NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer releases initial report from independent review of coal seam gas activities

30 Jul 2013

The Chief Scientist & Engineer has recommended the State Government take steps to build public trust in its capacity to oversee a safe coal seam gas industry in New South Wales.

Chief Scientist & Engineer, Professor Mary O'Kane, is continuing her independent review of CSG activities across the state.

In her initial report, Professor O'Kane has confirmed wide-ranging community concerns about CSG.

She says the government and industry face significant challenges going forward.

"CSG is a complex issue which has proven divisive chiefly because of the emotive nature of community concerns, the competing interests of the players, and a lack of publicly-available factual information," Professor O'Kane said.   

"The debate has been fuelled by unanswered concerns surrounding landholders' legal rights, land access and use; human health; the environment, particularly relating to impacts on water; engineering and operational processes; and industry regulation and compliance.

"The challenges faced by government and industry are considerable and a commitment from all parties will be required to improve the existing situation and build trust with the community," she said.

Professor O'Kane's initial report acknowledges CSG extraction, like all forms of energy production, poses human health and environmental challenges.

But it's found many of those concerns can be offset by ensuring engineering best practice; superb monitoring by industry; diligent and transparent compliance checks by regulators; and a rapid and effective response, then remediation, should an incident occur.

Professor O'Kane says the government can build public confidence by taking steps to prove its intent and capacity to oversee a safe CSG industry in New South Wales, including that:

  1. It commits to establishing a regime for extraction of coal seam gas that is world class, including an insistence on industry best practice at all stages of CSG extraction – as well as in the training of all employees and contractors; rigorous, high-level monitoring and stringent compliance inspections; hefty penalties for licences breaches, including possible licence revocation; having a central, comprehensive, spatially-enabled, open, whole-of-environment data repository as part of the commitment to transparency; and developing a system within government to assess cumulative impacts of multiple industries operating in sensitive environments.
  2. It commissions the design and establishment of a whole-of-environment data repository for all State environment data – including all data collected according to legislative and regulatory requirements associated with water management, gas extraction, mining, manufacturing, and chemical processing activities.
  3. A pre-major-CSG whole-of-State subsidence baseline be calculated using appropriate remote sensing data going back, say, 15 years. And that, from 2013 onwards, an annual whole-of-State subsidence map be produced so that the State's patterns can be traced for the purpose of understanding and addressing any significant cumulative subsidence.
  4. All coal seam gas industry personnel including subcontractors working in operational roles be subject to mandatory training and certification requirements and that these mandatory training and certification requirements be included in the codes of practice relevant to CSG; and
  5. It continues and extends its role as a champion of research relevant to the hard problems related to under-earth especially the development of sophisticated predictive underground models and a formalisation of engineering processes for cumulative impact assessment. The Government should not only lead by example in encouraging and funding such research to be undertaken and discussed in NSW, but should exhort other governments and organisations to take a related approach through mechanisms such as COAG and international partnerships.

"The issue of CSG is a very tough one and requires a commitment from government to sound policy implementation based on highly developed data," Professor O'Kane said. "Further research will also be essential to filling knowledge gaps."

Professor O'Kane said the independent review will continue well into next year.

"There is indeed more work to be done," Professor O'Kane said.

"As the review continues, the team will be undertaking further work in relation to landholders' legal rights; examining appropriate levels of industry insurance; conducting a full industry compliance study; reviewing government best practice in the management of CSG extraction; and analysing in-depth the methods for CSG risk and assessment," she said.