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Coal Seam Gas Mining… let’s go with the Science!

After years of being pilloried by Shock Jocks and political opportunists it could well be that our scientists’ views may be of some worth after all.

The issue of Coal Seam Methane (CSM) exploration and production is pitting farmers against miners and no doubt both are using whatever ‘facts’ and logic that will gain a ‘win’ for their respective viewpoints.

But what about the good of our nation as a whole? Who will ensure that our leaders have the true facts at their disposal to make decisions that ensure that one side doesn’t win this argument to the detriment of our environment and/or our future?

The Shadow Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has called for a full study into the effects of CSM production on our aquifers and waterways… and who can argue the necessity of this step, given the importance of this water for our environment and our food production both now and into the future.

One can only hope that the Federal Environment Department can create uniform regulations, based on sound scientific studies that protect our precious water supplies at all cost. At the moment it is in the hands of State Governments but aquifers and rivers do not respect State boundaries. This is very much a national issue.

Surely the CSM companies would appreciate the certainty of one set of regulations Australia wide… even if they are tough.

And our scientific community (especially the CSIRO) would no doubt enjoy being respected and listened too by bothsides of politics again. Hopefully this will be the issue that restores common sense and logic to our environmental Governance.

Coal Seam Gas mining in action

Make up your own mind… you can read:

‘The Case for Coal Seam Gas’ at: http://www.gasland.com.au/2011/05/appea-the-case-for-coal-seam-gas/

… and

‘The Case Against’ at: http://www.gasland.com.au/2011/05/lock-the-gate-the-case-against-coal-seam-gas/

… plus

Malcolm Turnbull’s thoughts:



The QLD Greens' Drew Hutton protests. Source: Courier Mail

Worth reading on a Friday





Golf green or water hazard?

I like golf. I enjoy an occasional round and follow the Majors with interest. However until recently I had no idea of the volume of water used to keep the world’s golf courses green… it’s significant. Consider these facts:

  • The amount of water it takes per day to support 4.7 billion people (using the minimum daily amount recommended by the United Nations) is 9.5 billion litres.
  • The amount of water used, per day, to irrigate the world’s golf courses? 9.5 billion litres!
  • The average amount of pesticide used globally in agriculture per acre, per year is 1.2 kilograms.
  • The average amount of pesticide used per acre, per year on golf courses around the world? 8.2 kilograms!
  • The amount of water used by 60,000 villagers in Thailand on average, per day is 6.5 Megalitres.
  • The amount of water used by one golf course in Thailand on average, per day? 6.5 Megalitres!

The number of golf courses throughout the world continues to grow rapidly. There are now an estimated 31,000 courses worldwide. The Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) imposed a ban on golf course construction in 2004 in order to protect China’s dwindling farmlands and to conserve water. Despite this ban the number of golf courses in China has tripled from 170 in 2004 to more than 500 at this time.

When Jim Hyler was inaugurated as President of the U.S. Golf Association in February last year, he surprised many by speaking out more forcibly than USGA presidents are wont to do on the controversial subject of water usage and the misguided perception that golf courses need to be lush, green and perfect to be good. It is the issue, he said, “… that is perhaps of greatest concern to golf’s future.”

Chambers Bay Golf Course brown and proud

“In my opinion, many of the standards by which we construct and maintain our courses have become, quite simply, unsustainable,” Mr. Hyler said. He called for a ‘reset’ in the way golfers look at and think about courses, with ‘playability’ replacing aesthetics as the primary consideration. “We need to understand how brown can become the new green,” he said.

Accordingly, a new, links-style course in Washington called Chambers Bay has been selected by the USGA to host the 2015 U.S. Open. Chambers Bay, a county-owned course on the shore of Puget Sound near Tacoma, is in many ways a poster child for sustainable golf. Routed through dunes on the site of a former sand and gravel mine, it encompasses 250 acres… but thanks to large buffer areas and forced carries, only 85 of those acres are maintained as turfgrass, compared to 110 acres to 150 acres at typical courses.

Moreover, all the grass on both greens and fairways is fine Fescue – a tough, drought-tolerant strain widely found on links courses in the British Isles. Its roots reach and sip water from 20 cm to 30.5 cm below ground. Traditional cool-weather golf course grasses dip between only 5 to 12.5 cm deep and thus have to receive water almost daily.

“We’ve gone as long as 15 days without watering the fairways,” said David Wienecke, the course superintendent. He estimates that the water bill at Chambers Bay is one-third to one-half what the bill at a nearby course planted in traditional grasses would be. “Absolutely we chose Chambers Bay in part to set an example,” Mr. Hyler said.

Heavy water usage in the desert - a golf course in Las Vegas Valley, Nevada.

