Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Unconventional Gas Needs the Right Support and Controls

By Vaughan Beck

Unconventional gas faces two issues: its role as an energy source and social acceptance.

Australia needs extensive research, an effective regulatory system and best-practice monitoring to allow it to take advantage of the substantial opportunities offered by unconventional gas resources such as coal seam gas, shale gas and tight gas.

In a social environment that demands reduced greenhouse gas emissions, unconventional gas must be considered as part of the nation’s menu of energy options.

Increased use of unconventional gas for electricity generation could decrease our greenhouse gas emissions but, because of the way it is produced, it could impact on the landscape, ecosystems, surface water and groundwater, the atmosphere and – as a consequence – the communities where it is found and exploited.

Most of the impacts can be minimised with an effective regulatory system and best-practice monitoring , and can be remediated where they do occur.

But if unconventional gas exploration and production is to earn and retain the social licence to operate, we urgently need a transparent, adaptive and effective regulatory system in place, backed by best-practice monitoring plus credible and high-quality baseline surveys. Harmonisation of regulation across Australia would make sense and simplify the future development of unconventional gas resources, which are substantial – many Australian sedimentary basins are prospective for unconventional gas and the undiscovered resource base is very large.

Research into Australia’s deep sedimentary basins and related landscapes, water resources and ecosystems, and how they can be monitored, would help to ensure that any shale gas production can be effectively managed and the impacts minimised.

Following US experience, we have the production technology (e.g. horizontal wells, multi-well pads and hydraulic fracturing) but production costs are likely to be significantly higher. Unconventional gas will not be cheap in Australia, but it is likely to be plentiful and it has the potential to be an economically very important additional energy source.

The unconventional gas industry faces two principal issues in Australia – its role as an energy source and social acceptance. Both are surmountable.

Energy Source
A key driver for an Australian unconventional gas industry is that most of the recently exploited coal seam gas reserves are committed to the liquefied natural gas industry from 2015–16, with the potential for domestic gas shortages in eastern Australia and the prospect of increases in gas prices.

It is very likely that further reserves of unconventional gas will be found in Australia, and this will help to ensure that there is no gas shortage. But it will not be cheap gas and will require a relatively high price to make it profitable to produce.

Social Acceptance
Gaining and retaining a social licence to operate is crucial to unconventional gas developments, and must be approached not just as a local community issue but also at regional, state and national levels. Resilient communities demand open dialogue, respect and transparency. They need confidence that not only are operations and impacts being effectively monitored, but also that concerns will be identified and remediated, or operations stopped before a serious problem arises. Furthermore, there are expectations that the community will obtain benefits from such operations.

A number of environmental issues related to the unconventional gas industry have arisen in the US, and similar questions confront Australia. A large number of impacts are possible, but the likelihood of many of them occurring is low and, where they do occur, other than in the case of some biodiversity impacts, there are generally remedial steps that can be taken.

Two recent inquiries in NSW and in the Northern Territory have not found reasons for full-scale moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing. This is encouraging for the industry, but it must still take full account of possible adverse impacts on the landscape, soils, flora and fauna, groundwater and surface water, the atmosphere and on human health in order to address people’s concerns. In many cases this will require improved baseline studies to be able to compare with future changes resulting from natural and industrial activities. These will need to be carefully assessed and managed using evidence and best practice.

Dr Vaughan Beck FTSE is Senior Adviser – Technical to the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and formerly its Executive Director – Technical. He has led the development of a number of significant research reports for ATSE.