Australia Coal seam gas company drills wells under private property without notifying farmers
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On Queensland's Darling Downs, home to some of the most sought-after farmland in Australia, a coal seam gas company has drilled under farmland without notifying landholders, potentially leaving them uninsured and their land devalued.
West of Brisbane, Dalby farmer Luke Skerman has just been told by gas company Arrow Energy that he now has "deviated" gas wells under his land.
"They've got six deviated wells, three of which come underneath the back of my farm," he said.
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He is one of a number of landholders in the region only now learning about so-called 'deviated' gas wells, which have been drilled at angles under their properties.
Arrow Energy is owned by Shell and Petrochina, and is in phase one of its $10 billion, which will see more than 2,000 gas wells drilled across an area over three times the size of the ACT.
To limit the impact on farmland, gas wells will be grouped on the edge of paddocks and drilled at angles into the coal seams.
But Dalby-based lawyer Peter Shannon, who represents the landholders, said there was no excuse for not notifying them before drilling under their farms, which he said was required under the.
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"There's just a straight breach of the law not to give a notice of entry," he said.
"The law's very clear. It doesn't matter what type of activity you're doing, if it's an authorised activity, regardless of whether it's advanced or preliminary or whatever, you have to give a landholder notice."
In a statement, Arrow Energy said it was committed to engaging transparently and openly:
"At the time our existing deviated wells were drilled, we genuinely did not believe Entry Notices were required under the legislation," an Arrow Energy spokesperson said.
"As soon as it became clear that Entry Notices were indeed required, we proactively notified all impacted landholders in our Surat Basin development areas and provided detailed maps showing the location, depth and trajectory of all deviated wells that traverse into their properties."
But Mr Shannon questioned Arrow Energy's commitment to transparency.
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"On some occasions, Arrow actually approached people to seek permission to exceed noise limits, and other nuisance-type or environmental impacts for activity on this neighbouring property, without telling people that [the] noise and dust and light et cetera was going to be to drill under their land," he said.
Confusingly though, despite Arrow Energy admitting its oversight, Queensland's Department of Resources said a Notice of Entry was not required for 'directional drilling' because it was classified as a, not an , and had a 'minor impact'.
"Directional drilling under a person’s property where there is no infrastructure or activity occurring on the surface will be considered a preliminary activity for the land access framework if there is no, or only minor, impact on a landholder's business or land use activities," a spokesperson said.
But theeven uses 'directional drilling' as an example of an activity requiring a Notice of Entry.
The ABC understands that each landholder's situation is assessed on a case by case basis.
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To extract CSG, wells are drilled into the coal seams, and the water that traps the gas is extracted, allowing the gas to flow.
Removing both water and gas from the ground can cause subsidence, which is what farmers on the flat, Condamine flood plain are most concerned about. If the land subsides, water may not drain properly from paddocks, andto accurately assess ground levels.
"There is significant concern that the issue of land subsidence will affect market perceptions alone," Mr Shannon said.
Zena and Gary Ronnfeldt have a farm that is surrounded by Arrow Energy gas wells, one of which finishes under a 1,200 megalitre water storage.
"If we get a hairline crack in a ring tank bank like this it's going to be disastrous," Mr Ronnefelt said.
The Ronnfeldts have also been considering drilling a new water bore on their property, which could potentially intersect with an underground gas well.
"I actually did a 'dial-before-you-dig' and found that there were no [gas] wells registered under our property," Mrs Ronnfeldt said.
But this month Mrs Ronnfeldt has since learned that she does have deviated gas wells under her farm.
"As farmers and landholders we have to follow the rules," she said.
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"It's just not acceptable if gas companies are not having to follow the rules, it's not a free for all."
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]."
Arrow Energy said it had a record of working constructively with landholders.
"We have proven across our many, many relationships with landholders that we can work around their farming requirements on their land without unduly disrupting their business while adding valuable drought-free income to support their businesses," a spokesperson said.
Under Queensland laws, a gas company is entitled to access private land to access a resource.
Mr Skerman has just been through the negotiation process with Arrow Energy, signing a CCA to allow a pipeline to be built across his farm. But he said he felt like he had no other option.
"They just gave us an ultimatum, it was arm behind the back or sign the contract so we're taking you to the Land Court," Mr Skerman said.
"It's intimidation, they've got their crew sitting two farms away ready to come through.
"They've got the backing of the government, both federal and state to get the gas out – they've got the resources just to steamroll farmers really."
Arrow Energy said it had never pressured people to sign contracts.
Queensland's Department of Environment and Science (DES) said it was aware of a number of concerns raised in relation to Arrow Energy’s Surat Gas project, including directional drilling of gas wells and subsidence.
A spokesperson said DES was working with other state government departments to investigate these matters, and that enforcement measures it could take in response to any non-compliance ranged from warnings through to prosecution.
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