Online Only

Changing land: mining the Darling Downs

IN THE PRE-DAWN, as Dave Crabtree drives the forty kilometres out of Dalby to the massive power station he's helping to build, his headlights pick up random white dots lining the road. It is cotton picking season, and stray cotton balls fall off the back of trucks and cluster in the roadside weeds. Dave enjoys the artistry of it.

A retired mechanical engineer from Yowie Bay in southern Sydney, Dave Crabtree has been lured back to work, and away from his wife and grandchildren, by the promise of good money for a short-term gig in the Western Downs region of southern Queensland. His is a troubleshooter role, overseeing the installation of millions of dollars worth of pipes which feed gas and water to the turbines of one of a string of coal gas-fired power stations under construction.

cotton.jpg

Cotton is  still a mainstay of the region.

He shakes his head at the scale and pace of it all. At seventy-one he's ‘about the third oldest bloke on site. It's time the young blokes took over. They're in a hurry, the young blokes straight out of uni.’ At night in his motel, Dave watches a bit of TV and reads. ‘I borrowed Anna Karenina off one of the girls in the office at the plant. It's heavy going, but I finished it.’

Working eleven-hour days, glimpsing the road-side cotton is as close as he gets to experiencing the vibrant agricultural life of this area, which has never failed to thrive. Wheat, oil seeds, chick peas, soya beans; a rich menu of grains and pulses is grown here. Cattle, increasingly in feedlots, are a reliable mainstay. Dalby, the region's hub, is the largest livestock sales centre in Queensland.

The boast has always been that the black soil plains of the Darling Downs are the richest in the country, and possibly the only place in the world where winter and summer crops can be grown in the same paddock in the same year. But now the region known as the Western Downs is just as often called the Surat Basin, and the black stuff people get excited about is what lies beneath – coal.

‘This area is 38,000 square kilometres, and there's 38,000 square kilometres of coal,’ says the ebullient mayor, Ray Brown. What's more, the coal is at varying depths, so offers the full repertoire of extraction options and uses. The dinosaur of the coal industry, the open-cut mine, is still used for coal that's close to the surface. There are four open cut mines already in the Surat Basin, and another fifteen open-cut exploration tenements.

One of them, at Wandoan, on the western edge of the region, could become the biggest in the world. Wandoan is a tiny town in rolling, richly pastured cattle and wheat farming country, and it's on borrowed time. Xstrata, the multi-national mining group, plans to carve an open-cut coalmine from prime grazing country on the edge of town. When fully operational, it could excavate 100 million tonnes of coal a year, making it the biggest coal mine anywhere, ever. With a coal processing plant as well, Wandoan's usual population of 380, already swollen a little by Xstrata's advance team, would be joined by 1,500 more people.

The Western Downs is a test lab for the new, low emission methods of using coal. In underground coal gasification (UCG), the coal seam is set alight, so it burns underground, and the resultant synthetic gas, or syngas, that makes its way to the surface can be piped straight into a power station. There are three pilot UCG projects in Queensland, two of them in the Surat Basin.

And then there is coal-seam gas (CSG), the in-vogue, deemed most-environmentally-friendly system. When gas is found in crevices above the coal, usually about five hundred metres below the ground, water is extracted first, then the gas. As with UCG, coal-seam gas can also directly fuel power stations, which in turn feed electricity straight into the national grid – which also happens to pass through the Surat Basin. Other CSG is compressed and sent via pipelines to Brisbane for household use.

Several companies are pitching to build a pipeline north to the port of Gladstone. They include the BG Group (British Gas), which, with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, recently struck the world's biggest coal seam gas deal. Their $80 billion plans for Queensland are predicated on the pipeline. Once that pipeline – or possibly several of them – are in, the Surat Basin gas will be piped to liquification plants at Gladstone, and exported from there, frozen in vast tankers.

