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OK, so in The Bathroom Worth the 30 Years’ Wait, I promised the Rocket Stove Bath story. For Siobhanne and others who have asked, here it is.

For many years we had a star bath – a cast iron bathtub out in the open with a wood fire underneath it.  It had its charms, great charms – a clear view of a starry sky, a bath that stayed warm as long as you like, hot water from renewables even in the depths of winter.  But it also had drawbacks – the need to light the fire several hours before bath time, a fair consumption of firewood, no bath in the rain, or even after rain with a fireplace that got very wet, smoky fires, a bath that needed a deal of cleaning at the start of winter.

So the idea was to claim all the charms without the drawbacks, and the rocket stove bath has pretty well aced it.  It is under a roof and has walls most of the way round  but still a view of a starry sky.  Many of my best ideas happen while considering that sky.  It has a chimney that goes all the way along under it, which means the bottom is warm and stays warm for as long as you are willing to add a few sticks every half hour or so.  It is very frugal in its use of wood – a bundle of sticks that I collect from under gum trees along the roadside on my morning walk.  And it burns remarkably clean.

Rocket stoves are a classic design.  The essence of the idea is a vertical combustion chamber that is very well insulated.  Being insulated, it quickly becomes the hottest part of the system, and since heat rises, flame is drawn into it.  Being insulated too, it gets up to very high temperatures and burns all the volatile gases and smoke that cooler fires let escape.  The efficiency makes them ideal for cooking stoves in places where firewood is scarce and for space heating with wood fires in cold climates.

Being a classic design, there’s quite a bit of information around the internet about the basic principles but not much about using them in this application.  So this is my rundown on how we did it, and the things I think might be optional and the things that might be critical.

Step One:  The design

The critical dimensions for a rocket stove are critical.  There is a good explanation  at Design Principles for Wood Burning Cook Stoves that uses research by the lodestars of rocket stoves Dr. Samuel Baldwin and Dr. Larry Winiarski setting out the reasons.

For our purposes:

This is a diagram of the basic design.

rocket-stove-diagram

  • The diameter of the chamber that the hot gases flow through has to be the same all the way through the system.   Not necessarily the same shape, but the same size.  So the horizontal fire chamber, the vertical rocket chamber, the hot gas drop chamber, the chimney, all have to have the same area for the gases to flow through.  If you “choke” the gas at any point, it doesn’t work.  For example if you use a 6 inch pipe, it has a cross sectional area of 30 sq inches. All exhaust pipes, flues, etc after that can’t be less than 30 sq inches ( or it will throttle the gas trying to escape.)  You can use bigger, or smaller pipe in the burn chamber, and you then need to calculate the cross sectional area and make the flue pipes or exhaust pipe match that size.
  • The length of the vertical rocket chamber (the long vertical bit) has to be greater than 3 times the length of the feed chamber and greater than twice the length of the fire chamber. So a vertical rocket chamber that’s is 900 mm high for example from top to bottom, can have a feed chamber that is less than 300 mm from top to bottom, and a horizontal fire chamber (the horizontal bit) that is less than 450 mm long.

We got a specialist plumbing supplier to make up our rocket, burn and feed chamber out of heavy stainless steel.  It was expensive, but since we were planning to concrete the whole system into place, we didn’t want to risk it ever burning out, and the temperatures get very hot.  We made ours 6 inch (150mm) diameter.  We debated it.  Lewie was barracking for 5 inch (125mm).  I couldn’t conceive of a smaller pipe taking enough wood to heat a bathtub of water, but in retrospect he may have been right. If anyone has tried smaller, let us know!

burn-chamber

The plumber did a little design modification on his own, and made the burn chamber go horizontally for 6 inches then at a 45° angle, I think just because it made an easier and stronger weld.  In retrospect, I don’t know that it was a great idea. I would probably insist on it being horizontal if we were doing it again.

