Opposition is mounting to coal seams mining in Australia. The generally pro-business conservative opposition too has come out in the open against the move to open up vast swathes of farmlands for such mining. Farmers have already come together under the banner of the Lock The Gate Alliance, vehemently fighting seams exploration.
The coal seam gas industry is growing rapidly. It is charged with targeting some of the country's most productive farming land - at a time of growing concerns about food security. There are serious risks of irreversible damage including contamination of soil and water and the loss of prime farming land. The groundwater supplies that irrigate crops and provide water for livestock could also be greatly diminished. Gas fields and farming cannot co-exist, farmers assert.
Coal Seam Gas (CSG) is methane gas found in coal seams. CSG is a newer resource extracted from coal deposits that are too deep to mine economically. The methane lies in pores and 'cleats' in the coal seams and is trapped there by water.
When burnt, methane produces about 40% less greenhouse gas than coal. Un-burnt it is at least 20 times more polluting than carbon dioxide (CO2). The process of removing methane from a coal seam sees a large amount leaking into the atmosphere, adding significantly to greenhouse pollution.
Initial wells are unlikely to produce much gas until the coal seam has been stimulated by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This is achieved by pumping a fracturing fluid into the coal seam at pressures sufficient to crack open the rock. This enables the gas to flow to the well more easily.
Gas companies are very reluctant to reveal what they use in the fracking process and imply they are quite safe. Fracturing fluids are primarily water but contain other chemicals, including acids, solvents, surfactants, biocides, and hydrocarbons. Environmentalists have been crying foul over the fracking issue.
Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has vowed that he would support the right of landowners to say no to mining companies wanting to come on to their land.
Speaking on a radio show, Mr Abbott called for a re-think of the threshold at which the Foreign Investment Review Board must approve agricultural land acquisitions.
But the federal Labour government is arguing, "The development of the coal seam gas deposits in Queensland and New South Wales associated with the coal fields will not only enable the supply of natural gas for the growing Eastern Australian market but also enable the establishment of major export liquefied natural gas (LNG) industries, providing an impetus to employment, infrastructure investment and Australia's exports."
A Queensland minister insisted that Queenslanders are the owners of the state's rich resources and all Queenslanders benefit from the royalties that government collects from the mining companies.
"These royalties help build our schools and hospitals, put police on the beat and teachers in our classrooms," he said.
But many are not convinced. The Liberal National Party, based in Queensland, thus far wavering, is also pitching in, saying it would protect the farmers against the burgeoning coal seam gas (CSG) industry in the state.
The party's leader Campbell Newman promised on Saturday to fix what he sees as an imbalance between farmers' and miners' rights.
He also pledged to ban open cut coal mining in prime agricultural land in the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane, and the central Queensland's grain growing region, known as the Golden Triangle.
Mr Newman accused the Labor government of allowing CSG projects to grow at breakneck speed to prop up their budget without concern for farmers and the environment.
He said he would like to see more scientific research into the impact CSG will have on areas like Cecil Plains in the Condamine River floodplains of southern Queensland.
"We will only allow CSG to go forward where it clearly doesn't affect the water resources under the ground that are so vital for future generations," Mr Newman said.
However, he said even if he wins the next election, he can't override CSG projects already approved by the Bligh government.
"We can't reverse approvals this tired Labor government have given because that will mean the state of Queensland and everyone living in this state, will ultimately be sued by these companies that were given these legal rights," he said.
"Labor created the mess. They shouldn't have given them the approvals in the first place.
"We've got to allow projects to go forward."
Mr Newman said the LNP will give farmers more rights when dealing with gas companies.
"We have a David and Goliath struggle with family farmers trying to negotiate with huge multi-nationals," he said.
"We will put in place a land and water commission and give people legal rights so there is fairness and equity when dealing with gas companies."
While the Lock the Gate Alliance president Drew Hutton welcomed Mr Abbott's statements, he felt the LNP didn't go far enough in protecting the environment and the state's food security.
"We need at least four per cent of Queensland's best agricultural land to be protected from mining," Mr Hutton told AAP.
"We need to also protect the Great Artesian Basin.....so no, (Mr Newman) doesn't go nowhere near far enough."
"The LNP in Queensland needs to look seriously at introducing policies that protect good agricultural land, underground water, closely settled areas and sensitive environmental areas," Mr Hutton said.
"They should also amend those sections of their mining acts to give landowners parity in dealing with mining companies.
"The Lock the Gate Alliance will be stepping up their campaign in both Brisbane and Sydney in the coming weeks
Greens Senator Larissa Waters called for a moratorium on CSG projects.
"We welcome the LNP finally taking a stance on this issue," Ms Waters said.
"But we still need that protection for all of our food producing land, not just the one per cent that the government says is good quality agricultural land.
"We need that protection for our underground water resources and protection for the Great Barrier Reef from all the dredging and shipping that CSG will cause."