1 Dec 2011

Inquiry Bursts The Gas Bubble

By Ben Eltham
The Senate inquiry into coal seam gas has issued a remarkable rebuke to drillers and revenue-hungry state governments. What's even more striking? All political parties agree it's time to stop, writes Ben Eltham
As wildcat booms go, it has been a doozy. Coal seam gas exploration took many years to get underway in Australia, and we came to the party somewhat later than the continental United States. But once the invitations went out, mining companies turned up in their droves, drilling thousands of exploration wells all over inland Australia.

Radio National's Ian Townsend filed a report on the gas rush in mid-2010. It gives a flavour of the excitement in the coal seam export industry at the time. Townsend talked to a rural consultant named George Houen who told him that "people have to realise that we're sitting on probably one of the greatest energy provinces in the world, and between the coal and the coal-seam gas, we have a resource here which is obviously going to be exploited for its value to the country".

A number of energy companies such as Santos and the Queensland Gas Company have announced vast gas export projects worth tens of billions. According to Bond University's Tina Hunter, there are plans to drill over 40,000 wells in Queensland alone over the next five years.

What are they drilling for? Natural gas. Methane, to be precise, a hydrocarbon that is a potent greenhouse gas, but also a valuable source of energy. When burnt in a new combined cycle gas turbine, methane is responsible for about half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, which is why many energy analysts see it as transition fuel on the road to fully renewable electricity generation. Coal sea methane gets its name from its origins, in the vast coal beds that lie underneath much of central Queensland, the Darling Downs and down into New South Wales. Coal mines have long been known to be "gassy"; the trick of coal seam gas is to capture the gas and eventually sell it to generators either in Australia or overseas.

Unfortunately, to get the gas often requires hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". Fracking requires lots of water, and some nasty chemicals. And where this polluted water goes, once injected deep underground, and what effects it will have on vital aquifers, is very much the subject of the current controversy.

It's also the focus of a recent Senate inquiry, chaired by New South Wales Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, on "the impact of mining coal seam gas on the management of the Murray Darling Basin". The inquiry was launched earlier this year, in response to growing community alarm, particularly in rural and farming communities, that has led to the prominent Lock the Gate protest movement.

The interim report was handed down yesterday. It's the most comprehensive so far on the possible environmental effects of coal seam gas mining on groundwater aquifers. The Committee discovered that very little is truly known about the Great Artesian Basin, and the likely impacts of such a widespread drilling program on it. A CSIRO expert who gave evidence to the inquiry told the committee that "the complex movement and interactions of different layers of water can be hard to detect but they have a direct effect on the sustainable use of the resource, such as protecting fresh groundwater from being polluted by nearby saline layers".

The problems of pinning down what the environmental impacts of mining might be are exacerbated by the behaviour of many mining companies, which fall short of "best practice".

The Committee found that "particularly in its early stages there was no shortage of examples of 'cowboy' behaviour by exploration companies". It records "examples of land degradation caused by seepage from extracted water storage ponds, leaking gas pipes, untreated water seeping into watercourses and erosion caused by poorly installed pipelines". It also discovered an embarrassing level of uncertainty among mining companies about their processes.

The report doesn't pull punches. It recommends that coal seam gas exploration be suspended in Queensland and New South Wales "in that part of the Murray-Darling Basin overlying the Great Artesian Basin".

Speaking on Lateline Business last night, Heffernan was at his forthright best. "Obviously I think there's been some serious errors made," he told the ABC's Ticky Fullerton. One of the big issues the report identified was the amount of saline brine that would be generated by all the fracking. Heffernan points out that one proposed drilling field will have 7,000 wells with the potential to generate three million tonnes of salt. It's a dramatic demonstration of the toxic possibilities of the industry.

On the issue of fracking itself, the report sits on the fence, stating that it was "beyond the resources of this Committee" to settle to controversy about just how toxic fracking really is. The report notes that fracking is common practice in the industry and that Geoscience Australia and the CSIRO think it is low risk. However it also recommends that fracking fluids used in wells be kept in separate water-tight storages, or, before being disposed of, "are treated to the highest standards".