Without attacking this great sport or advocating the closure of courses or a ban on development, surely we should look at making our golf courses really ‘green’. For starters all courses, especially those in urban areas, should use treated water for irrigation, straight from the local sewage treatment plant. This would not only lessen the drain on fresh water supplies but also decrease the need for extra fertiliser. Most secondary water from an average STP will contain lots of nutrients.

Wetlands and reed beds could be used as hazards instead of lakes. These features could then actually clean the run-off water before it entered the local environment.

Perhaps Golf Associations and Tournaments could make meaningful contributions to water projects where severe shortages exist. There’s no doubt that all those Charity Golf Days do a lot of great work… but perhaps Golf Clubs around the world should contribute even a small percentage of their total annual green fees to a Global Water Fund.

If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them… and I’d be happy to pass them on to the PGA.

“Turn off that light!” (… and save water)

Here’s a new argument for getting your kids to “Turn off that light!”

Increasing power bills are one thing… Global Warming is another… but did you know that burning more power than we need can lead to water shortages too? For every 12 hours that a 60 watt bulb is lit, the power required to keep it burning has used approximately 60 litres of water.

A team from the Virginia Water Resources Research Center in the U.S. has collated material from a number of sources and calculated the water required to supply fuel sources. Here are the results by fuel source, taken from an article written by Willie D. Jones on the the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers web site – http://www.spectrum.ieee.org

Researchers also looked at water consumption by type of electricity generation:

So why does it take so much water to keep a light bulb burning? The extraction of the petroleum-based fuel sources from deep beneath the ground requires a lot of water… as does the stripping, refining and processing of these fuels. But by far the biggest user of water is the plant-based power-products – ethanol and bio-fuels. These are traditionally considered to be ‘green power’ … but there’s another argument.

Fuel ethanol is mostly made from the starch in corn kernels or the juice in sugar cane while bio-fuels (such as bio-ethanol and bio-diesel) are in theory carbon-neutral as the CO2 released by burning the fuel is equalled by the CO2 absorbed by the corn or sugar from which the fuel is produced. The dissenters however say that far from solving our problems, bio-fuels trash rainforests, suck water reserves dry, kill off species and raise food prices.

They’re also worried about a possible acceleration in the corporate takeover of agriculture, which could leave fuel importers as dependent as ever on other countries. The truth is probably that the environmental benefits of bio-fuels over fossil fuels may be more limited than is usually assumed.

Sugar beet in particular – used by the world’s leading producer and user of bio-fuels (Brazil) – is a very ‘thirsty’ crop. Its widespread use for fuel purposes puts huge pressure on water supplies.

Generation of the power we use in our daily lives also uses vast amounts of water, mostly for cooling towers.

So what’s the answer? We can’t really choose how our power is generated and even if we choose to buy ‘green power’, it may be from a plant source that is using way too much water.

Small-scale solutions like solar panels on every rooftop and rainwater tanks for every roof would be a great response. If we reduce the need to generate and distribute vast amounts of energy to homes, we automatically reduce our CO2 footprint, our power bills and the amount of precious water we use by leaving those lights on.

Energy’s Water Footprint

According to Conservation Magazine’s reporting of an Environmental Science & Technology publication (Earth Stats.), “It can take 3,028 litres of irrigation water to produce the amount of corn necessary to make just 3.8 litres of ethanol.”

Here is a breakdown of the amount of water needed to produce the fuels needed to quench our energy needs (Litres per Megawatt hour):

  • Oil refining: 80-150
  • Oil Shale: 170-681
  • Natural Gas Combined Cycle power plants: 230-30,300
  • Coal: 900
  • Nuclear, closed loop cooling: 950
  • Geothermal, closed loop cooling: 1,900-4,200
  • Enhanced Oil Recovery: 7,600
  • Natural Gas Combined Cycle power plants, open loop cooling: 28,400-75,700
  • Nuclear, open loop cooling: 94,600-227,100
  • Corn ethanol irrigation: 2,270,000-8,670,000
  • Soybean bio-diesel irrigation: 13,900,000-27,900,000

Data: Conservation Magazine July/Sept 2009

Aircraft MRO needs its own overhaul

A recent incident involving Southwest Airlines flight 812 – a Boeing 737-300 on a flight from Phoenix to Sacramento in the U.S. – highlights the need for more frequent and detailed inspections of the entire fuselage areas of all commercial aircraft.

Southwest Airlines flight 812

During this flight a 1.5 metre strip of the aircraft’s fuselage was torn away, leading to rapid decompression. The pilot was able to safely bring the aircraft to a lower altitude and then land at a nearby Marine Corp Air Station.

A similar, if even more dramatic incident occurred in 1998 to a Hawaiian Airlines Flight – Aloha 243 Boeing 737 -200. Like those at South West, these are seriously busy aircraft that will take off and land nine times per day.


