Key Points:

The Protocol sets out a four-stage incident response process.

In response to a bushfire near Dalby caused by gas emissions from an abandoned coal exploration borehole, the Queensland Government has announced a new protocol for managing and responding to such legacy boreholes incidents.

Background

In August 2012, after an initial bush fire was extinguished by the Queensland Fire and Rescue Authority, a legacy borehole emitting gas continued to burn with a small flame. The Department of Natural Resources and Mines (DNRM) collaborated with adjoining coal and petroleum authority holders and their contractors to safely extinguish the flame and to cap the borehole.

The DNRM has now announced the Protocol for managing uncontrolled gas emissions from legacy boreholes for the safe and efficient response to such incidents.

Scope of the Protocol

The Protocol identifies two types of uncontrolled borehole incidents:

  • a fire at a legacy borehole; and
  • a legacy borehole emitting methane at levels that presents an unacceptable level of risk.

The Protocol describes a legacy borehole as "a borehole or well drilled for the purposes of coal, mineral or petroleum exploration or production but not by the current petroleum or mining tenement holder or its related bodies corporate, and where the land has since been relinquished or there is no continuity of tenure to the current tenure."

The Protocol will apply where an uncontrolled borehole incident occurs at a legacy borehole, and:

  • the Queensland Government exercises its discretion to take an oversight role and apply the Protocol; or
  • a resource or drilling company decides to act on its own initiative in regard to the legacy borehole incident on its own tenure.

The Protocol states that where required, the Government will utilise legislative powers to authorise or direct parties to rectify an uncontrolled bore incident.

Incident response process

The Protocol sets out an incident response process, divided into four stages.

Stage 1 – Identify and notify: any landholder, tenure holder or government may notify DNRM of an uncontrolled borehole incident;

Stage 2 – Authorise or direct parties to undertake work and complete risk assessment: DNRM commences role as project manager, and may either:

  • collaborate with other parties to agree on a risk assessment and coordinate activities to restore control over borehole; or
  • allow a resource company to undertake risk assessments under its own Safety Management System followed by an advice to DNRM of the proposed action plan;

Stage 3 - Activities undertaken: where DNRM is managing the response with other parties, the parties are to conduct the activities in accordance with a sign in / sign off process. The Protocol describes the sign in / sign off process as "a safety and health process put in place at the incident site whereby a company undertaking an activity ‘signs on’ to a record sheet overseen by DNRM. Whilst ‘signed on’ that company has control of the site and the SHMS of that company will be the single and only applicable SHMS on site. When the activity is completed the company will ‘sign off’, handing control of the site back to the DNRM until the next company ‘signs on’."

Where the resource company is acting on its own initiatives, that company is to undertake the rectification and rehabilitation work.

Stage 4 - Completion: DNRM reviews site, confirms completion of activities, releases relevant information and provides a debriefing meeting.

Indemnity

Under the Protocol, the Queensland Government states that it will indemnify and hold harmless any party who is requested to undertake work pursuant to the Protocol from all claims and losses caused by that work, except to the extent that such claims arise out of the party's negligence or wrongdoing.

While a party involved in the activities of bringing a legacy borehole may get some comfort out of the indemnity, whether or not the indemnity given under the Protocol would be binding without legislative changes is questionable.