Perhaps most alarmingly, it found that only two of the 23 commonly used chemicals in the fracking process were even the subject of the National Industrial Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme. It recommends that the government provide funds to have all these chemicals properly assessed in the next two years.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the report was that it was tripartisan. There aren't many issues that can unite the Coalition, Labor and the Greens, but coal seam gas exploration appears to be one. The political kaleidoscope has suddenly aligned against coal seam gas exploration; a moratorium of further exploration should logically be the government's next move. The release of this report shows that political action can indeed make a difference: it is difficult to believe the industry would ever have been subject to this much scrutiny, particularly from the conservative side of politics, if farmers had not joined with environmentalists to make the issue impossible for parliamentarians to ignore.

Ultimately, the responsibility for the boom must lie with the states who approved it in the first instance. Most of the Australian states, particularly Queensland, have long prided themselves on a pro-development mentality, seen in this instance by the Queensland Government's policy of "adaptive management", which loosely translates to approving exploration until it can be proven that they are a danger to the environment. It's hard to argue with Bill Heffernan's point that the lure of mining royalties and jobs for the regions has allowed sensible precautions to be put aside in this instance.

As the interim report makes clear, coal seam gas is likely to be an evanescent boom, running out within 15 years, but with the potential to despoil prime agricultural land that could help feed Australian cities for generations.

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Posted Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 15:03

Great article Ben. I'm pretty concerned by CSG and this just make me more worried.

Posted Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 15:56

Greed, Greed and More Greed, stuff the environment and the people around it all they mean nothing, more Greed.

Posted Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 17:18

Yes let's all ignore the science and get on with the politics.

Posted Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 17:22

Not mentioned in Ben Eltham's article (and possibly not by the draft Senate Report) but of vital importance to greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution and CSG is methane leakage.

The finding of Dr Drew Shindell and colleagues (NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies) that methane (CH4) has 105 times the global warming potential (GWP) as carbon dioxide (CO2) on a 20 year items scale and including impacts on atmospheric aerosols is vital for any sensible discussion of coal to gas transition, coal seam gas, methanogenic livestock production (CSG) and "tackling climate change".

This finding means that a 2.6 % leakage of CH4 yields the same greenhouse effect as burning the remaining 97.4% (noting that 1g CH4 has 105 times the GWP of 1 g CO2) – ergo, stop gas exploitation, aquifer-poisoning and aquifer-depleting fracking of shale and coal seams.

In Victoria, Australia, gas-fired power stations (0.60 – 0.90 tonnes CO2-e/MWh, average 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh) are roughly twice as efficient in producing energy as brown coal-burning power stations (1.21-1.53 tonnes CO2-e/MWh) according to a report by Green Energy Markets commissioned by Environment Victoria (EV)

At 2.6% CH4 leakage Victorian gas burning for power would be about as dirty GHG-wise as the dirtiest coal-burning plant, Hazelwood; at 3.3% (US average) gas burning would be 1.2 times as dirty as Hazelwood; and at 7.9% (fracking-derived gas in the US according to Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University) tonnes CO2-e/MWh would increase to 3.2 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (roughly 2.1 times as dirty as Hazelwood).

Tackling climate change means a DECREASE in greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution. However the Australian Labor Government’s Carbon tax-ETS plan means that Australia will INCREASE both its Domestic and Exported GHG pollution in both 2020 and 2050 relative to that in 2000.

Further, the Australian Government adumbrates a coal to gas transition for power generation as a consequence of its carbon price plan. However gas burning is a dirty energy source and if fracked shale gas is used to generate electricity instead of coal then power sector GHG pollution can double associated with systemic gas leakage.

