Blow up?

Well Four Corners last night rather put my previous post, about fracking causing earthquakes, in the shade.

Allegations that coal seam gas mining leads to dangerous leakage of natural gas, and possibly fracking chemicals, have been bubbling along (as it were) for quite a while. However, I think the anecdotal accounts need to be treated with caution. Given the evidence of psychosomatic effects from wind turbines, fluoride etc it can’t be assumed that just because people report headaches starting after drilling starts that this is the cause. Even more measurable effects, such as water changing colour or gas bubbles in bore water are not necessarily evidence that drilling for CSG is responsible. Gas seeps can occur naturally and overuse of groundwater can accelerate this – indeed in areas where groundwater consumption is unsustainable the only way to stop CSG from eventually being released (other than, perish the thought, using less water) might be to mine it before it can escape.

My suspicion has always been that CSG drilling is leading to increased leakage because some of the anecdotal accounts seemed to have more substance, but I was wary of my judgement here. I’m opposed to the expansion of a new fossil fuel, so I might be clutching at straws to oppose it.

Last year’s research at Southern Cross University put the evidence for leakage on firmer ground, but as I noted before, it was still far from conclusive. I missed the first few minutes of Four Corners, and when I came in they were covering Maher and Santos’ (the scientist not the company) work. There was a certain amount of update on what was released last year, but at first it didn’t look like much was new.

Then came the revelations about the abuse of process and pressure put on whistleblower Simone Marsh to write reports covering up the lack of evidence for safety, followed by further evidence of drilling companies failing to do the testing that is supposed to be a condition of their leases. This could just be cutting corners, but combined with the attacks on Maher and Santos, it looks an awful lot like desearch, ie that the companies know the studies will be bad for them and are desperately trying to ensure that real research is not done.

Just to make things that bit worse for CSG companies and the politicians who have been covering for them, we have the possibility that damage to aquifers could see the water supply for 75,000 people run dry. The risk probably isn’t that high, but the fact that the water companies have been cut out of the process suggests that some people were worried about what they would say if consulted.

The concerns voiced by one local at a public meeting that CSG could be “this generation’s asbestos” look entirely credible.

Even if these concerns prove solid it’s not necessarily the end for CSG. Leaks occuring under certain geological conditions do not necessarily mean they will occur under others. It may well be that certain coal seams can be tapped without damage to the local environment, whatever the Greenhouse implications. Moreover, in Australia the industry might find sufficient desert and marginal land where it can get drilling approved even with substantial leakage.

However, if the evidence stacks up, and it is looking awfully like it will, any CSG drilling will have to take place under conditions of much tighter monitoring. The industry will try to push these costs onto the community. The revolving door between the public service, major political parties and industry will certainly help. Still, given the public opposition that already exists on this issue, it is hard to see this being maintained for long, either here or in other countries with some approximation of democracy.

Moreover, if CSG operations become impossible in many places, and more expensive in the rest, it will look very bad indeed for the all those who have been so quick to welcome them.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Enemies of science, Geology, Global Warming. Bookmark the permalink.

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