Coal seam gas: a sleight of hand?

Dr Shearman - ABC - The Drum, Opinion

The potential for harm to human health from coal seam gas operations has become much more apparent with the release of a comprehensive report from the National Toxics Network (NTN). NTN calls for a moratorium on drilling and on ‘fracking’ chemicals until all chemicals have been fully assessed by the industrial chemicals regulator. Doctors for the Environment Australia calls for a Health Impact Assessment study which would assess the potential ill health caused by all facets of the industry’s operations.

Until now the image of coal seam gas conveyed by the ABC Four Corners program was one of denial of natural justice for landholders subjected to mining, the degradation of agricultural land in a world of increasing food shortage and concern about contamination of water sources. However the Four Corners vision of natural gas bubbling from the ground adjacent to a well is a touch-stone that brings into question the market viability of this fossil fuel. Put aside the incompetence and ignorance of the operator in allowing these fugitive emissions of methane to persist for months and let us look at the wider issue of the total cost of this fossil fuel.

The entire rationale for the use of natural gas has been because its combustion produces less carbon dioxide than coal. But the studies of Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University and other groups show that the impacts of methane leaks make the life-cycle greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas worse than those of coal and fuel oil when viewed for a 20-year period.

Clearly this questioning is of such importance that the Deutsche Bank Group in conjunction with the Worldwatch Institute is conducting a further investigation in the US comparing all forms of natural gas with coal despite the fact that both organisations had already conducted studies which endorsed the credentials of gas.

This raises the economic question as to whether natural gas mined as CSG in Australia, considered on a life-time basis, is a more efficient fuel than coal; if not, why are large swathes of agricultural land being degraded to mine it. Has this rush to CSG been based on the fiscal needs of government and the demands of industry rather than upon due scientific and economic diligence? The involvement of a major financier in such an investigation should ring warning bells that there may be a serious case to answer.

The problems of containing the leaks should not be underestimated. Who is to monitor the proposed 40,000 wells in Queensland on a regular basis when the states have shown an inability to monitor air pollution from far fewer coal mines? It is beyond comprehension. Although the mined gas is to be exported, the leaks are Australian green house emissions; they should be subject to carbon tax.

The methane escape is only one of three major CSG cost externalities which will be paid for by the community whilst the companies bank their profits; the other two are health and water contamination.

The importance of further studies on water is referred to in the Deutsche Bank report because the USEPA will release its study on water quality and health in March 2012. Meanwhile The New York Times has conducted an investigation revealing significant legislative loopholes leading to contamination of water sources which need to be heeded in Australia.

On possible future health impacts the Government would be wise to conduct a retrospective, comprehensive Health Impact Assessment considering procedures in all states and territories in both its own interests and those of the public. Despite the numerous environmental conditions imposed by the ministers the inadequacies of toxic chemical considerations revealed by NTN require prompt action. The public health of the nation comes first. There are also good arguments to extend Health Impact Assessment to the expanding coal industry. Prevention is always preferable to cure.

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