The recent written advice I have received from the Australian Government that “The Australian Government [has] a comprehensive plan to move to a clean energy future. Central to that plan is the introduction of a carbon price that will cut pollution in the cheapest and most effective way and drive investment in clean energy sources such as solar, wind and gas” is comprehensively incorrect: the Australian Labor Government’s plan is effectively for climate change inaction, a dirty energy future and indeed dirtier energy future. Further, gas is not clean energy and can be worse than coal GHG-wise due to systemic gas leakage (see Gideon Polya, “Oz Labor’s Carbon Tax-ETS & gas for coal plan means INCREASED GHG pollution”, Bellaciao, 27 August 2011: http://bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?article21140 ).

For recent sensible comments about methane leakage and CSG see Dr Colin Hunt (Visiting Fellow in Economics, University of Queensland, "Coal [seam] gas seams good - until you measure the methane", The Conversation: http://theconversation.edu.au/coal-gas-seams-good-until-you-measure-the-...

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. pwinwood
Posted Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 17:28

Merlinau I wonder how long that any genuine concern for the future to be inhabited by our gandchildren can prevail over the lure of big bucks to the Oil companies, and the various State governments ever looking to restoke their coffers with loot to be used to boost chances of return at the next election.
Judging by how badly we have been served by politicians of all perusions over the last decades, I'm guessing it won't be all that long.

Posted Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 17:32

Good piece. Why is it that with miners the taxpayer has to fund the investigation into the relative safety of using chemicals or processes that degrade the environment, while if I want to sell a vitamin I have to provide proof it is safe before I can sell it?
If I want to build a house, I have to wear cost of proving that it is safe by paying for inspectors. So surely the onus rests with the miners to prove their methods are safe.
If they are safe, then there is nothing to fear, no money will be lost.

I liked piece on ABC site about cost benefits of CSG. Worth a read. They say that in 2030 the CSG industry will release as much emissions as all the cars on the road. see http://www.abc.net.au/corp/pubs/media/s3373228.htm

Surely the environment is a fed issue, like nuke industry.

Posted Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 23:39

Ben’s article rightly emphasises the water contamination issue arising from coal seam gas (CSG) drilling. This was underlined by the National Toxic Network’s report a few months ago which found that only 2 out of the 23 most commonly used fracking chemicals in Australia have been assessed by NICNAS.

However, Gideon Polya’s comment repeats a number of statements commonly made by CSG activists that are not correct. For example, the comparison of the relative warming effect of different greenhouse gases by the IPCC uses the 100-year time horizon, not 20 years. The half life of methane in the atmosphere (12 years) is quite short, but the warming effect persists much longer because the oxidation products remain in the atmosphere and the GWP figure is affected by ozone and water vapour. Hence the correct ratio is 25, not 105 (or even 72 as used by the Cornell study into lifetime emissions from the extraction of shale gas). The Cornell study has since been contradicted in other respects by a subsequent study by Jiang et al at Carnegie Mellon University (Environ. Res. Lett. 6 (July-September 2011) 034014).

Both of these studies refer to emissions from the drilling and fracking used to extract shale gas, which are quite different to those from the extraction of coal seam gas. The extraction of shale gas is far more difficult because multiple wells need to be drilled to greater depths, and far more effort is needed with hydraulic fracturing because shale is denser and harder than coal.

On the leakage of Victorian gas, it is not as bad as it looks because a lot of the gas “consumed” between the Bass Strait production wells and the gas delivered to consumers is not actually leaking. It is used to drive compressors, produce LNG for gas storage and run the gas plants at Longford. Hence, most of it ends up as carbon dioxide, not as fugitive emissions of methane.

We should of course insist on the use of best practice to minimise venting and fugitive emissions, but even more important is to ensure that the geology of the coal seams and the subsurface aquifers is properly investigated before drilling commences.

Posted Friday, December 2, 2011 - 01:44

The 20 year time frame with respect to methane Global Warming Potential is acutely relevant because many countries of the world are rapidly running out of time to deal with man-made climate change, and none more so than climate criminal Australia.