Our rocket chamber is 32 inches (81cm) tall.

nearly-finished

Over the rocket chamber is a sleeve of galvanised 10 inch (25cm) pipe, and the gap between the sleeve and the rocket chamber is filled with rock wool.  In Version 1, it was filled with perlite.  We lit it up to try it out. It worked beautifully for a couple of baths then stopped working.  Giant frustration.  Took a while then we figured out that the perlite had all settled and compacted and wasn’t up to the job of insulation.  Vacuuming out the perlite to replace it with rock wool was interesting.

trial

After the insulated rocket chamber the gases drop between the galvanised pipe and the bricks, and go out through a galvanised chimney pipe (the curved pipe on the left hand side in this picture).  At the bottom the pipe turns at 90°to the centre of the bath, then turns again and travels under the centre of the bath to come out at the head.  The bit under the bath is rectangular guttering stuck to the bottom of the bath.  Under the bath is filled with perlite and bricked in.  (We had a stack of old bricks put to good use on the project).

At the head of the bath, the chimney turns 90°again and goes up through the rock gabion wall (later filled with rocks).  It has a little cap on top, mostly just to look pretty, and above it the alsynite roof is shielded with a small sheet of metal.  A little smoke comes out when the fire is first lit, but after that not much comes out the chimney, not as heat or smoke.

chimney

Version 2, with rock wool insulation, worked beautifully most of the time.  And sometimes just refused.  For no good reason.

We never have totally figured out why. It’s one of those things where you make several changes and can’t tell which one worked, or if they all did.  But three modifications later, the system is working perfectly and perfectly reliably.  Mod 1:  we installed a small fan recycled from a computer in the chimney as a suction.  The idea came from some camping rocket stove designs we found that incorporated a fan. Mod 2:  We built a little semi-circular shovel to be able to remove ash from the burn chamber while the fire was going.  We found that ash in that chamber tended to reduce its area and choke the fire if you have it going for more than one long bath.  Mod 3:  We found a pudding basin that fits very neatly in the open end of the burn chamber – if you look at the first photo in this post you will see it.  We found that letting any air at all in that way made the fire more likely to burn up the sticks rather than horizontally as it is supposed to.

So, the final system.  We can fill the bath with warm water from the solar system, or cold water if it has been really cold and overcast.  With warm water, the bath is ready in half an hour.  With cold a little longer.  It probably doesn’t get hot enough directly under the bath to crack the enamel (as it would with the star bath) but I haven’t wanted to test that.  We fill it first and have a boogie board we put in the bath while it is warming so as to insulate it.

There is a big urn  lives beside the stove with sticks for the fire. We use eucalypt sticks about one to two inch diameter (25 to 50 mm).  Light a small fire in the bottom of the feed chamber, stand four or five sticks in it, and the flame burns horizontally through the burn chamber and roars up the rocket chamber.  The top of the rocket chamber has a big pot with a tap.  This gets very hot and can be added to get the bath to toasty, and refilled from the tap above it.

The hot gases flow along the chimney under the bath keeping it warm.  The sticks drop into the fire as they burn.  If you intend staying in more than half an hour or so, a bath wallah to add more sticks is very helpful. And to bring more wine.

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So, this one is for you Angus, and for the others who have asked for more detail about building the bathroom “Worth the 30 Years’ Wait”.

bathroom1Like everything permaculture, the first step is to “Observe and Interact“. We didn’t do that.

Our house has a beguiling view to the south, down a valley and off into the distance.  Some mornings, with mist hanging in the valley, it is magnificent. It seduced me into forgetting everything I knew about solar energy and aspect. So we built our main verandah facing south with the kitchen leading onto it, the kitchen roof sloping south, and the wood stove in the kitchen, and … can you see where this is going? In our hemisphere, a solar hot water system has to go on a north facing roof to work effectively.  To be wood stove boosted, the wood stove needs to be pretty directly under it, but our wet-back wood stove was on the other side. The design was all wrong.  You can’t shift the sun.

