CSG, fugitive emissions, and the precautionary principle

On the eve of the last Queensland State Election, a number of LP bloggers and other likeminded writers completed Behind The Seams – a series of articles examining the rapid expansion of the coal seam gas industry in that state. While it didn’t get the wide circulation we’d hoped for, I remain proud of the work that we did on it.

One of the key conclusions from the series was that “fugitive emissions” of methane from CSG extraction may be a major problem; methane is a potent greenhouse gas and if substantial amounts of it escape unburned during the extraction process, gas may be worse even than coal from a global warming perspective. Furthermore, while evidence from overseas hinted at alarmingly high levels of fugitive emissions, there was no local measurements being made, while the industry ploughed ahead at breakneck speed on the basis of greenhouse accounting standards that essentially assumed that fugitive emissions were not an issue.

A sensible application of the precautionary principle should have meant a slowdown in well construction while more accurate data was collected; that didn’t happen, as the government stonewalled persistent questioning from Christine Milne on the issue. But, now, the first, very preliminary measurements are beginning to emerge, and the news is alarming. Ben Cubby at Fairfax reports that:

Inside the gas field, methane was measured at up to 6.89 parts per million, compared to an average background level outside the gas field of about two parts per million.

Carbon dioxide levels inside the gas field were measured at up 541 parts per million, compared to 423 parts per million outside.

The team also took samples of airborne methane from major wetlands and high-density cattle operations near Casino in northern NSW, using the same equipment.

“The concentrations are higher at Tara than at any of these other potential sources,” Dr Santos said.

The report goes on to say that the extent of the emissions has not yet been quantified, and there remains much work to be done. But, despite the squeals from the petroleum industry body APPEA, it’s evidence that there might well be a real problem here.

But, with Marn Drill Baby Drill Uranium Breath Ferguson as Energy Minister, I doubt the government will act to slow down the breakneck expansion of the CSG industry while rigorous data is collected. And most of the good that the carbon price is doing might just be being counteracted by the methane seeping out of Queensland’s CSG fields as a direct consequence of that failure to act.

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