberts said.
Steve Phillips, a spokesman for CSG opponents Lock the Gate, said the companies, including Santos in the Gunnedah basin, should halt operations until the results of the water mapping were completed.
“We can’t be continuing to threaten our water resources,” Mr Phillips said. “We need to stop that while the research is being conducted.”
The need for the new work was “an acknowledgment that the government knows the jury is still out on the impacts of unconventional gas”, he said.
Mr Roberts said irrigated agriculture accounted for as much as 70 per cent of the state’s water use, with mining accounting for about 1.5 per cent.
One water expert said the focus needed to be as much on changes to the quality of the water, not just the quantity. “Even just basic salinity trends would be valuable,” he said.