The cause of these failures in the structure of aircraft has been linked to stress-induced fatigue. The Southwest aircraft was only 15 years old but had undergone more than 39,000 take off and landing cycles. Of course, once the incident occurred the FAA ordered inspections of all similar South West aircraft. In that company’s fleet of 79 Boeing 737’s, five had similar cracks!

Air travel safety bureaux the world over, only seem to react…i.e. they only order very specific inspections when a problem has occurred. Australia’s own air safety board – CASA- had ordered the inspection for fatigue in Boeing 737 aircraft in 2008… but only for specific sections of the fuselage. Maintenance schedules are still mostly determined by the aircraft manufacturers – and who are their biggest customers?  The airlines!

MRO (Maintenance Repair and Overhaul) is probably the least glamorous side of the aviation industry, but it is far from being the least important. Aircraft that regularly transport hundreds of people over vast distances at very high speeds and under great strain must be properly looked after. If this means more checks and subsequently more maintenance such as de-paint/re-paint then do it.

When an aircraft breaks up mid-flight it is not good enough for an airline to say they followed the manufacturer’s recommendations. They have a responsibility to the travelling public that goes beyond just ticking the boxes… once on board, our lives are literally in their hands.

A section of the torn fuselage skin from the Southwest Airlines plane

Creating a social and environmental legacy for future generations

In the past, we’ve talked about the end result of industry at its worst – notably, the dioxins present in Sydney Harbour courtesy of Union Carbide. But there is another, far more positive side to the equation.

The recently constructed Gippsland Water Factory takes highly contaminated wastewater from a large pulp mill in Victoria’s Gippsland region and treats it for re-use in the factory or returns it to the environment, free of contaminants. (See link to story below) It also uses a number of energy-generating technologies including a mini-hydro system and biogas generating plant.

The Gippsland Water Factory has set the new 'green' engineering benchmark for wastewater treatment plants in Australia.

While this plant no doubt required substantial investment to build, the long-term benefits of projects like these (and the costs of not undertaking them) must be taken into consideration. While we are still paying the price for ‘the sins of our fathers’ (and their pesticide factories), plants like the Gippsland Water Factory will leave a healthier and richer environment for our children and theirs.

With the assistance and guidance of Government at all levels, every industry could (should) take this approach and invest in our future, not just in short-term returns that may look better on balance sheets. But how do we change the attitude of Corporate Australia? Is it already changing?

The Gippsland Water Factory is much more than a wastewater treatment project – it’s creating a social and environmental legacy for future generations. Professionals in the water industry in particular seem more and more willing to strive for excellence, searching for and achieving innovative solutions, while remaining mindful of the accountants and their balance sheets. If the solutions become easier and more cost effective to implement, they will have fewer reasons not to clean up their acts.

And the world will be a better place



Dioxins in the Harbour!

Deadly catch at Woolwich. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Results of recent testing for dioxin levels in fish from Sydney Harbour by the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water means that the ban on eating fish caught west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge may continue for decades to come.

The water in Sydney Harbour looks so clean, it’s hard to believe that aquatic life can be so highly contaminated. The reason is that dioxins are contained within the sediment on the harbour floor and make their way up the food chain from invertebrates to prawns, then bottom feeding fish.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/environment/water-issues/the-poison-that-got-away-20101029-177i0.html) blames the contamination squarely on dumping by Union Carbide:

For more than 20 years, waste from the Union Carbide site was used for landfill and was dumped into the mangroves where it leached into Homebush Bay. Union Carbide was allowed to leave Australia without a comprehensive clean-up of the site and in the 1980s it was discovered that it was the main source of contamination of fish in the bay.”

This was in the NINETEEN 60’s and 70’s. It beggars belief that the company didn’t know the effect that their dumping would have. These weren’t products that were seen as harmless back then… we’re talking about 2-4-5-T and everybody’s favourite defoliant, Agent Orange. How could they dump this waste, then walk away and sleep at night? How were they allowed to? More to the point, how many cancers and birth defects will their vandalism cause? And what other surprises might await us as we continue to convert industrial areas for residential use?

It was almost 25 years from the time this dumping ground was first discovered until dioxin levels in prawns and fish from the Harbour were checked and found to be well in excess of safe levels. Even now, Sydney residents (many of whom can’t read and understand English) ignore posted warnings, and catch and eat these contaminated fish.

Will the next problem be increased heavy metal readings in children playing in backyards that used to be plating shops or tanneries? Will it be Bi-Phenyls from water as a result of coal seam gas recovery? The lesson we should learn is that we must always err on the side of caution when it comes to industrial waste disposal practices.

It may cost a little more now to do so… but the cost to future generations is likely to be far greater.