The coal seam gas industry has conceded that extraction will inevitably contaminate aquifers.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association told a fiery public meeting in Sydney that good management could minimise the risks of water contamination, but never eliminate them.
”Drilling will, to varying degrees, impact on adjoining aquifers,” said the spokesman, Ross Dunn. ”The extent of impact and whether the impact can be managed is the question.”
The admissions came before the start of the first public hearing in NSW, held in Narrabri, of a Senate inquiry into the effects of coal seam gas mining.
The hearing was told that many farmers in northern and western NSW were angry about proposals to extract coal seam gas from their land, and some planned to join a mass campaign to lock their gates in the face of resources companies.
The NSW Farmers Association said a ”gas rush” had been driven across NSW in the past two years because the state government had allowed a five-year exemption on paying royalties on coal seam gas extraction, to facilitate the growth of the industry.
Mr Dunn addressed a meeting - organised by the NSW Greens - in Leichhardt on Monday night. It discussed the planned drilling of an exploratory well in St Peters by a coal seam gas company, Dart Energy. He later said he stood by his comments, and that they applied to the industry in general.
”The intent of saying that is to make it clear that we have never shied away from the fact that there will be impacts on aquifers,” Mr Dunn said.
”I’m wanting to ensure that we are not seen as saying there won’t be any impacts during the process. It is a matter of monitoring and managing those impacts.”
The contamination of underground water supplies by coal seam gas mining, and particularly the controversial fracking process which injects a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into rock strata at high pressure, has been among the chief concerns of people opposed to gas extraction.
Mr Dunn said the geology of different gas extraction sites varied and, in many cases, the aquifers affected would be too deep for rural land use, so agriculture would not be influenced.
The government has imposed a moratorium on fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, until the end of the year.
Opponents want all coal seam gas mining banned and a long-term study carried out into the health and environmental effects.
The president of the Farmers Association, Fiona Simson, told the Herald she was yet to meet a rural land-holder who approved of the way the coal seam gas industry was doing business.
”We have land-holders across NSW who are already being impacted by coal seam gas companies seeking to demand access to their land,” Ms Simson said.
One submission to the Senate inquiry, from the medical group Doctors for the Environment, outlined some of the potential health risks posed by coal seam gas mining.
It said some of the compounds used during drilling, or released from underground by drilling, could ”produce short-term health effects and some may contribute to systemic illness and/or cancer many years later”.
”The public health consideration of these matters has been inadequate, leaving the population exposed to potential health hazards,” the submission said.
The industry in Australia has consistently said there are no known health risks associated with the practice in Australia or overseas.