So we made do with a shower with solar heated water, that wasted too much water waiting for the hot to get through and that often didn’t get properly hot in winter, and a “star bath” – a cast iron bathtub out in the open with a fireplace directly under it. The star bath was glorious.  The fire kept it hot for as long as you like and lying back in a hot bath on a cold winter night watching the stars is one of those major life luxuries.  But lighting the bath was chore too far for midweek workdays and much too far for cold, wet, early dark midwinter midweek workdays.  When I mentioned “stubborn” in the original article, this was the source.  Getting the bathroom right meant going back to fix some fundamental design basics.

It took some years but eventually we reconciled to shifting the kitchen.  The north-east facing verandah doesn’t have the view but it is much nicer to sit on.  The wet-back slow combustion stove now sits directly under the hot water solar panels and tank, and the kitchen sink and the  laundry are a short run.  And it meant we could get hot water to the spot on the north-west side of the house that I had always wanted as the bathroom.

So step one is the one I think we all neglect way way too often, and that is to appreciate the utter intractability of physics. Site a house facing the view – or the street – and you will be stuck forever dealing with too hot, too cold, too dark, too much water wasted, too much power wasted, every element that uses heat or light a struggle. Get the aspect right and everything involving heat and light just flows.

When I say “we” for the rest of this post, I really mean my partner Lewie.  He did all the work on this building project and gets all the credit.

Step two was a bobcat to dig a trench along the uphill (north) side to take the drainage pipe, and also  a length of ag pipe to take storm water runoff away. Drainage pipes for the bath, shower, and basin were laid and the trenches backfilled.

Step three was to concrete in steel corner posts to take the roof and some extra steel posts to help stabilize the gabion walls.

Step four was to build a post and beam roof covered in alsynite.

Step five: install the shower tray and the floor.  The floor is diamond grid – recycled plastic interlocking grid – filled with smooth pebbles.  We’ve since started using diamond grid for paths and drives too – it’s an excellent environmentally friendly material for stopping wet, trafficked areas getting boggy. It has worked brilliantly in the bathroom  No shower mat needed.

floor

Step six was to install the bath and its rocket stove.  The bathroom now has reliable hot hot water year round, from the solar panels in summer and the wet-back slow combustion stove in winter.  The only time this system fails is if it is cold and overcast and we have been away for a few days and the stove hasn’t been lit.  But the star bath spoiled us – I wanted to keep that experience.  I’m going to write a whole nuther post on its own about the rocket stove construction, because we found that there is not a great deal of information on the internet about using rocket stove technology this way, and there was a great deal of learning done along the way. The short story is that it allows us to fill a bath with lukewarm water, light the stove with a small bundle of eucalypt sticks (kept in a big pot next to it for that purpose), and an hour later have a hot bath.  The chimney goes all the way under the bath keeping it warm for as long as you are prepared to add a few sticks every half hour, and we still have the view of the stars albeit not directly above.

rocket stove

Step seven:  The gabion walls for the three outside walls (the forth wall is the door to the house) and the shower cubicle. We used 1.8 metre galvanised grid wire with a 50mm by 75mm grid.  Two parallel runs about 30cm apart, around the outside of the steel posts and back around the inside, tied across every metre or so with heavy galvanised wire to stop it bulging, then filled with river rocks.  We bought the rocks from a landscape supplier (along with the pebbles for the floor) and bucketed them into the gabions – slightly heavy work but the area is not too large and it only took a few hours to do.

The walls are filled to head height around the shower and two walls, but lower in front of the bath to allow a view over the garden and to the stars.  It works for us because we have no neighbours on that side and the bath is designed for use of an evening when no-one is out and about in the garden.

1-DSCF8021

Step nine: plumbing:  We used retro style plumbing fittings, mostly recycled, and got a plumber in to connect the system to the hot water storage tank, which now sits on the roof directly above where I am standing to take this photo.  It means it is a nice short run and I can use the small amount of water it takes before it runs hot to water the plants. The out plumbing goes to another bathtub down the hill a bit, filled with gravel and reeds to filter it, then onto a clump of banana palms.

Step ten: Art deco light fittings found at the dump shop, refitted for 12 volt, and towel hooks on the forth wall.

