Is CSG The Maintenance Drug For Our Coal Addiction?
By Mike SeccombeNovember 21, 2012
If fuels were drugs, then coal would be heroin. It is to environmental good health what smack is to personal good health. Industrial civilisation has been addicted to coal for centuries, and it’s killing us.
Even the World Bank now sees climate change as a dire threat.
Only the woefully ignorant and those corrupted by vested interests now deny the urgent need to de-carbonise our economy. And coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels is the obvious place to start.
So, to continue the metaphor, if coal is heroin, then methane — natural gas — is methadone, the alternate opiate of mass production, the prescription that will help us cope as we struggle to withdraw from hard fossil fuels.
If we can’t yet be completely clean, we can at least substitute our dependency. Just as methadone is the not-so-bad opiate, gas is the not-so-bad fossil fuel. Think of it as methane-done.
Well, that’s the way it’s sold to us, by those who extract it and by their surrogates, such as the federal resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson.
The argument rests on one killer statistic: gas produces only about half as much of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, as coal does when it is burned.
Thus even Ferguson — who is, of course, also Australia’s chief coal salesman — can talk like a greenie about the importance of Australian gas “in the global clean energy strategy”.
Gas is cleaner. It’s such a convenient statistic to be armed with, when you’re arguing with people who are concerned about the effects of new gas-extraction techniques on water quality, or the release of chemicals into sensitive environments.
You got a problem with coal seam gas/shale gas/fracking? Sorry, but gas is better for global warming.
But what if a couple of scientists came along with evidence suggesting this might not be true? Suggesting that these new techniques for liberating vast, previously untapped supplies of gas, trapped in rocks deep underground, might be flawed in such a way that they did not provide a net benefit in the fight against climate change?
Why, you’d have to come down on them like a tonne of bricks. Question their professionalism. Impugn their motives.
Which is exactly what Ferguson and the relevant industry body, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), have done this week to a pair of Southern Cross University researchers, Isaac Santos and Damien Maher.
So, what did these scientists do, exactly?
They got some very sophisticated new equipment and drove around Australia’s biggest coal seam gas (CSG) field, near Tara on Queensland's Western Downs, sampling the chemical composition of the air.
They found the atmosphere near the site contained about three times the normal background levels of methane — nearly seven parts per million on average, compared with about two. They wrote up their findings in a paper for peer review. They also — and this is the bit that Ferguson and APPEA seized on to attack them — included them in a submission to a federal climate change department investigation into the greenhouse-gas emissions from coal seam gas drilling, and gave a public lecture.
We’ll get to the significance of their findings shortly, but first, a taste of the superheated response.
APPEA put out a savage press release, which damned the research as lacking “the basics of scientific rigour”.
“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,” said APPEA’s release.
The gas body’s chief executive, David Byers, also complained in strong terms to the vice chancellor of the university, who, to his credit, responded with a curt rejection of Byers’s assertions, and said the APPEA media release was misleading.
Which it was.
Martin Ferguson, speaking to an energy conference in Sydney, was no less swingeing, accusing the scientists of being anti-CSG, and media tarts.
"Conduct yourself in a professional way and focus on the scientific outcome, not short-lived media opportunities,” he enjoined.
"Let's have a factual, scientific debate, not an emotional debate…”
But who is being emotional here? Certainly not the scientists.
As the Southern Cross vice chancellor, Professor Peter Lee said, what the pair did was "consistent with our usual academic procedures and we saw no reason to deviate from them on the basis of the subject matter”.
And as one of the scientists, Santos, told Fairfax, he was neither pro- nor anti-CSG, and had put the information to the government inquiry because there was a deadline for doing so, and he was not sure their work would be peer reviewed and published before that deadline.
"I just like science, I just believe in science,” he said, “and I believe in communicating good science to the public. Our first job as scientists is to do good science that matters.”
So, let’s now get to why the science matters.
This is perhaps best explained by Peter Rayner, an Australian Research Council professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, who is working with the data Santos and Miller gathered.
It is, he says, explained by some pretty easy maths.
“Methane is about 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide,” he says.
But when you burn it, it produces, on average, only about half the carbon pollution that coal does, to produce the same amount of energy.
The trick is to extract that gas and burn it without letting too much of it leak into the atmosphere during the process.
“If you leak five per cent of the methane that you produce … then that’s as effective on the climate as 100 per cent of the emissions from burning the coal,” he says.
And given that methane still produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does when it is burned, even a leak of half that much — two or three per cent — negates the climate change benefit of using it.
The data gathered by the two Southern Cross scientists indicated elevated levels of methane in the air around this CSG site. The isotope analysis showed it was geologic methane and not coming from some other source, such as wetlands or out of cows in the vicinity, says Rayner.
What it did not show, and what he is now trying to calculate, is what percentage of the methane from those wells is leaking.
More work has to be done.
“We’re just setting it up now, actually,” says Rayner.
But the raw data suggests “significant leakage”.
Significant enough to raise the question of whether the Tara gas project — and by extension other similar operations here and elsewhere in the world — can honestly claim to compete with coal as a clean fuel.
Rayner hastens to add that this is not an indictment of gas as a fuel, per se.
What is indicated is a potential major plumbing problem.
Rayner still believes methane is a superior fuel to coal. And he thinks that whatever the problem is, it can probably be solved by improved engineering. And it’s good to identify the problem, isn’t it?
You would think that the minister and the industry would actually be grateful for the work of these scientists. For if these wells are leaking gas in sizeable amounts, it is not only bad for the climate, but for the profitability of the industry. That leaking gas is worth money to them.
But no. Instead they chose to shoot the messenger.
If only they would practice what they so aggressively preach.
In Martin Ferguson’s own words:
“Let's have a factual, scientific debate, not an emotional debate…”