A gas revolution in Australia’s heartlands creates divisions
THE good times have finally hit Roma, a once-sleepy Queensland cattle town of 7,000 souls. In 1900, when residents were drilling for water, they struck gas deep underground. Australia’s first natural gas lit Roma’s streetlamps, but they flickered out after just ten days. The gas igniting Roma 112 years later is something else. Coal-seam gas (CSG) is transforming Australia’s energy market, and stimulating its robust economy. It has also inflamed an environmental protest movement over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, the method of extracting gas from coal and shale. An unlikely alliance of farmers and green-minded city folk are trying to slow the boom down, if not stop it altogether.
Australia’s gas rush started with liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports from reserves under the Indian Ocean, off the north coast of Western Australia. Explorers are now flocking to Queensland and New South Wales, on the other side of the country. Thanks to surging demand in Asia, the gas trapped in coal seams is the next frontier. Such “unconventional” gas was once unprofitable because it was harder to extract than gas from other sources. Better technology has changed that.
The pace of change has taken many people by surprise. In the six years to 2010 production of CSG increased 22 times. Gas from coal seams now supplies about one third of eastern Australia’s gas. David Knox, chairman of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, an industry body, says the CSG bonanza, on top of Indian Ocean gas, means Australia is likely to overtake Qatar as the world’s leading LNG exporter by 2020 (it is now fourth).