IT was late 2010 when a Western Australian based explorer, Advent Energy, brought a test rig to the waters off Newcastle to drill for gas or oil.
Documents produced by Advent and an associated company, Asset Energy, said that other energy companies, including Santos, had looked at the area since the early 1990s, with sea-floor “pock marks” and “surface oil and gas seeps” regarded as likely indicators of sizeable resources below the sea bed
Advent’s intentions created controversy at the time. Professional fishers and environmentalists were concerned about the impact on the sea floor. But as it turned out, the drilling was unable to locate any hydrocarbons despite bullish predictions beforehand that the offshore coast between Newcastle and Sydney could be a new Bass Strait.
Despite the earlier setback, Asset Energy is again looking to explore within its state government exploration zone, using seismic testing that is usually regarded as a precursor to physical drilling.
Concerns are again being raised, with the NSW Greens citing a University of Queensland study to say that the noise from seismic testing would interfere with whale migration.
The company, for its part, says its procedures are appropriate.
Given the massive reserves of coal under the Hunter Valley and parts of the Central Coast, it would hardly surprise if reservoirs of gas were found offshore.
At this stage of Australia’s energy debate, the potential for gas or oil production close to the NSW east coast raises some interesting questions.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is pushing hard for NSW and Victoria to lift their bans on onshore gas production. While Victoria has reserves of conventional or reservoir gas, NSW would be reliant on coal-seam gas, which generally means fracking to maintain adequate supply.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian has made it clear her government has no intention to reverse its position on coal-seam gas, but if Australia is to start de-carbonising its power grid by closing coal-fired power stations, it will need gas from somewhere – and in substantially larger quantities than is used at present – to balance the grid against the uncertainties of wind and sun.
While we are not there yet, it could come down to an argument over a lesser of two evils: fracking at Narrabri or drilling off the Newcastle coast.