Thus In 2009 the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WBGU) determined that for a 75% chance of avoiding a 2 degree C temperature rise, the World must pollute less than 600 Gt CO2 between 2010 and essentially zero emissions in 2050. Unfortunately Australia (through disproportionately huge annual fossil fuel burning and exports) had by mid-2011 already used up its “fair share” of this terminal greenhouse gas (GHG) budget.

Countries that relative to 2010 must cease GHG pollution within 5 years include Belize (0.8 years), Qatar (1.3), Guyana (1.4), Malaysia (1.9), United Arab Emirates (2.0), Kuwait (2.4), Papua New Guinea (2.5), Brunei (2.8), Australia (2.8; 1.1 if including its huge GHG Exports), Antigua & Barbuda (2.8), Zambia (2.9), Canada (3.0), Bahrain (3.0), United States (3.1), Trinidad & Tobago (3.3), Luxembourg (3.4), Panama (3.7), New Zealand (3.7), Estonia (4.0), Botswana (4.1), Ireland (4.3), Saudi Arabia (4.4), Venezuela (4.6), Indonesia (4.8), Equatorial Guinea (5.0), Belgium (5.0) (see Gideon Polya, “Shocking analysis by country of years left to zero emissions”, Green Blog, 1 August 2011: http://www.green-blog.org/2011/08/01/shocking-analysis-by-country-of-yea... ).

For the expert analysis by Dr Drew Shindell and colleagues on methane's GWP being 105 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame with aerosol impacts considered and published in the top US scientific journal Science see Drew T. Shindell , Greg Faluvegi, Dorothy M. Koch , Gavin A. Schmidt , Nadine Unger and Susanne E. Bauer , “Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions”, Science, 30 October 2009:
Vol. 326 no. 5953 pp. 716-718: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716 and Shindell et al (2009), Fig.2: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.figures-only .

For Cornell University's Professor Robert Howarth's 2011 estimates of methane leakage from fracking and from conventional gas sources see
Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea, “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations”, Climatic Change, 2011: http://www.sustainablefuture.cornell.edu/news/attachments/Howarth-EtAl-2... .

See also "Natural gas: Should fracking stop?" by Robert W. Howarth,
Anthony Ingraffea & Terry Engelder, published in the top UK scientific journal Nature, vol 477, 271–275 (15 September 2011): http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v477/n7364/full/477271a.html .

One is wise to consider the latest expert opinions of top scientists published in top scientific journals. It would be important to know the degree of systemic gas leakage for conventional gas and CSG.

According to Dr Colin Hunt (Economist, University of Queensland): "The EISs of four CSG companies exporting LNG out of Gladstone suggest their cumulative annual emissions in Australia at peak production will be 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. If the updated global warming factor for methane over 100 years (32 tonnes equivalent) is adopted then this rises to 53 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. The use of the warming factor for methane over the 20-year horizon (105 tonnes equivalent) gives 175 million tonnes a year." (see: http://theconversation.edu.au/coal-gas-seams-good-until-you-measure-the-...).

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

Posted Friday, December 2, 2011 - 12:04

Ben- that was informative, thanks. Good news!

LP, ALP, GRE- Your tripartisan support on this long term issue is refreshing, thank you! I agree with DrGideonPolya's comment that methane and any other significant GHG emissions need to be part of any serious, effective Safe Climate Legislation. As do the existing major holes in the current carbon dioxide legislation (international flight emissions, and allowing real emissions in exchange for future,
possible pollution absorbtion schemes). Please improve this legislation.

Posted Friday, December 2, 2011 - 14:13

pwinwood and love23 - you are spot-on!!
What we need is laws that recognise our resposibilities towards our fellow citizens in 100 year's time that are not voting, paying tax or making decisions NOW but that WILL be affected by our decisions severely...
Taken in this light - any scientific endeavours for understanding and enlightenment, testing, experiments, acceptable levels bla bla bla would be accompanied by a responsibility to measure the impacts on self determination, health, wealth, quality of life etc etc etc for our great grand children...
We do not have the right to destroy or irreversibly change their futures because of our own greed OR needs in the now...
All ideas, discussions, decisions and efforts in this area seem very short-sighted and unwise and it is the mentality that is the problem. We need serioius effort at renewable, healthy energy AND especially ways of ordering and structuring society that reduce energy use/abuse (such as utilising more local industry and farming that removes transpaort and more people power that would give more people work/experience of productivity but means less machines)

rob alan
Posted Saturday, December 3, 2011 - 14:49

'What we need is laws that recognize our responsibilities towards our fellow citizens in 100 year’s time'

Yes, How could any reasoned primate not agree lest being paid to disagree I ask myself?