1-DSCF8080

Step eleven: plants.  I have very tall native ginger and banana palms around the outside on two sides.  The ginger is flowering now, hanging great heavy flower heads into the bathroom.  It is dense enough to be an effective privacy and breeze screen.   There are a couple of big pots with figs, hanging baskets of orchids and ferns hang from the roof around the edge, and I’ve planted around the edge at floor level with lilies, palms, and bromeliads, and crow’s nest and maidenhair ferns around the edge of the shower tray.   A jasmine and a honeysuckle vine both climb the outside of the wire and make their way through the rocks occasionally.

ginger

And finally, decoration.  One of the (many) nice things about rock walls is no fire danger, so there are candle holders poked into the rock walls, and I’ve started adding shells and sea glass and crystals and pretty rocks when I find them.  My two-year-old grandson, Teo, helps me find shells, and made a decision on his own to add some treasures to Grandma’s bathroom decorations.

treasures

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bathroom orchids

I so love having fresh flowers in my bathroom these days. My bathroom “Worth the 30 Years’ Wait” has hanging baskets all around the edge, lilies along the side, and I’ve discovered orchids.   This orchid is right next to the shower-   I can admire it while I soap myself.  It is the forth orchid to flower this year, and so far my favourite with its delicate mauve centres.

I’ve never been huge on growing flowers before.  A nice fertile bit of soil and a choice of what to plant in it and an edible has nearly always won out.  I do like the beauty of many flowering edibles – they feed my native bees, attract predatory insects, and yield seeds for next year’s planting.  Right now I have mustard with bright yellow flowers – great for salads and going to be brown mustard seeds for sprouting and for curries and for pickles.  I have the waxy white flowers of kailan, or swatow broccoli, again wonderful in salads.  I have the purple flowers of endive, going to be seed for next year but mostly just because. I have dill flowering with yellow umbrella heads, good for salads and seed as a spice, and for attracting predatory hoverflies, lacewings, wasps and ladybeetles.  I have Queen Anne’s lace planted for the same purposes.  Soon there will be the lovely little blue flowers of Nigella that I grow for its peppery seeds for pickles and curries.  I would have nasturtiums for salads too but the wallabies found a hole in the fence again and they love nasturtiums even more than I do.

But flowers grown just for themselves are a rare thing for me and I’m discovering a whole new indulgence.

This river lily is growing under the towel hooks. Back when my mother was a girl, orchids and lilies in corsages were a gift for a special date.  It feels very luxuriant to have them all the time.

2-DSCF7988

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bathroom

I cleaned my bathroom for this photo.

I weeded the fig in the pot.  I hung the maroon towels because they look much prettier against the dark aqua wall than the torn barbie doll beach towel.  I threw out the old luffa. Cleaning done.

Oh how I love love love having a bathroom you don’t have to clean.  The moss growing in the corner of the shower is supposed to be there.  The floor never needs mopping.   I put dirt in little crevices in the rock walls to plant ferns and tree orchids.  The late afternoon sun even has an angle that directly hits the towels hanging on the wall so they smell like they’ve just come off the clothes line.

Free hot water, orchids and maidenhair, a fat green frog, a bath that stays warm for hours with a view of the stars, candlelight playing on rocks, and plugholes that take the water out to bananas and mulberries. But really high up on even this list is that I finally, after all these years, have a bathroom that isn’t just not cleaned, it’s not in need of cleaning.

orchids

This is one of the two kinds of orchids in flower now, misted with overspray from the shower. I’ve never grown orchids before.

There’s a problem with bathrooms. They are one person rooms, which tends to mean small. They are private, which tends to mean lack of  sun or air. People are naked in them, which tends to mean they are kept warm. They are wet, which tends to mean perfect for things like mould that like a warm, moist, enclosed, unventilated, dark environment.

It’s a basic permaculture notion that you cannot empty an niche.  Where there is a niche, a lifeform will live in it, and aything you do to try to kill that lifeform will harm humans too, and all the other creatures that live in all the places where water goes after it leaves the bathroom. Once upon a time there was a lot of “all the places” and our puny measuring capacity meant we could pretend the killing stuff disappeared.  Nowadays the accumulated total of several generations of bathroom cleaning is showing up in male fertility rates and antibiotic resistant bacteria and fish full of microbeads.

