Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Concern at Emissions and Health Impacts of Coal

By Ian Lowe

The expansion of coal seam gas operations could eventually produce as much greenhouse gas as all the cars on the road in Australia.

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

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Two new reports have put energy options firmly on the political agenda. The Australian government has released a technical discussion paper on the greenhouse gas emissions from coal seam gas, and the University of Illinois has published a report summarising the scientific evidence of health effects from coal-fired electricity. Both these documents show an urgent need for new thinking about energy supply.

The Australian government’s paper makes a clear distinction between conventional gas wells and the extraction of gas from coal seams. As Dr Samantha Hepburn of Deakin University observed, this distinction has been motivated by evidence from the USA “suggesting that coal seam gas mining which incorporates hydro-fracturing is likely to generate more emissions than conventional gas methods”.

The issue of fugitive emissions from gas production has been a consideration for decades, as extraction of natural gas inevitably releases quantities of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The expansion of coal seam gas operations has heightened concern. As Professor Alan Randall of the University of Sydney has said, the industry “could eventually produce as much greenhouse gas as all the cars on the road in Australia”.

Randall welcomed the proposal in the paper to move from “back-of-the-envelope methods” to direct measurement of emissions,...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.