Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Coal Seam Gas Expansion Ignores Serious Issues

By Ian Lowe

Coal seam gas extraction is expected to expand despite a cautionary report into the risks.

Coal seam gas has been the subject of heated disputes in recent years. Extracting methane from coal seams was originally a safety measure to reduce the risks of mining, but the huge volume of the gas in coal measures has led to investment in extraction as an energy source.

There could be a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions if the methane was being burned directly to replace coal-fired electricity, but the reality is not that simple.

Often the proposal is to liquefy the gas and transport it long distances, using much of the energy. The gas might then be converted to electricity, throwing away another two-thirds of the energy. And methane inevitably leaks into the atmosphere from gas production, eroding the greenhouse benefits. When you add in the impacts on groundwater and fertile land, it is obvious why there is strong opposition to the rapid expansion of coal seam gas production.

Dr John Williams, former Chief of CSIRO Land and Water, has produced a detailed scientific analysis of the industry for the Australian Council of Environmental Deans and Directors. The first conclusion is that CSG is “no different to any other land use development within a landscape”. In other words, it should be properly regulated like other land uses, subject to the same laws and regulations, and neither demonised nor cosseted.

As his report shows that there are serious environmental risks, especially to groundwater, the state governments of New South Wales and Queensland have clearly been irresponsible in their hasty approvals of a rash of CSG operations. Williams calls for “whole of landscape planning” to ensure that agricultural and forestry land is protected for food and fibre production, so cumulative impacts of development need to be explicitly considered.

The report identifies significant environmental concerns. Water is extracted to depressurise coal seams, leading to subsequent changes in the movement of water to and from aquifers. The extracted water has to be taken somewhere, along with dissolved salt and other chemicals. When production ends, the aquifers will need to be recharged, but the producers will have disposed of the extracted water.

These are all serious issues that should be properly assessed.

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I wonder if Australia’s resources minister, Martin Ferguson, lives in a parallel universe. The International Energy Agency warned in its 2012 Energy Outlook that the trajectory of greenhouse gas production has the world on target for an average temperature increase of 3.6°C. The World Bank has also warned of the dangerous path the world is on. In a November report, the Bank said that the most optimistic interpretation of the current path is a 3°C increase in average global temperatures, with a more pessimistic interpretation about 4°C. We need to remember that these are average increases in temperature.

While the world as a whole has warmed by about 0.8°C since 1900, some parts of Australia have experienced increases in average temperature of more than 2°C. We are already seeing much greater incidence of abnormally hot days. As one of the countries most exposed to the consequences of climate change, we should expect our government to be taking a leading role in slowing the process.

Instead, the recent Energy White Paper acts as if this was not an important issue. It celebrates the possibility of increased use of coal and gas as a great export opportunity for Australia. It says that “coal production is expected to continue its strong growth,” and anticipates that gas production will quadruple by 2017.

As the authors would not have seen Dr John Williams’ report, the White Paper expects production of coal seam gas to be expanded dramatically to justify “three CSG-to-LNG projects, worth $50 billion” in Queensland.

The White Paper attributes recent dramatic rises in domestic electricity prices to “a complex combination” of factors, without mentioning the most significant: population growth and the way privatisation and “competition” have added to overhead costs. Ignoring this problem allows the White Paper to propose further “reform” to deal with what Mr Ferguson sees as a problem: “ongoing public ownership and governance of energy businesses” preventing “deregulation and competition”. He clearly wants to spread the costs of deregulation to the states that have so far resisted.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.