This export industry is growing exponentially. While the suits scramble to get a piece of the monetary action, the hard hats scramble to get the next drill in the ground. Around the Western Downs, names like Origin, Arrow Energy, Xstrata, Linc Energy, Santos, ERM and ConocoPhillips are as familiar as Elders and Wesfarmers have always been.

Beyond coal and its infrastructure, at Moonie there is Australia's oldest commercial oil field, which is nearly depleted; and there are newer ventures, such as a wind farm proposal, and ‘Australia's First Grain to Ethanol’ plant, which is up and running. It cleverly uses 200,000 tonnes a year of locally grown sorghum, a summer crop, to make ethanol, then after the extraction process, the leftovers are used for cattle feedlots, so nothing is wasted.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has called this ‘the new energy province of the world’. It is like an extensive, outdoors, resources exhibition, showcasing all the possible uses of land, all the innovations – new and not so new – that are currently being deployed around the country, right here in one spot.

With the coal industries, in particular, developing so fast that no one person could ever know what stage every plant or pipeline is at, there are social impacts and dislocations; environmental fears; and, all the while, an undeniable, quietly buzzing sense of excitement, about the enormity of the projects, the machinery and people on the move, the potential.

 

WESTERN DOWNS REGIONAL Council could run a sideline, hosting tours of the brave new world of rural Australia. And there would be few better tour-guides than Mayor Ray Brown. A two metre former state schoolboy rugby union player, and second-generation farmer, Brown has thrown himself into the role of arbiter, where possible, and monitor when not, of conflicting land uses, and of economic benefits versus the strains on local people and systems.

As is his mayoral obligation, he uses every opportunity to state and re-state the injustices of heavy machinery carving up neglected state roads while the Queensland Government creams mining royalties; and of the Federal Government collecting the highly paid mineworkers’ income tax while locals get squeezed out of rental accommodation by those same workers. But Brown seems to thrive on all the new challenges and enjoys the powerful position he finds himself in, attending state government meetings in Brisbane and negotiating with some of the biggest mining companies in the world.

Inside Ray Brown's head, as with many tour guides, is an apparently inexhaustible list of facts and figures. They are, though, breathtaking. ‘We have eighty-one projects at the moment, worth $140 billion, with thirty-one different companies... We have three new power stations running, and two more close to completion... At any one time there's an average of nine camps of up to four hundred and fifty men and women scattered across the region... Dalby's population has gone from ten to fourteen thousand in four years... We're expecting an additional 43,000 people for the mining sector in our region, in the next seven years... The Premier has said the State Government expects to make $850 million a year in royalties from coal seam gas alone....’

coal4breakfast.jpg

Warrego Highway, on approach to Dalby from Toowoomba and Brisbane.

And like any good tour-guide, he has a ream of Australianisms at the ready. ‘This country's only good for a goanna, and even then you'd have to pack his lunch,’ he drawls, as we drive through former council land, originally intended as a waste and recycling centre, and now hosting most of the brand new power stations. The ironbark, box and eucalypt scrub on ochre-coloured rocky ground does not appear to be a huge sacrifice, exchanged as it is for the gleaming metal pipes and towering turbines of the power stations, one of which will serve the power needs of a million people.

Leaving behind the empty buses waiting to take workers back to town, Brown says suddenly: ‘What we're really short of, with all this mining activity, is escorts.’ He grins at the joke, and then nods to a car with flashing lights on the road in front, trailing a truck with a very wide load. ‘See that's a mobile office, and we get a lot of this sort thing on the roads, so all these support industries are really in demand.’

Issues like this, small and potentially solvable, abound. There are new dirt roads and even work camps that spring up in the bush without council permission, raising safety and sewerage concerns. The council is struggling to keep its land-use regulations apace with development, as small industrial ventures materialize next to residential areas.

The mayor drives around his fiefdom, just like he always has as a farmer, surveying the paddocks. ‘Look at that!’ he'll say, ‘I'm sure that wasn't there last week.’ But instead of the first shoots of a barley crop pushing through the soil, he's looking at a sign that says ‘Danger. High pressure gas pipeline buried below ground.’

