After extensive and thorough assessments that included expert advice and opportunities for public comment, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke approved the Australia Pacific liquefied natural gas project under national environment law, subject to strict conditions.
The proposal comprises three developments, which were assessed as one:
- coal seam gas fields in eastern Queensland
- a gas transmission pipeline to the Port of Gladstone from the gas fields
- an LNG plant and marine facilities on Curtis Island
What expert advice was the decision informed by?
To ensure the decision was based on the best available scientific information, the Federal Environment Department commissioned Geoscience Australia to analyse the potential risks of coal seam gas projects on groundwater. The research and expert advice of Geoscience Australia recommended precautionary measures to mitigate the potential impacts on groundwater.
Another independent expert report into coal seam gas operations in south-east Queensland by the Centre for Water in the Minerals Industry came to similar conclusions.
After considering these reports and other relevant advice, the minister has imposed detailed conditions for the monitoring and management of groundwater related impacts. The conditions are consistent with those attached to the Santos and Queensland Gas Company coal seam gas projects in October last year.
How will ground and surface water be protected?
The project will be subject to detailed conditions to minimise or avoid impacts on nationally protected matters potentially affected by ground and surface water.
Implementation of the project will be staged, with detailed management plans to be approved by the minister, including plans for water management and monitoring.
The plans must outline how impacts on aquifers, groundwater and surface water will be minimised, including through precautionary drawdown limits for each stage, aquifer connectivity studies, and coal seam gas water treatment, management, and monitoring programs.
The plans must also include water drawdown limits to be approved by the Minister, and methods to maintain or re-establish pressure in aquifers, such as through re‑injection, should drawdown limits be exceeded.
The plans must address hydraulic fracturing (fraccing) of coal seams, including through details of constituent components and toxicity of any hydraulic fracturing agents and other reinjected fluids, in accordance with the National Water Quality Management Strategy.
Pilots for aquifer reinjection must be carried out, to ensure appropriate risk management measures. Suitable water treatment programs must be in place to ensure that any water to be re-injected is of appropriate quality.
The surface water plans must outline water treatment methods, water use and disposal options and methods, brine storage locations, and brine crystal waste management.
The Minister will establish an expert panel to provide independent scientific advice on the coal seam gas projects’ mitigation, monitoring and response measures, to ensure they appropriately minimise risks.
Will modelling be done to determine the projects’ impacts on groundwater?
The companies must contribute to a model looking at the cumulative effects of multiple coal seam gas development across the Surat and Bowen basins on water flows through the different layers of aquifers in the region.
Will water extraction be limited?
Yes. The detailed conditions provide for conservative default drawdown limits to be set, following expert advice. Water extraction for both companies will be limited to set amounts as a precautionary measure, to avoid impacts on nationally protected matters.
How will the conditions ensure a drop in groundwater tables does not occur?
The conditions include specific mechanisms to ensure aquifer pressures are maintained. The companies must provide water management and monitoring plans to the Minister for approval, including methods to maintain or re-establish pressure in aquifers, such as through re-injection, should drawdown thresholds be exceeded.
Pilots for aquifer re-injection must carried out, and suitable water treatment programs must be in place to ensure that any water to be re-injected is of suitable quality.
How many wells will be allowed and where will they be located?
The conditions impose maximum caps on the number of allowable production gas wells. The specific locations of these wells are matters for the companies, and are regulated by the Queensland Government. The Federal Environment Minister’s jurisdiction is limited to impacts on nationally protected matters. The Federal Minister’s approval conditions impose detailed requirements for wells to avoid environmentally sensitive areas.
Will there be ongoing monitoring, and, if so, how often?
Throughout the life of the projects, there will be continuous monitoring, to ensure any potential risks are managed.
Ground and surface water quality and quantity will be regularly monitored to ensure any negative change can be quickly addressed.
Management plans will be reviewed by qualified experts to ensure they remain relevant and take into account any new information that may become available.
The conditions also allow for independent audits to ensure the companies are complying with the approval conditions.
How will impacts of the Curtis Island LNG facilities be managed?
The companies must prepare plans outlining how they will minimise and manage impacts arising from the LNG facilities proposed for Curtis Island, north of Gladstone. This must include measures to minimise impacts from construction and operation of the LNG facility.
How will threatened and migratory species be protected?
The conditions require the companies to develop management plans outlining how they will protect each threatened species and ecological communities, and migratory species including turtles, dugongs, the water mouse, and seagrasses—for example, through minimising light and noise, reduced vessel speeds, limits on vessel movements, quarantine measures to control feral animals, translocation and propagation, and marine mammal watchers.
The companies will have to survey any area earmarked for clearance, and if nationally threatened species are found, then separate management plans must be prepared for each species detailing how impacts will be managed, such as through staged clearing, translocation, and site rehabilitation. Where impacts are unavoidable, these will need to be compensated with offsets.
The companies will also provide funding towards threatened and migratory species research.
How will unavoidable impacts be offset?
The conditions require the companies to avoid as much as possible nationally protected ecological communities, or habitat for threatened species, and to use already cleared areas.
Detailed limits have been set to minimise impacts over the life of the projects, and the companies must provide significant offsets to negate any impacts on species and ecological communities, including protecting habitat in perpetuity and rehabilitating habitat for listed species.
Minimum numbers of some threatened plant species likely to be disturbed will have to be translocated to reserve areas, and propagated.
Were greenhouse gas emissions considered?
The Queensland Government has already imposed conditions to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, including conditions to minimise the project’s emissions.
Origin Energy and ConocoPhillips have also proposed measures to minimise the project’s emissions, including by reducing flaring during coal seam gas production operations, and using energy efficient designs.
Were cumulative impacts considered?
The minister considered the cumulative impacts of all likely coal seam gas proposals relating to southern Queensland and the Gladstone area. The conditions also require the proponents to undertake ongoing regional modelling to ensure that any cumulative impacts from their projects are appropriately minimised or avoided.
Were impacts on agricultural land considered?
The impacts on agricultural land were considered as relevant economic and social matters.
The strict environmental measures put in place will help to ensure water resources are properly managed.
Were public comments taken into account?
All relevant public comments received were carefully considered. Assessments under national environment law include opportunities for the public to have a say during public comment periods specified by the legislation. Before making his decision, the Minister carefully considered the assessment—including expert advice—the advice of the department, and public comments.
Why was the decision timeframe extended?
The initial statutory timeframe for decisions on federal assessment applies equally to all projects—whether it’s a small housing development or large and complex infrastructure developments. Extensions under national environment law are not unusual for large-scale, complex projects such as these.
Given the scale and complexity of this project, the department needed time to complete the assessment of its potential impacts on nationally protected matters, to ensure a fully-informed decision could be made.
Where can I find more information?
To get more information on this project, including the full conditions, go to www.environment.gov.au/epbc