Triclosan, phthalates, butoxythanol, microbeads – there are some really nasty chemicals in bathroom cleaning products.  Homemade lemon oil cleaning vinegar has been my go to alternative, but in a bathroom vs cleaning vinegar match-up, the cleaning vinegar needs to have frequency on its side.  Not fun.

My partner tells me, sometimes with admiration, sometimes with frustration, that I am the stubbornest person.  For all this time I’ve refused to settle on the matter of bathrooms.  But hey, it’s worth it.

Our new bathroom has a hugely efficient, smokeless rocket stove that heats a bathful of water with just a big vase full of eucalypt sticks, picked up anyway to reduce fire hazard.  The chimney leads under the bath to keep it warm for as long as you like. There are little candle crannies in the rocks all around and a view of the stars.

The shower has hot water from the slow combustion stove boosted solar hot water system. The basin is a really old cast iron one with “patina” that matches the old mirror rescued from the dump.  The copper plumbing is all exposed in a kind of steampunk style that bemused the plumber who connected it all. The drain leads out to another bathtub filled with gravel and water plants to filter it, and thence to a clump of bananas.

The room has an alsynite roof that lets light through to give photosynthesising lifeforms an advantage over mould and fungus forms, and means I can fill it with hanging baskets of ferns and orchids and pots of figs and palms.  It has a floor of smooth pebbles in a grid mesh over sand and gravel, which means drips just soak through and I can plant the edges with elephant ears and lillies.  It has rock gabion walls to various heights on three sides – waist height around the bath for a view of a garden in the daytime and the stars at night, but head height round the shower, with a gap to the roof to allow for ventilation and tall, dense native ginger plants around the outside for privacy and breeze protection.  There’s a passionfruit vine too that in time will cover the outside of the gabion wire. The forth side is a full height timber wall to the house with hooks for towels and some lovely old art-deco light fittings we found at the dump years ago, retrofitted to 12 volt.

I shall write another post about the rocket stove construction, because that was a mission of research and trials and invention and building and rebuilding by my partner Lewie worth a post to itself.

Worth the wait.

rocket stove

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This is the view from our loo.

fig tree

It is one of the advantages of rural life, that you can have a loo with a view.  Figs are now in season, and you can sit on our loo and spot the ones that need picking. Which is a useful thing because figs don’t ripen well when picked green (the main reason they’ve never made it into the standard supermarket array), they ripen daily, and they’re best eaten straight away.

Our loo is a red manure worm processing system, and the resulting worm castings end up in an underground trench that the fig tree’s roots can get into.  That may, or may not,  have something to do with the fact that this year is turning into a very good year for fig harvesting. It’s a relatively new system – we’ve given up on the imperfectly designed composting toilet that always required a bit too much attention and maintenance to work properly on the cool south side of the house in our sub-tropical climate.  The new worm processing system should, in theory, work much better.

I always think that “composting toilet” is a bit of a misnomer.  Compost by rights is a compound that contains big, stable molecules of humic acid created by a particular kind of thermophilic bacteria.  The particular bacteria that make it like about three times as much carbon in their diet as nitrogen, an environment that is moist but not wet,  batch not incremental feeding, and nice insulation to keep warm.  Manure (human and other animals) is nearly all nitrogen rich compounds, much too wet, and you don’t get a batch of it all at once.  Most of the designs I see work on the principle of drying and aging rather than true compost making.

Anaerobic bacteria, the kind that make biogas, like a nitrogen rich wet environment. I see a few designs around these days for household scale biogas digesters and I suspect that could be the technology of the future.

But the other creature, and the one we’ve targeted, is red worms – Eisenia foetida and Lumbricus rubellus species, commercially used to process pig manure.  We were seeking a design that used no water – we’re on tank water, and in a drought year it is always a toss up whether to conserve water for possible fire fighting, spend it keeping trees alive or the garden producing, or let it go to environmental flow.  Flushing a toilet doesn’t get a look-in.

