Ten years ago, here in Queensland, nobody had even heard of Coal Seam Gas exploration. In the decade since, it has become a hot topic and has entered many conversations in curious places. Environmental and political concerns have become topics for more of the population as people begin to realise just how much power their vote has. It's a by-product from a hung parliament and the climate change debate.
Speaking of by products.......what about that CSG. Is it really as bad as Gasland makes out?
For those of you who haven't seen the documentary Gasland, I urge you to do so immediately, but the thrust of it is essentially a whole truckload, or 1150 truckloads, of information on why this relatively new industry is so very bad for us.
One particular part talks about a huge population of birds which dropped dead in a lake and the correlation between that and CSG wells. This part was proven incorrect almost a year before Gasland was released. The final report states that it was caused by a nearby coal mine and the run off from that facility.
The pictures and stories are laid out in a fashion which is highly emotive and over-dramatised which led me to ask more questions rather than take the film at face value.
This is what I found.
In Queensland our government has embraced the rapid influx of CSG exploration wells. They have approved huge numbers of new wells and it is estimated that by 2030 there will be AT LEAST 40'000 gas wells across the nation, a large portion of those in Queensland. With numbers that high, it is worth taking a look at the regulations involved.
One of the biggest concerns for farmers and the general community is the chemicals used in the fraccing procedure. For those down with the lingo but altogether unsure of what it means, fraccing is the process where a chemical/water and sand mix is used to fracture (or make a slight crack, most less than a mm in diameter) the rock well under the existing water level, to get at the gas which is stored below.
The chemicals used are reported by Gasland to be too numerous to count and highly secretive. I cannot guarantee that this is not true in America but here in Queensland the chemicals used are public knowledge. It's written in the EPA act that they must be revealed. An average of 12 are used with each well, differing according to the company and the conditions of the ground. Of those used, the ones which are of most concern are known as BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes). These chemicals are naturally occurring in water in very small doses and the fear is that high doses of these chemicals will cause environmental problems. As a result, those chemicals are regulated. It is forbidden in Qld to add any of those to the fracturing liquid. This is not to say that it can't be guaranteed that the resulting waste liquid, which is stored on land, does not contain high amounts of these.
Storage of the waste fracturing liquid is also strictly regulated. It must be stored in a pond, pit or water tank that is lined with an impenetrable material such as steel. This water is then treated to make it safer but not much is known about storage times or the real safety of it over time. Nothing is mentioned about what may occur if the land is flooded and the liquid overflows. Perhaps it's not a consideration?
A few weeks ago a claim was made that one company was directly pouring their treated fraccing liquid leftovers into the water source which feeds the Murray-Darling Basin. This is currently being investigated but the company involved has not issued any press releases to deny it, which is interesting but open to too much conjecture.
Moving on to the gas explosions. These have been reported all over Qld, the US and the UK. They are usually contained quickly and within a week, those living more than 200 klms from the site have forgotten about it. They are methane explosions and are considered more of a risk to people standing nearby but facts are showing that these explosions are further 'fracturing' the rock below with the potential that the mine wells will collapse and cause contamination as has happened overseas.
Interestingly, in instances where water contamination has been reported in the US (we have yet to reach that point here, they have 80 years of CSG to build up issues) it has been noted that the EPA over there does not consider methane to be harmful, so high levels of that found in water supplies, causing it to bubble like soft-drink, is not of any concern to authorities.
As for other chemicals being found in drinking water over there, apparently rigorous testing has found low levels of everything harmful but all within ranges they would consider to be harmless for human consumption. There is yet to be a study on whether 'minuscule' amounts of potentially harmful chemicals, combined together, would have a negative impact on mankind. They are only studying levels of each chemical, on it's own. As if it isn't in there with several others.
Recently a CSG company admitted in the UK that the process of fraccing caused minor seismic developments in the region. Many tiny earthquakes are caused every day by this process. This is more common in the new, cleaner procedure, which uses gas instead of chemicals, sand and water. The pressure required to push the gas down and cause a small crack in large quantities of rock, is enough to cause a tremor. Albeit a minor one.
Yet another by-product of fraccing is large quantities of salt, estimated to be 30 million tons over the next 30 years, another substance which requires storage. This is also heavily regulated in Qld but the concern on this is more about the places to store it and the fact that this area will fill up with storage containers very quickly.
It is also estimated that 300 gigalitres of groundwater will be drawn every year for use in CSG extraction placing pressure on our water reserves which are already being depleted by the cotton industry, cane industry and many other irrigation uses.
The APPEA (Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association) states that "In 2004, the US EPA completed a 5 year study of coalbed methane fraccing envoronmental risks which concluded: 'the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coal-bed methane wells pose little or no threat to underground drinking water.'
Fair enough. It's the 'little risk' which is of concern. Not to mention no testing has been carried out regarding potential run off and here in Qld we have very high levels of rain fall, every year.
What I found interesting, though completely expected, were the sources of information. The industry itself is very quick to defend it's practices, which you would naturally expect. The Qld Government has pages of information as it is obviously working hard to convince people that the money made is worth the possible environmental impacts. Even going as far as to offer a new education program, similar to a trust fund, for every child born after 2012, from the massive profits made.
Gasland and every Australian environmental body were not painting a rosy picture of the future of this industry, or the land used to extract the gas. The doom and gloom of the contaminations, the explosions, the tremors, the chemical storage made for some pretty dismal reading.
So, where are we now? At the Federal level a Senate committee released a report into CSG in Australia last week. It has proposed the following;
That all CSG permits be denied where the land is considered 'prime agricultural land'.
That a National Regulatory Framework and water management plan be undertaken prior to any additional permits being granted.
That all CSG projects along the Murray-Darling Basin be halted immediately, pending Queensland Government and scientific investigations.
That gas companies be legally liable for any environmental or human damages for an indefinite period. (This was brought about due to the fact that in the US, several wells have collapsed, 80 years after being decommissioned, causing serious contamination for which no one is being held legally or financially liable)
That CSG companies be forced to prove that their mining was not at fault if any aquifer becomes depleted.
There are 24 recommendations in total, those listed are just those directly affecting environment and population.
Will this industry be forced to slow down? Will the studies be conducted in a transparent and water tight manner? If this is deemed to be too much of a risk as an industry, will the State be liable if they are forced to shut down?
So, we wait. While the Senate report is studied, to see if anything will come of it.
They could shut down an entire industry immediately because people didn't like the pictures of animal cruelty overseas yet here we have an industry which has the potential to destroy large amount of the land and make drinking water a chemical cocktail and we wait.......