Energy and resource extraction and processing

2016

Impacts of energy and resource extraction on the coast mostly result from the development, expansion and maintenance of ports for processing and export, and the infrastructure needed to extract diffuse energy sources such as coal-seam gas. The main contributors of processing and export are nearshore liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing plants, LNG and minerals (coal, iron ore) export, and refineries for aluminium and other minerals. Some pressures result from oil and gas development (production facilities) and exploration (seismic surveying), but these activities are mostly offshore and are thus discussed in the Marine environment report. The impacts of energy and resource extraction can be high, but most are spatially restricted (to areas less than 10 square kilometres).

Mining

Direct effects of mining are a weak pressure at the national scale, since the areas affected are relatively small. However, cumulative impacts can be significant for states or territories with large mining industries, and the indirect effects related to greenhouse gas production represent a strong pressure at a global scale. Most ore bodies and extraction operations are inland, and coastal processing of mining products (smelting and refining) has been declining in Australia for decades, so most direct mining pressures on the coast stem from the transportation of goods.

Most mining impacts on the coast result from the outwards shipment of materials, bulk handling of products and supplies, and discharges and earthworks. Port development and operations incur their own suite of pressures, including capital and maintenance dredging, increased risk of fuel spills because of higher vessel activity, and increased land reclamation (see Vessel activity and infrastructure). Pressures requiring more attention are the noise and light emitted by operations, particularly in the north and north-west, where mines and ports are built in previously unmodified environments. Coal dust at ports is an ongoing problem at east-coast coal ports near urban areas, including Newcastle, Brisbane, Gladstone and Hay Point.

There has been a substantial increase in mining activities during the past 5 years in the more mining-intensive jurisdictions of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. A historically high number of port developments and expansions have been built to accommodate the export of coal from Queensland, and iron ore and natural gas from Western Australia. In contrast, there has been little change in the less mining-intensive states.

Mining pressures in New South Wales predominantly relate to port infrastructure for coal exports (e.g. Port of Newcastle), and have expanded but remain small compared with other states. In South Australia, there have been severe but localised impacts from the Port Pirie zinc refinery, and other developments have been planned but have not yet begun. Little new development has occurred in Tasmania, but historical legacies of copper-mining and zinc-mining activities continue to affect Tasmanian estuaries (Saunders et al. 2013). Coastal discharge has improved from historical mines in Tasmania’s north-west, but remains an issue elsewhere in the state.

Local impacts of large mines are usually well documented because of regulatory monitoring and reporting requirements. However, only a small proportion of environmental impact studies on major energy and resource developments have been published in the peer-reviewed literature, and more studies are needed to predict environmental impacts of major ports and facilities. Management plans may use data collected on inappropriately small spatial and temporal scales, and may be inaccessible for independent analyses.

In the short term, with a depressed commodity market and recently expanded capacity, pressures from mining and associated port developments are unlikely to increase substantially. Pressures may even decrease through better environmental practices and plant closures. In the longer term, on the back of the operational capabilities inherited from the mining boom, pressures are likely to increase as production tracks rising commodity prices. In Queensland and New South Wales, the likelihood of coal prices remaining low should mitigate potential increased pressure from this sector; however, gas extraction may increase (see Oil and gas).

Oil and gas

Recent growth of the petroleum industry in Australia has largely been in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and LNG projects worth approximately $200 billion are currently under construction across Australia (APPEA 2016). Queensland has seen the installation of new LNG export ports and expansion of existing ports, and there has been development and expansion of LNG export greenfield ports and onshore pipelines in Western Australia. In Victoria, there have been minor increases in oil and gas development in the Bass, Gippsland and Otway basins during the past 5 years, and some seismic exploration. There are some impacts from oil and gas import and export facilities in South Australia, but these are minor compared with other states. Oil and gas production wells around Australia are shown in Figure COA5.

Coal-seam gas is another sector of the oil and gas industry with significant impacts on the coast. It affects coastal land and ports through piping, wells, groundwater and produced water. In 2012, an Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development was established to inform decisions concerning coal-seam gas and large coalmining development proposals. Sandmining also occurs on some sections of coast and imposes direct localised impacts, although these operations are relatively minor compared with other parts of the world.

The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association publishes the ‘Blue Books’ that summarise environmental work of the oil and gas industry, and a third volume is in progress. Currently, understanding potential effects of dispersants following oil spills is a major focus. The potential pressure associated with decommissioning facilities that are no longer needed is attracting increased attention, particularly in Bass Strait. There is a push to convert old rigs into artificial reefs (Fowler et al. 2014; see also the Marine environment report); however, the ecological implications of doing so are still a matter for research.

The outlook for oil and gas pressures is relatively stable in the short term, because proposed expansion of facilities and trains for existing LNG plants is not likely until oil prices rise. In the medium term, there is potential for oil and gas developments in the Great Australian Bight, and further exploration and development of existing areas, particularly in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and in Timor-Leste. Floating LNG plants may see an increase in offshore operations, but will not incur the pressures of coastal export facilities.

Clark GF, Johnston EL (2016). Coasts: Energy and resource extraction and processing. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/coasts/topic/2016/energy-and-resource-extraction-and-processing, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659bdc758b