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AGL suspends coalbed methane drilling

World Coal,

Energy giant AGL says it has suspended operations at its pilot coalbed methane (CBM) gas field in northern New South Wales (NSW), Australia, after detecting traces of toxic BTEX chemicals in flowback water from two of its four wells.

The chemicals – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes – were also found in an above-ground water storage tank.

In all, AGL has taken a total of five samples from three different locations. Four of the samples found BTEX concentrations in the range 12 – 70 ppb. The fifth sample found a BTEX concentration of 555 ppb. The integrity of this sample is being reviewed along with the other sample results. As published on AGL’s website, BTEX has previously been found in baseline groundwater tests carried out before the commencement of the Waukivory Pilot Project at levels of approximately 30 – 60 ppb in the Gloucester Basin.

The company said it could "categorically state" that none of the fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing – fracking – of the wells at the Waukivory project contained BTEX components. 

"The BTEX detected in the samples is most likely to be naturally occurring, from within coal seams located at an average depth of approximately 600 m and brought to the surface as part of the flowback of water from the hydraulic fracturing process," AGL said in a statement.

AGL’s monitoring of groundwater and surface water has shown no evidence of changes in water quality since the commencement of the Waukivory pilot programme.

Managing Director, Michael Fraser, said: "Because of the community’s concern about any detection of BTEX and in the interests of acting prudently, AGL has voluntarily suspended the Waukivory Pilot Project until a full review of the sample results has been completed."

AGL has also reported the sample results to the Environment Protection Authority, the Office of Coal Seam Gas, and the NSW Office of Water.

A spokesman for NSW Energy Minister, Anthony Roberts, said the government supported AGL’s decision, adding it had banned the use of BTEX chemicals in fracking in NSW.

Community groups opposed to the CBM activity argue that the detection of chemicals should trigger a review of the whole project.

Greens NSW mining spokesman, Jeremy Buckingham, said AGL should leave the Gloucester Valley following the discovery.

"BTEX chemicals in the water are an absolute nightmare and the Greens want a permanent ban on coal seam gas and fracking in NSW," he said. "Coal seam gas is unsafe, unnecessary and unwanted.”

Analysts have said that 2015 is set to be a bumper year for the Australian CBM industry, as it undergoes significant transformation. Revenue is tipped to rise 148% over the next year, to AUS$1.83 billion.

Written by Sam Dodson

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