We were also seeking a design that used no or very little power. Nowadays we now have 4.5 kva of off-grid solar power and most of the time we can be completely profligate with spending it – put the electric bread oven, the slow cooker, the stereo, the washing machine, the pool pump and every light in the house on all at once. But I am so used to being frugal with power I can’t bear the idea of wasting it!

It had to cope with urine, cycle nutrients, take virtually no maintenance, and be salubrious enough for visitors used to white porcelain.

All that, and, very importantly,  a view.

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Photo thanks to Lock The Gate

Life goes back to normal.  Or will never be quite the same.  This morning the Petroleum Exploration License for Metgasco to frack for gas at Bentley was suspended and referred to ICAC.  As well, and hopefully even more significantly, the Office of Coal Seam Gas will audit all Petroleum Exploration Licences across NSW.

I’ve spent the last week gearing up for a Eureka Stockade moment at Bentley.  If you know any Eureka history, 27 (or more) people were killed at Eureka and more would have been bayoneted but for the but for the intervention of Captain Charles Pasley from the blockade-breaking force. The miners were routed in about 10 minutes flat, 120 were arrested and some were charged with treason and sedition.  It wasn’t exactly a glorious win.

But it changed Australian history.  As a direct result, ordinary people (at least the male ones) got the vote in Victoria and Australian democracy was born.

Bentley Blockade looked like being like that.  900 police, including mounted police and riot squad were due to descend on us on Monday.  Ten thousand or so local people from every part of the social and political spectrum planned to confront them, including some very very brave people locked on.  Many of the police had friends and family amongst the blockaders and I’m sure that amongst their number there were many Captain Pasleys.  I thought I felt calm and unstressed by it all, but this morning as tears of relief ran down my face, I realised that my body knew I was scared.

A young mother involved in the blockade had the best quote of the morning. “Have spent so long stressing about bentley. Have been packing bags and first aid kits and reading about direct action safety. Worrying about my friends and families health and wellbeing. Today’s suspension has me in tears of relief and rage that we have been put through this. I hope ICAC goes through you bastards like a dose of the salts. Suck balls Metgasco and RVC.”

One of the media reports has the headline “Metgasco’s drilling permit for Bentley farm plagued by protesters”. I hope we are a very contagious plague. I hope we set off an epidemic through every site of this evil industry.

I’m celebrating today by planting peas and snow peas.  A glorious day in the garden, bake some bread, go look at some new ducks this afternoon, and on the way, drop in at Bentley to crack a champagne with the Nannas.  It’s just a battle, not the war, but we won, and it’s a moment to savour.

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1-bentley

I’ve been at Bentley.  Witches Kitchen has been neglected, partly because I’ve been sleeping in the back of the car and waking up at dawn, to an odd combination of celebratory empowerment and the prospect of fronting riot police. But also because I want to write about it but I don’t know where to start.

Coal seam gas, tight sands gas, unconventional gas, “natural gas” – by its many Orwellian double-speak names designed to confuse  – whatever you call it, this kind of mining is so very much a part of the stories  of rural Australia today that it is difficult to truly appreciate how “under the radar” it is for many people.  Coal mining has its own, marginally more familiar, issues.  Gas mining has only very recently exploded onto the scene. Bad as coal mining is for greenhouse gas production and destruction of agricultural communities, gas mining is orders of magnitude worse.  Multiply by a thousand times whatever reservations you have about expanding the coal industry, and you’re in the ballpark.

The system is broken.  Absolutely buggered. Two bit tin-pot companies with absentee directors and no money are allowed to take out exploration licenses over vast areas of land that they don’t own, and have no sense of responsibility for.  Doesn’t matter if it is prime agricultural or watershed or rural residential or ecologically significant or if the owner disagrees.  They can hang onto the licenses for little cost or effort, just as a ticket in a lottery that there is something valuable underneath.  They can forcibly enter and dig exploration wells, protected by riot police that you as taxpayers pay for if necessary.  If they find nothing, little lost. If they make a mess they can fold and disappear. If they find gas, they’ve hit a jackpot.