Ray Brown is well aware of what's at stake with his patch. It goes to the heart of what land is for. ‘I'm looking at feeding the world for the next five hundred years, not the next five years.’ This has been the line run in a sophisticated campaign by farmers in one of the richest farming areas of all, the Warrah district's Haystack Plain, since an open-cut mining lease was granted there several years ago. There's a YouTube video, and ‘Coal4breakfast?’ is on a big banner on a shipping container beside the highway into Dalby. The other side of the container says: ‘Don't mine premium farmland’.

Further west, Cockatoo Coal has an open-cut mine bid which would involve the removal of Guluguba State School. The little school is picturesque, a timber building on stilts with carefully tended gardens and a hand-made sign, clearly a much loved focus of a small community. ‘Nothing is sacred,’ is Ray Brown's rueful comment.

At nearby Wandoan, the Environmental Impact Statement for the massive open-cut proposal is being finalised. It will ultimately be the Federal Government which issues ‘Environmental Authority’ and a mining lease. But Xstrata has had a shopfront in Wandoan since late 2008, and gives every impression that it doesn't expect to be leaving. Other mining and energy interests are now scoping the area, too.

Xstrata has been pouring money into the town, funding school and community projects. Kylie Bruggemann has children at the Wandoan Kindy, which has just been painted inside and out in bright primary colours – by Xstrata. Kylie is on a town liaison committee, dealing with mining companies and other interest groups. Her friendly face clouds when she's asked about Xstrata's coal plans.

‘My husband and I both grew up here. We farm 40 kilometres out the other side of town, but I've got two little ones who I'd be putting on the bus into town to go to school. If we end up with a dirty great big open-cut coalmine, and my kids are going to school in a haze of coal dust, we'll leave the area.’ She breathes deeply. ‘You can't buy children's health.’

 

RADICAL CHANGE LIKE this is about more than direct threats to wellbeing, or even sentimentality. It alters people's notion of what is valued about their lives, and undermines local cohesion. The temporary residents of the Western Downs – the coal industry workers – do not play in local football teams because their shifts don't allow it. They don't send their children to local schools because their families are back home in Toowoomba, Brisbane or northern New South Wales. Overt conflict is emerging, with incidents of ‘well tampering’ by a small group of frustrated neighbours. Farm people and ‘blockies’ nervously leave home to travel the roads, because they dread sharing them with big trucks and so many extra vehicles, often driven by people inexperienced with the crumbling edges of narrow country roads.

braemar 1 power station.jpg

The coal-gas fired Braemar 1 Power Station, 40 kms southwest of Dalby: ‘goanna country’

Coal seam gas represents the most activity. It is a pioneering venture. CSG mining is proposed for NSW and Tasmania, and the race is on to find more reserves, but for now, most of the country's CSG is being mined here. Some crucial technical issues, such as what to do with the salty water that is extracted, are still being resolved. But compared to the raw attack on land that open-cut mines represent, and the risky business of burning coal underground with gasification, coal seam gas is seen as relatively benign.

In the Western Downs, CSG's major infrastructure – the power stations – have largely been restricted to the ‘goanna country’. But CSG is still disruptive. The drilling rigs are dotted across the countryside, seven hundred metres apart, like Meccano constructions left behind by a distracted young giant. Most of these are on private land. A farmer cannot usually refuse them, nor the crews who operate the successful ones, twenty-four hours a day, because landowners do not own what is underneath, but they can attempt to negotiate terms. It is expected that within five years there will be 34,000 such rigs. From the air, Ray Brown says, it looks like a pin cushion.

Then there are the pipelines, smaller systems linking the wells to power stations, or bigger pipe systems that go all the way to Brisbane. Long tracts of cleared land, where pipelines are being dug in, or have been completed, criss-cross the region. ‘I just wish everyone [the companies] would get their act together and say ‘well righto, let's put them all in one corridor’,’ Brown says.

