As Christine Milne takes over from Bob Brown as the leader of the Australian Greens and attempts to forge a better relationship between the Greens movement and rural Australia – David Leser’s article in the Good Weekend is a poignant reminder of how the political ground in Australia is shifting…
*Story originally published in The Good Weekend, 13.08.2011
David and Megan Baker would like to know if you’d be interested in buying their 2600 acre property on the Darling Downs.
For half a century it’s been lovingly cared for in the face of just about everything nature and human endeavour could hurl at it – drought, flood, fire, the oil shocks of the early 1970s, commodity price crashes and escalating costs of production.
Today there are a few downsides the Bakers need to advise you of. Firstly, there’s an open cut coal mine on two adjoining boundaries, operated by Peabody Wilkie Creek, a fully-owned subsidiary of the world’s largest private sector coal company, the American giant, Peabody Energy.
There are nine gas wells on the property, managed by the coal seam gas company, Arrow Energy, acquired last year in a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and CNPC (PetroChina), China’s largest oil and gas producer. There are another 198 gas wells nearby, with drills boring 24 hours a day, up to 500 metres deep into the Great Artesian Basin.
The Bakers feel obliged to point out also that the fat lambs they used to proudly breed for domestic market have been sold. That’s because the sheep kept falling into open trenches after Arrow Energy removed sections of the fencing.
(Arrow Energy claims the property’s fencing was in poor condition when they arrived, and that at no time did they receive evidence of sheep “falling into open trenches.”)
There’s also the barrier outside the farm which is no longer shaded by eucalypts and apple pines. They were chopped down to make way for a powerline. There’s the problem, too, of gas migration. David Baker’s 79 year-old father, David Sr, was confined to the perimeter of his home for three days recently because of methane leaking from an uncommissioned pipeline. (Arrow insists it was safe for David Sr to “leave his house and drive off his property at any time.”)
One kilometre down the road, at Tom O’Connor’s cattle and grain farm, one of 12 coal seam gas wells on his property erupted, sending methane and water spewing nearly 100 metres into the air. It took Arrow Energy 27 hours to cap the well, and this was the fourth incident on O’Connor’s farm to date.
The Bakers are reluctant to admit it, but they no longer feel confident about their water or soil quality. David Senior has kept a watchful eye on the structure of the creeks for half a century, but with all the earthworks going on, the tributaries have turned murky. There’s the risk, too, he believes, that all the contaminated waste water collected from drilling deep into the Great Artesian Basin might have over-flown from ponds during recent flooding, or been re-injected into aquifers.
(Arrow Energy says that at no stage did contaminated water overflow from their holding ponds, and that the only release of water ever authorized – in response to the flooding – was treated from the company’s reverse osmosis plant. It was released across the Baker property.)
“I do have concerns about the water supply,” David Sr, tells Good Weekend when we visit his farm on the Darling Downs, 35 kilometres west of Dalby. “Any sensible, thinking person would. I’ve been in the country all my life and I can’t see how a sane person (could think) that you can keep on taking water out (of the Great Artesian Basin) and not have something happen under the ground. The mining and coal seam industries are coming in here and doing whatever they want. We’re being attacked from all sides.”