This is gas that is hard to get out.  It’s not sitting in pockets. It’s soaked through sandstone or shale or dirty coal seams.  The method is to drill down, then horizontally for kilometres, then hydrollically fracture the rock allowing the gas to seep into the drilled channel.  The fracturing is done with lots of water and some very toxic chemicals, but they are then mixed with underground gases and minerals like arsenic and uranium that are “natural” but toxic, and the methane they are after, and the whole horrible lot is transported to the surface in concrete pipes that inevitably leak sooner or later and often sooner.  Through water tables and and impermeable rocks and springs, destroying the underground integrity of water flows and polluting everything it touches.

There’s not a huge lot of it per well, so there needs to be a lot – a very lot – of wells to make it all worthwhile.  Lots of water, holding ponds of the toxic “produced water”, underground horizontal drill channels in every direction, above ground pipelines.  This is a real, Google Earth picture of a gasfield in Queensland, stretching all the way between the towns of Tara and Chinchilla.  You get the idea?  We’re not talking about one little well producing lots of wealth.  We’re talking about low return, high risk, mega-industrial complexes.

Tara gasfield

Neither do the wells produce for very long.  As you can imagine, fracturing kilometres of rock well underground and waiting for gas to seep out is about as efficient as the fishing method of chucking dynamite into a dam.  Lots of the gas, called “fugitive emissions”, escapes into the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas much worse than CO2, or into water to come out of taps as flammable water (I kid you not).    New York Times is reporting thousands of abandonned wells. Once they are sucked dry, the company that drilled them shifts profits to a parent campany, folds, and walks away, leaving farmland and water resources un-restorable.

And for all this, do we get jobs? cheaper gas? wealth?  No, none of them.  We get a port dredged out of the Barrier Reef with a pipline all the way to it, so the gas can be exported to markets that will pay three times the price of gas on the Australian market. Your gas bill will treble, and it has nothing to do with gas shortages, rather the opening up of a more lucrative export market at the expense of our Barrier Reef.  A three-fold hike in gas prices will cost us thousands of small businesses and hundreds of thousands of jobs in industries that depend on gas.  Food prices will skyrocket as water shortages and destroyed farmland and farming communities bites.

There’s no gas shortage.  There’s enough of this stuff worldwide to fry the earth several times over, and it’s in the hands of people greedy enough to do it.

Coal Seam Gas News or Lock the Gate are good places to get informed.  If you are in Northern NSW, at Gasfield Free Northern Rivers you can register for alerts.  Somebody at the blockade last week said this is a Woodstock moment.  They were using it in a different context, but I have  I have a feeling that it is.  This one will win, and I hope I’ll be able to say, I was there.

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hibachi and wood

A blog I read regularly posted a “sponsored” post yesterday about “natural gas”.  It wasn’t in her usual writing style, and I strongly suspect she was set up.

LPG, LNG, CSG  – I don’t blame you if you are totally confused.  That’s what the mining companies are relying on.  A quick pea shuffle and they will be allowed to extract a quick, large profit and leave a fracked countryside.  There is a very, very well funded PR campaign of misinformation going on to rename coal seam gas as  “natural gas from coal seams”, shortened to “natural gas”, and at the same time to convince the voting, protesting, blockading public that natural gas is clean and green and in short supply. I suspect this is part of the next stage in the campaign – sponsored posts on blogs that people who could be expected to care about the quality of our food producing land, and our environment, read.  It’s cynical, ugly, and how big budget advertising messes with democracy.

Here’s the short version:  LPG is liquid petroleum gas.  The stuff you get in bottles for barbeques or when you fill up a car. It’s not great for the environment for all the same reasons petrol is not great.  Serious action on climate change means transitioning away from it as quickly as possible.

