Coal seam gas has been touted as a green transitional fuel, far less polluting than coal, but a new study implies it may not be as green or climate friendly as the industry makes out. It hinges on the level of fugitive emissions produced in development and production of a gas field. A study by two scientists from Southern Cross University based in Lismore, northern NSW, detected much higher levels of the strong greenhouse gas methane around the Tara gas field on the Darling Downs of Queensland west of Brisbane.
Action: Getup! have started a Dirtier than Coal? campaign calling on Federal Climate Change Minister Greg Combet to commission urgent research into the climate impacts of coal seam gas, and to make sure that CSG companies start accounting, and paying, for fugitive emissions.
The gas industry touts coal seam gas (CSG) and liquified natural gas (LNG) as more efficient fuels per weight than coal with up to 70 per cent less carbon emissions when burnt. So over the last decade there has been a boom in exploration and development of unconventional gas - shale gas, coal seam gas - particularly in central Queensland. Exploration has expanded to northern New South Wales and closer to Sydney, but even Victoria has had miners exploring for unconventional gas.
Methane is a particularly strong greenhouse gas. When vented to the atmosphere, over a period of 100 years it is 25 times as strong as carbon dioxide, but in shorter time scales such as 20 years methane can be 100 times as powerful as CO2 in it's greenhouse effect. It is often present in coal mines and in the past has been seen as a nuisance and health hazard to mining and often vented to make it safe for the mining workers.
Development of these unconventional gas sources often requires fracking - pumping water and chemicals under pressure down a well to cause fracturing of the layers holding the gas, allowing it to be pumped to the surface for storage.
Fracking can contaminate underground water, and change the water table. While mining companies move on eventually after the gas is exhausted the environmental effects on groundwater and impacts on the landscape linger much longer. You can read an assessment of the coal seam gas industry in The Conversation article: Coal seam gas: just another land use in a big country.
Research findings outlined in Lismore Lecture
Dr Isaac Santos and Dr Damien Maher from Southern Cross University's Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research in the School of Environment, Science and Engineering presented their findings of a survey at a public lecture in Lismore on Wednesday November 14.
Watch Highlights from the lecture: 'Air, water and coal seam gas: Current research and future perspectives' 14 Nov 14 2012, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW below:
"We have performed snapshot surveys of methane concentrations in the atmosphere and creeks near Tara in Southern Queensland and in the Richmond River catchment in Northern NSW," said Dr Maher in a university media release.
"The concentrations of methane were much higher in the atmosphere and creek waters around Tara than in Northern NSW."
"Mining in the Tara region is at full speed, while in Northern NSW we are still at the exploration stage. Contrasting the two regions provides insight into how to best manage CSG in the Northern Rivers area."
Methane measurements from within Tara. twitter.com/serenity13/sta...
— jacinta green (@serenity13) November 15, 2012
One of the problems raised by the researchers is the lack of baseline data on fugitive methane emission levels before and during exploration and mining development. Earlier this year gas was seen bubbling up in large concentrations in the Condamine River, something that locals had not seen previously.
"The current discussions on CSG are often based on anecdotal evidence, old observations not designed to assess CSG or data obtained overseas." said Dr Santos, "We believe universities are independent institutions that should provide hard data to inform this discussion. The lack of site-specific baseline data is staggering,"
An Australian Research Grant this year to the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research at Southern Cross University allowed the scientists to purchase instrumentation to do atmospheric sampling at one second intervals to measure various greenhouse gases.
"We are now able to measure the concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane at one second intervals with incredible precision while driving a car or a boat. The instrumentation also measures the stable isotopes of carbon which gives us insight into the source of methane," said Dr Santos.