Accepting responsibility for our actions is what most citizens do every moment of every day in our own microcosm local communities. Is it not time the pointy end did likewise?

Posted Sunday, December 4, 2011 - 09:34

Hi Rob - yes - most of us in our own lives effectively meet our responsibilities and manag the consequences of our decisions... why/how is it that somewhere down the line this stops happening?

This user is a New Matilda supporter. thomasee73
Posted Sunday, December 4, 2011 - 19:45

As I play the court jester, or the Fool, Rob A and FM, I point out that the foundations of contemporary economics (that unfalsifiable religion that dominates our political decision making) our fellow citizens in 100 years time are the very last individuals towards whom any "rational" (again, according to the rather questionable definition of rational taught in the most elite of our tertiary educational institutions) citizen would recognise a responsibility towards. For no matter what we do to them, they can do absolutely NOTHING to or for us, neither reward nor punish. There is no prospect at all of any sort of reciprocal relationship with them, and so to cause ourselves even the slightest inconvenience for even a massive benefit to them is even more irrational than giving money to the present poor (at least we have to live with them!).

There can be no genuine accountability of the past to the future.

Not that I agree with such offensive reasoning, mind you, but it's the sort of reasoning that lies at the heart of Economics 101 - everyone is, or ought to be, a rationally calculating, self-interested, individual.

On the other hand, developments in the theory of evolutionary biology would have it as rational that we have some concern for our direct descendants, even those with whom we will have no personal interaction (long live Our Genes), even if not ALL of our fellow future citizens.

It might sound a bit esoteric and obscure, but its sadly fundamental to the Western enlightenment (individualist, humanist, scientific, rationalist) worldview. One good thing that I will say about this worldview however - at least it insists on formalising its presumptions, so they can be exposed and critiqued.

Posted Monday, December 5, 2011 - 13:45

thomasee73 - yes this is so unfortunately.

Sometimes it is like we are actually living with the future amongst our pssing seconds though - especially as we see the same patterns in society keep repeating themselves...

Accountability has to come into it somewhere...eventually...one generation is going to have to decide enough is enough of valuing everything in the world acording to a money figure...

Posted Monday, December 5, 2011 - 19:49

Well like you said fightmumma

The difference is in the 2 legged Alpha male mentality of the human animal and the 4 legged Canine

With the human its all about Power and power comes in 3 forms.

1 The Power of the many, Nations, Religions, Mutual admiration societies.

2 The Power of Wealth, hence greed.

3 The power of the individual.
Adolf Hitler, Churchill, Ghandi, Mandela etc.

You can also mix those as in Empire which is 1, 2, and 3.

In Afganistan they have warlords, which is basicaly the old English Class system. Oliver Cromwell slaughtered most of those to bring in Industrialization. England moved on,Afgan's are still stuck there because no one cared about the joint until somebody wanted to build a pipeline across it, to feed oil to Europe.

Power = Control, Rape is about Control, we have laws and rules to control human behaviour.

Have we enough of them?

Dr Dog
Posted Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - 13:03

What is it with all the canine allegory? You don't see dogs spoiling the environment, unless you are referring to the age old joke about two dogs frakking.

I have been toying with the idea of starting the Future Australia Party. As the candidate I would consult with children and young people and develop a policy platform that addresses their needs in the world they will inherit from us.

Sure it might not get into the House of Representatives but even a pig ignorant gun nut can get into the senate, so I reckon I would be in with a chance.