âIâll pick you up six-six thirtyâ he said, but already half past five I see the white ute speed down the dusty road to Pilliga Pottery. I stay at the âPoetâs cottageâ, a house and bush setting as romantic as the name promises. The reason for getting up early is not quite as poetic. I have invited myself for a tour to monitor Santos Coal Seam Gas (CSG) facilities in the Pilliga forest. âIâm sorry Iâm early, but they want as much time in the forest as possible before Santosâ workers get there.â PB says as I open the door. A group of activists from Lismore has stayed on their way to Canberra, where they a few days later would take part in the âPeopleâs Parliamentâ action related to the climate talks in Paris. This group of activists have, I was told the night before, an infrared camera for gas leak detection. This is just days after the latest Pilliga bushfire, which is now supposed to be under control, but as Iâve been repeatedly told âno-one puts out a fire in the Pilliga, only rain does thatâ. (And as I write this, another fire has hit the area.) Leaking gas in this very bushfire prone area might gain quite a bit of attention.
Itâs not often I catch the sun rise, but itâs a glorious morning. The world is beautiful in the early morning light, the air crisp and cool. Since the weather forecast spoke of 37 degrees, beating the sun is another reason to be up early. Itâs a short drive to the newly established camp, which since this morning have had the dust covered with wood chips and been equipped with among other things solar panels, water tanks, a toilet and showers. I have some white box trees pointed out. The white box eucalyptus was a key player in the controversies surrounding Whitehavenâs coal mine in nearby Leard State Forest, which is home to the largest White-Box Grassy Woodland left in NSW, a type of ecosystem that once covered most of eastern Australia but now is deemed critically endangered. (My first encounter with white box was the White Box Honey I bought at the Parramatta farmerâs market, and I must confess it took me some time to realise that White Box is a type of tree, and not, well, a white box.)
It takes before we actually get going, people are packing, drinking coffee and go into town for fuel. This is my second tour of Santos Pilliga gas field, which is not a full scaled gas field. Santos have an exploration permit and about 30 pilot wells in the area. As they donât have a production license, the wells are not supposed to produce gas. In the few weeks that has passed since that first tour of the fields, the rain has dried up and Santos has intensified work on their wells. One week earlier they begun moving in trucks and workers to the gas field, and this is why the camp is being established. As Santosâ increases their activity, so does the local anti-CSG movement.
When we get into the forest, I realise there is no infrared camera. There is a Geiger counter. While equipment to monitor gas leak is pretty straight forward in a gas field, the Geiger counter puzzles me. Radioactive gas? Apparently, the radioactive substance caesium-137 is used in the drill fluid. Back in Sydney, I find relatively recent news items from SMH and ABC on this, after all, there are few things with such a bad ring to it as âradioactiveâ. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the US-based drilling company Halliburton is permitted to use cesium-137 in the drilling it does for Santos in the Pilliga.
Drillers deploy devices containing CS-137 to measure the composition of gas and water deep underground, with the isotope emitting gamma rays to operate like a miniature X-ray. Produced in nuclear reactors, the material is potentially deadly and among the main radiation concerns at failed power stations at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Only small amounts are used in coal seam gas drilling, and the NSW Environment Protection said the isotope was also sometimes used in mining and construction, and strict rules were in place about its use. Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/anticsg-groups-says-use-of-radioactive-materials-should-be-disclosed-20141123-11s5vp.html#ixzz3u6YnETMI
When the fire started last week Santosâ workers left the forest, but now they are back. The tour this morning is also part of the continuous monitoring the local anti-CSG activists do of Santosâ activities. We drive the red dirt roads, stopping at a water truck, gas wells, spill sitesâŠ The Geiger counter is counting, but the readings are not significant. âNot that I particularly would like to get a reading, butâŠ it would serve some purposesâ the counter handler LA says. This piece of equipment was donated to the movement, and they also have other crowdfunded equipment. Since this is very expensive equipment, and the infrared camera, present through is absence, even more so, it requires cooperation between different parts of this pretty diverse and spread out movement. (Lismore is a full dayâs drive away.)
When we approach the first well, there is full activity. A guy in helmet and blue shirt approach the gate. âItâs cool, itâs Alexâ, Iâm told as PA walks up to talk to him. âAlexâ is a hired security guy, and his instructions evidently includes filming us. Being filmed makes most of the company uneasy, but PA is calm: âHeâs all right, just doing his job.â Thereâs even a bit of almost friendly chit-chat between them. Alex is filmed back. âHe was at Gloucester too, right?â LA recognises him. âI guess Santos have a lot of footage of you?â I ask, and PA confirms with a grin.
Near the spill site, which years later still shows very little sign of life, there is a well with a giant flare. The cool of the morning is already replaced by a fierce sun and increasing heat. âDonât tell me this is not a fire hazardâ someone remarks. It is a huge open flame, and PA says it was even higher some nights before when it towered over the trees as they approached.
We drive through the area where the fire went through. In some parts, it does not appear to have burned so hot âlooks like backburningâ someone says, and PB concludes that this is actually a quite good fire from an ecological point of view. Fire was always a part of the Australian bush, and controlled burns a cornerstone Aboriginal land management practices. Many native species are remarkably well adapted to fire. As we get deeper into the burned area, the fire appears to have burned hotter and more destructively in some places. Here and there, smoke is still rising from the ground.
The fire and the flare, it turns out, is what is going to make the case. Not the radiation. Because while there actually is a significant reading at the last site we visit, the measurement must be done in a more controlled and legitimized way to have any impact. âThis just shows us that thereâs dangerous stuff, but we already know thatâ PA comments a few days later.
But the huge gas flare make the news. The footage PA took some nights before was incorporated in Independent Australiaâs piece on it, and the Northern Daily Leader and The Land also ran stories on Santos flaring during a total fire ban. Mining operations are apparently exempt from the rules, and the NSW Rural Fire service does claim that the fire hazard from gas flares is minimal. But when a total fire ban means that harvest has to stop, or that there are strict regulations for lighting your backyard barbeque, allowing an open flame in the middle of a fire prone forest does seem a bit strange, to say the least.