LNG is liquid natural gas.   It’s natural gas (CH4) that has been compressed and cooled so it is liquid.  This makes it easier to transport, particularly for export. Australia has large conventional gas reserves mostly in WA, off the northwest coast with smaller resources in the Gippsland Basin offshore Victoria and the onshore Cooper-Eromanga Basin in South Australia.  Most of it is exported.

Besides being liquefied for export, conventional gas is also used for generating electricity, heating houses, and making nitrogen fertilizers. It’s cleaner than burning coal for electricity, producing less greenhouse gases and less smog, but it’s still a significant contributor.  They say we have reserves sufficient for about 60 years.

CSG is coal seam gas.  It is nasty, nasty stuff.  The gas itself, once it is mined and refined is CH4.  It’s the getting it out that’s the problem.  Coal seam gas often won’t come out on its own.  It is mined in a process that uses and produces lots of contaminated water, and that often uses a process called fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, which means pumping a toxic chemical mix down a well that goes for kilometres not just down but along.   Coal seam gas also results in what is euphemistically called “fugitive emissions” – which means gas that is not captured.  Lots of it.  A potent greenhouse contributor, and a  fire hazard.

A big problem with CSG is the sheer size of the industry. There are heading towards 4,000 active wells in Queensland and the industry is expected to increase 10 fold over the next 20 years.  That’s 40,000 wells. And they’re not out in marginal, uninhabited, undisputed land.  Some CSG fields are in our most valuable agricultural land, and our most precious natural environments.  There are three, very large new LNG plants under construction in central Queensland (Queensland Curtis LNG, Gladstone LNG and Australia Pacific LNG).  They will ship LNG made from coal seam gas out through Curtis Island, requiring dredging  through World Heritage Listed  Great Barrier Reef.

It’s a huge and extremely lucrative industry.  Large amounts of dollars will be thrown at PR. Let’s see if the blogosphere is up to the task of combating the spin.

And the picture?  I’m doing my best to transition away from LPG.  The slow combustion stove is good in winter, for cooking, heating and hot water.  The solar hot water system is good for summer. In fine weather I can bake and slow cook using shunt electricity a lot of the time,  but I’m still trying to find good way to grill and stir fry.  This little hibachi is one of the tools I’m playing with using.  I can collect a barrow load of sticks in a short walk, and it helps keep the area around the house clear of fire hazard at the same time.

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We had rain.  Not enough, but a bit more than 25mm or an inch over the last couple of days.

I feel so very lucky.

For the last fortnight we have had our tanker trailer with 1000 litres of water and a pump hooked up to the ute, fueled up and ready just in case.  We have a new ring road fire break and dams front and back. We’ve had our water barrel with mop on the verandah full of water. We’ve had the top cement tanks dedicated for fire fighting full. We’ve had our overalls, boots, goggles and face masks ready.

And still, our fire plan is that in conditions like those we have been experiencing with record Spring temperatures and strong winds, we will just leave.  When they say ‘extreme weather”, this is what they mean. This is not even an el Niño year – next year could easily be much worse. We’re on track to hand our kids a whole new definition of extreme.

I feel so much for those who have lost homes, but also, I feel powerless.  I’ve had enough years in the Rural Fire Service to know: there are fires you can fight successfully on the ground, and there are fires that you can only fight politically, and it seems we are going backwards in fighting them politically. There are the heroic people who are out there with fire hoses, and there are the self-deluding people who conspire to give them bigger and bigger fires to fight each year. We need self sacrifice and heroism on the political front to match the fire front.

Or not even self sacrifice – just self interest. The way this one plays out is that insurance premiums rise to the point where carbon pricing is dwarfed by rises in insurance premiums, and in the taxes needed to reconstruct whole neighbourhoods, and in electricity prices to rebuild all those burnt poles and wires.  More people can’t afford insurance, so the risk is shared fewer ways, which bumps it up again. It’s self catalyzing.

We do just need to get through this one, this fire season, this summer.  Take care of the people suffering right now. But we do also need to seriously talk about how this is a natural disaster in the same way that a crash by a drink driver is an “accident”.  You can’t drink drive. You can’t burn coal. The risks are too great.

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