Both scientists are experts in their fields of research. Dr Isaac Santos is a world leader in groundwater research and the Deputy Director of the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry at SCU. He has 50 scientific peer reviewed publications, many of which focus on the hydrology and chemistry of the Richmond River in Northern NSW. Dr Damien Maher is an expert in carbon dioxide cycling in the environment. He has published the first scientific papers estimating carbon dioxide fluxes in Australian estuaries. Dr Maher has recently developed a rapid approach to perform high precision methane measurements in air and water.
Several academics were cautious in commenting and drawing conclusions of this study saying more research would be required and also commenting on the lack of baseline data to compare the study with. Dr Gavin Mudd, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering, Monash University commented "I believe this is crucial research which should have been part of the environmental assessment process and ongoing monitoring. The fact that there is no pre-CSG data on methane levels in air means these researchers have had to do some cross-checking of possible explanations, such as methane from cows or wetlands, and it seems to me they have been very careful in ensuring that the only realistic explanation for the considerable methane levels they measured is CSG field leakage."
"At present, there is considerable more work to do to understand the processes causing this degree of leakage - it could be caused by leaking bores or pipelines, or just be diffuse leakage from the geology due to lower groundwater pressures - and especially to quantify diffuse emissions on a life cycle basis for CSG production, but I certainly view this research as a great breakthrough in documenting the real processes occurring in CSG fields."
The story was picked up on the ABC 7.30 report on November 14 and run as the story: Research questions green credentials of CSG.
Gas Industry attacks research as 'incoomplete', lacking 'scientific rigour'
Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) Chief Operating Officer Eastern Region Rick Wilkinson responded with a media release welcoming peer-reviewed scientific research but cautioning against the endorsement of incomplete or premature research that lacked proper scientific scrutiny.
The research by Dr Santos and Dr Maher has been written up in two papers and submitted for publication and is currently undergoing academic peer review.
Rick Wilkinson labelled the study as "Incomplete research" and "lacks the basics of scientific rigour" accusing the scientists of using the study as a "funding submission."
"The claim that large-scale fugitive gas emissions are a result of coal seam gas production, before they even do their research, seems to indicate a bias against coal seam gas," Mr Wilkinson said. "This does them no credit and it diminishes the good work by many other scientists in an age where scientific endeavour has been wearied by community scepticism. The research is notable through omission rather than content and seems squarely aimed at natural gas production rather than all sources of actual and potential greenhouse gas emissions."
Actually, the problem appears to be the lack of baseline data on natural emissions in the gas field area before development. Obviously, it is not in the gas companies interest to take measurements pre-development, and nor did Government regulations specify the collection of this data. The scientists have used their methodology to test emissions from similar wetland areas, a sewerage treatment plant and from nearby cattle, all natural sources of methane. The readings all remained below 2 Parts per million - the background rate, in comparison to the 7 parts per million measured around the gas field.
"Irrespective of any difference in readings, the fact people assume that difference is because of the presence of a gas industry suggests a flawed methodology." said Wilkinson.
The scientists have not speculated on how these fugitive emissions escape, whether through the pipes and gas production facilities or through the soil and water. Fracking activities to extract the gas may alter pressures and cracks in layers causing natural fugitive emissions to increase.
Lock the Gate calls for moratorium on coal gas exports
The development of gas fields and CSG has brought about a backlash from many farmers and rural communities, bringing together city based environmental activists with farming communities. The Lock the Gate Alliance President, Drew Hutton, said the results would send shock waves through government and scientific circles because they revealed large gaps in the standard methodology for assessing fugitive methane emissions.
"The Federal Government currently works on the assumption that fugitive methane emissions from coal seam gas are 0.12% of all gas produced" Mr Hutton said.
"However if the SCU results from Tara-Chinchilla were extrapolated across all gas fields in Qld, then emissions would be many times higher.
"This study has massive implications for accounting for Australia's greenhouse gas emissions since methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.
"It also means the CSG industry would need to pay much higher carbon tax than is currently predicted" he said.
