As Queensland farmers raise concerns about trespass and subsidence from coal seam gas mining (CSG), the once-sceptical Ian Hayllor is now welcoming the industry onto his land.
- Dalby farmer Ian Hayllor says he has weighed up the risks of CSG to his farm and believes they are low
- Some farmers near Dalby are worried coal seam gas could cause land subsidence
- Mr Hayllor says he’s spoken to others who have hosted CSG for more than 10 years where nothing has changed
His decision has created tension with some of his neighbours but, he said, the risk to groundwater and land was low, and that — through compensation — CSG would improve farms and even help to drought-proof businesses.
Mr Hayllor has just installed six, brand-new grain silos on his Dalby farm, west of Brisbane.
“It created issues, especially in years like this with [a] wet harvest.”
It is an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars less than a year after one of the worst droughts in the district.
But it was money Mr Hayllor could afford to spend thanks to compensation contracts with a gas company, allowing its pipelines and gas wells to be built on his farm.
The gas company Mr Hayllor is dealing with is Arrow Energy, owned by Shell and Petrochina.
It is rolling out a $10 billion coal seam gas project in the area and is drilling thousands of wells over 8,600 square kilometres.
For more than 10 years, Arrow Energy has been discussing with landholders how they can minimise the impact on farmland.
Unlike other areas around Roma — where gas operations have been in place for decades — farmland near Dalby is closely settled and more intensively farmed.
For that reason, it was decided that the gas wells should be grouped on the edge of paddocks and then drilled out at angles into underground seams.
The technique is called deviated drilling and Mr Hayllor has agreed to host dozens of deviated gas wells on his farm.
“The beauty of it is there’s six or seven wells on a hectare and half of land,” he said.
A sceptic no more
Mr Hayllor was not always pro-gas: A decade ago he was the inaugural chair of the Basin Sustainability Alliance, a landholder group that was pushing back against CSG expansion in Queensland and wanting more research into potential impacts on groundwater.
“We were really concerned about it,” he said.
So he pushed the state government and gas companies to invest in research for technology such as the groundwater monitoring site he now hosts on his farm.
There are three monitoring wells — one in the coal seam, one in the layer above that, and one in the Condamine Alluvium, the aquifer many people rely on and are most concerned about being impacted by CSG.
To test for connectivity, water is pumped from the coal seam and the other wells are monitored for changes.
Only a seeping suspicion
During construction of the monitoring site, when the wells were drilled, a core sample hundreds of metres in length was laid out and examined.
“We were actually able to feel this stuff … you look at stuff that looks like concrete,” Mr Hayllor said.
The independent Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment found that water pressure in the Condamine Alluvium continued “to show stable to minor declining trends across the groundwater system”, and that it was “unlikely that observed trends” related to CSG water extraction.
What about subsidence?
Extracting CSG removes a lot of groundwater and other farmers near Dalby are worried about their land subsiding.
There is no baseline data for whole areas where Arrow Energy is operating near Dalby, potentially leaving landholders with no legal recourse should their land subside in the future.
Arrow Energy said it continued to improve ground-level monitoring, and that “CSG-induced subsidence was unlikely to be perceptible at property scale and small compared to natural variability [such as from rainfall]”.
To be sure, Mr Hayllor has agreed to host a subsidence monitoring site on his property.
“I’ve spoken to people in other areas where the gas industry has been for, you know, 10-plus years and they laughed at me when I said, ‘What about subsidence?'” he said.
Transparency, trespass concerns
CSG has long been a divisive industry in Queensland, largely due to the uncertainty about its impact on land and water and its proximity to agricultural operations.
Non-disclosure clauses in agreements between gas companies and farmers feed suspicion and make negotiating compensation less transparent.
And, when it comes to groundwater, coal seam gas companies can extract a much as they need to get gas, which the Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment says will affect hundreds of farmers’ bores and some town water supply bores in the long term.
A recent Queensland Audit report was also scathing of how the industry was regulated, stating:
And last month Arrow Energy admitted it had drilled deviated gas wells under a private property at Dalby without advising its owners, with one landholder lawyer calling it “a straight breach of the law”.
It is still unclear whether these farmers will be eligible for compensation and an investigation by regulators is ongoing.
In the face of community division and uncertainty, Mr Hayllor’s cooperation with the CSG industry has put him at odds with some of his neighbours, but not Rob Thompson.
Mr Thompson likened the resistance to CSG to the introduction of cotton into the area in the 1980s, when many local farmers were opposed to the industry’s arrival.
Today cotton is widely grown and the industry has created a lot of wealth in the region.
“The funny thing about it is that nearly everyone [who has] taken a really strong, negative position now against coal seam gas all grow cotton,” Mr Thompson said.
While Mr Thompson had not signed any contracts with Arrow Energy yet, he said that, despite opposition in the area, there were many others who were prepared to work with the industry.
“There’s probably a majority of people who are prepared to accept it, who don’t feel that it’s going to have the dire consequences that some are predicting,” Mr Thompson said.