But the real concern is the water. The CSG industry has been allowed to forge ahead without a crucial complication being sorted: what to do with the expected five hundred megalitres of water pumped out per day, by the year 2015. ‘It's roughly about four tonnes of salt per megalitre of water, so that equates to 2000 tonnes of salt per day, coming to the surface.’ That salty water sits in enormous evaporation ponds.

Parts of this region, around the Condamine River, are at the top of the Murray-Darling catchment. ‘We don't want anything to go wrong with the industry, because if there's an accident and we end up with salt in the Condamine, it's all going to head towards Adelaide.’ The State Government now requires coal-seam gas companies to have a water plan, and desalination companies will be the next to get rich quick. Ray Brown hopes the desalinated water can be good enough for town use.

Then there's the salt. Two thousand tonnes a day ‘is a lot of fish and chips’. The council was approached by an entrepreneur wanting to turn the salt into glass. He wasn't sure it was technically possible, but if the council could just fund his experiment... In the meantime, Arrow Energy has been breeding saltwater fish – barramundi, mulloway – in coal seam gas water, to see if fish farming in the evaporation ponds is an option. The early Australian myth of the inland sea might finally be realised.

 

high pressure gas pipelines.jpg

RAY BROWN'S FATHER moved from Victoria in 1959 to take up a land ballot of 4,500 acres of uncleared brigalow country at Moonie. There were no services, no roads. He initially lived in a tent, then the family moved into a shearing shed for a while, before building their first home out of timber felled on the property. When oilfields were discovered, in 1961, mostly to the rear of the farm, Brown senior worked with the American oil company, Union Oil, using his bulldozer to fill the holes they left behind. ‘He didn't have much money so that was how he first started to make a bit.’ There were also wells on the farm, still are. Ray says the contract prevents disclosure of the amount the family is paid, but it is ‘minimal compensation’.

‘They were solid community people. First it was Union Oil, and now it's Santos, and they're the same. They lived locally, they got involved. It's been over 50 years, and it's been a wonderful association with that mining sector.’

Farming methods have changed so much they seem futuristic. The Browns and many of their colleagues now use satellite-steered tractors, which improve planting accuracy and save fuel, seed and time. ‘We roughly plant between twelve and fourteen hectares an hour per machine, so it doesn't take too long.’ Handy, when one of two brothers running a farm is a full-time mayor.

The cotton which characterises the area immediately around Dalby is now mostly genetically modified – an improvement, says Ray Brown, which has allowed the cessation of chemical use. Cotton seed is now a high-protein stock feed.

And there are plenty of short-term winners from the new coal industries. The council has introduced a special rate for the gas companies on their exploration leases, ‘so we're getting some big dollars.’ That's about $2.3 million a year, to help with local road maintenance.

The coal and gas industry workers may or may not spend their money on goods in the towns – the jury seems to be out on that one. Their presence does create further work, though; the cleaners and caterers at a couple of camps, at least, are locals. Motels are frequently full.

Increasingly the companies are looking to train and retain the young people of the area. Farm support industries are doing well – hydraulic fittings, motors – because they are being used by the gas industries. Farmers then do not have to go to the city to get parts.

Engineer Dave Crabtree, winding up his six months in Dalby, reckons the shop owners could do a lot better if they had more flexible opening hours for the shift workers. As for Dave, after earning $90 an hour before tax, he will top up his super, and there's a nice trip he's planning with his wife Rae, to Greece and Rome with a boat journey up the coast of Croatia.

Ray Brown's son is doing a combined engineering and commerce degree at university in Brisbane. With his rural background, he has already been sought out by mining companies who scout the undergraduates, and offered a traineeship with uni fees paid. ‘I told him not to take it,’ Brown says. ‘He'll have his absolute pick of jobs when he graduates.’

Griffith Review