Watch Lock the Gate President Drew Hutton commenting on SCU's CSG methane study
after the lecture on November 14:
The Lock the Gate Alliance is calling for the Federal Minister for Climate Change, Greg Combet, to initiate a moratorium on coal seam gas exports until these scientific results have been verified; commission an independent study of the scale of fugitive emissions from coal seam gas mining; and implement a revised greenhouse gas accounting method to accurately reflect fugitive emissions.
Greens seek independent study for Greenhouse gas emissions inventory
Greens Leader Christine Milne has written to Prime Minister Julia Gillard for the Federal Government to initiate an independent study to determine whether CSG is being treated appropriately in official greenhouse gas emissions inventories.
"The gas industry has been hiding behind its claim to be better for the climate than coal for years, and the Government has just accepted those claims despite the Greens, farmers and scientists providing evidence that they are deceptive," Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, said.
"We have to have a full, independent field study to measure how much gas is leaking across Australian fields and I am today writing to the Prime Minister and Minster for Climate Change calling on them to fund such a study. It makes no sense to develop a new fossil fuel industry at the end of the fossil fuel age, particularly when it is compromising food growing land and risking aquifers
"I think the Government has been shielding another fossil fuel industry, wanting to maximise the coal and gas they can get out of the ground as fast as possible, no questions asked. It's time for that to end." said Christine Milne
Greens Senator for Queensland Larissa Waters also commented "The coal seam gas industry has been given the green light to race ahead before the science has been done - this is why the Greens have proposed a moratorium on further CSG approvals until qualitative research has been completed. This study is evidence that the old parties have completely misjudged the true dangers of this industry and let it run rampant over our farmland and farming communities - we urgently need to know the long-term impacts of this dangerous fossil fuel before we sacrifice any more of our land and precious water resources."
Conflicting directions in Energy and Climate Change
Significantly, last weeks Energy white paper launched by Martin Ferguson called for an expansion of coal seam gas mining and for the removal of environmental objections to reduce development time and expense. But it seems this is at odds with Australia's climate change policies in capping emissions.
The scientific study if extrapolated to other gas fields, would appear to indicate that Australia has grossly underestimated fugitive emissions from coal seam gas development. National Greenhouse Inventory estimates fugitive emissions from CSG as just 0.3% of all emissions, but perhaps this has been under-estimated based upon gas company pronouncements of "negligible" emissions and little hard scientific field data.
This has wide-ranging implications for reducing Australia's emissions and for carbon accounting, as well as collecting carbon tax payments from gas developers.
Companies like Origin Energy have invested large amounts in development of CSG and LNG arguing that it was an important low carbon transition fuel with 'negligible' fugitive emissions, while largely ignoring development of renewable wind and large scale solar energy projects. A High risk strategy which shareholders were very concerned about at this years Origin Energy Annual General Meeting.
What this reveals is that Governments have been negligent in allowing rapid development of unconventional gas mining with out proper scientific baseline data and sufficient regulation. Governments have been too keen to pocket the mining royalties, paying too little attention to proper regulation.
Mining business would also be liable for greater carbon tax with increased fugitive emissions.
More in depth independent scientific studies are needed at the time of exploration, and during the mining life cycle to assess environmental and climate implications. And these studies should be funded as a cost of the mining.
Fugitive emissions also impacts national carbon accounting with implications for Australia's international climate commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and the new international climate treaty proposed to be finalised in 2015 and come into effect by 2020 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations.
- Southern Cross University media release, 7 November 2011 - Air, water and coal seam gas: Current research and future perspectives
- Lock the Gate media release 15 November 2012 - Study Reveals CSG A Dirty, Polluting Industry
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation 7.30 Report, 14 November 2012 - Research questions green credentials of CSG
- Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration association media release 14 November 2012 - Southern Cross University Research premature and questionable (PDF)
- The Australian Greens media release, 15 November 2012 - Greens write to PM: Fund measurement of CSG leakage now
- Ben Cubby, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 2012 - Methane leaking from coal seam gas field, testing shows