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Is CSG The Maintenance Drug For Our Coal Addiction?

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.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

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.

<p>Courtesy Southern Cross University</p>

Courtesy Southern Cross University

Dr Isaac Santos (left) and Dr Damien Maher, scientists under siege.

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.

<p>AAP Images</p>

AAP Images

Gas wells near the Tara residential estate, the site of Australia’s largest coal seam gas field.

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”.

In short, these guys are not Lock The Gate activists, who make wild claims, just genuine scientists conducting disinterested and important research.

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.

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.

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…”

24 comments on this story
by Doug Evans

It could be that Fossil Ferguson's bone headed response to the SCU research is driven by the nervousness of potential investors as already reflected by languishing CSG share prices. The possibility that CSG carbon tax liabilities will skyrocket as a result of such research has probably got more of them running for cover already.

Ferguson is by nature a bully and it is heartening to see the university and the researchers themselves standing up for their research in the face of his bullying attempt to discredit Dr Santos and Dr Maher.

November 22, 2012 @ 9:23am
by Marcus Hicks

There is nothing wrong with gas as a fuel - that is true - but all the evidence from overseas suggests that methane derived from coal-seams are frought with problems. Lock the Gate activists are not making "wild claims" when they show evidence of soils & groundwater contaminated by leaking methane & fracking chemicals. Unfortunately the CSG industry, like a lot of the rest of the fossil fuel industry, have a very nasty habit of cutting corners to maximize their profits, & it's the rest of us who suffer for it. The fact is that, if we want to use methane as a fuel, then we should not be using CSG when we have such ready access to naturally occurring methane at landfill sites, sewerage treatment plants, forestry operations & agricultural sites. Heck, even methane siphoned off from existing coal mines is safer & cleaner than drilling a hole into the ground & dumping a bunch of chemicals down the hole to bring up the trapped methane.

November 22, 2012 @ 9:59am
by Marcus Hicks

@ Doug Evans. I couldn't agree more. Not only is Ferguson a bully, but he's also a dinosaur. It's high time the ALP sent him to the back-bench, & replaced him with someone with more modern sensibilities!

November 22, 2012 @ 10:01am
by Gary Doggett

What the reporting and research has largely ignored in regard to fugitive methane emissions is the geology. The Darling Downs region west to Roma and beyond have been leaking methane aka natural gas (notably via water bores) since European settlement. Roma became the first town in Australia with gas-powered street lighting in 1928 when a water bore went up in flames. The section of the Condamine River in the video has been known as the 'coal hole' for decades, long before the CSG industry. A television lifestyle show in the mid-1990s reportedly showed vision of a farmer setting fire to his water bore as a 'party trick' for farmstay guests. Why not talk to the geologist who uncovered the possibilities for CSG?

November 22, 2012 @ 10:28am
by Peter Sommerville

Some comments about the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere cf that of carbon dioxide would have added some balance to the back of the envelope calculations reported in this story.

November 22, 2012 @ 10:45am
by Peter Sommerville

I also note your statement re publication policy. Given one comment already published I would be very interested in your definition of a defamatory or personal attack.

November 22, 2012 @ 10:48am
by Michael Esler

Gas leaks are important, and not just if the gas is methane. CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) is promoted as part of the solution to global warming. But the sequestration part requires that the sequestered concentrated CO2 not leak back into the atmosphere. Does existing CO2 measurement technology have the sensitivity to detect leakage from a CO2 sequestration site, above the already high background level of ~390 ppm?

By the way, as a GHG measurement expert - I think this was a very nice piece of work by Maher and Santos.

November 22, 2012 @ 12:13pm
by Kevin Cobley

CCS will always fail, the energy cost of the separation of CO2 form the other exhaust products (primarily nitrogen80+% of all air) then the compression, transport and then injection into the ground is more than the energy generated! It's got a net energy return of zero and is only proposed by the ignorant and fools!

November 22, 2012 @ 1:20pm
by Greg Ritter

The APPEA is quick to fire shots and concerned scientists.

As a self proclaimed responsible and competent industry, where is your own data APPEA? I find it difficult to believe that the Gas industry has not taken measurements of this sort around their facilities. That would be a responsible thing to do. Have any measurements been taken? Or is the data Commercial in Confidence for some reason?

The Worley Parsons report "Greenhouse Gas Emissions Study of Australian CSG to LNG" conspicuously uses an "Industry Accepted Standard" of 0.1%. (as an assumption). This is the report that compares worst coal to best gas and gets an improvement of 60% CO2 for energy.

I did not notice an uproar when Worley Boss, Paul E Hardisty published a paper shortly after suggesting that the fugitive emissions of Methane in Australia could be significant. "Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electricity Generation: A Comparative Analysis of Australian Energy Sources". Hardisty had no data of his own. He was commenting on the few measurements that have been published elsewhere and seemed to give them enough credibility to make recommendations.

Well done Drs Santos and Maher. We urgently need some independent Australian Measurement of Fugitive Methane around Developing, Producing and Banked Gas sites. We also need correct environment accounting. Let's quantify fugitives and get them into the NGERs and get them priced correctly.

Let's get behind them.

November 22, 2012 @ 3:34pm
by gabrianga

De-carbonise our economy? Coal is the heroin of energy sources? (what happened to your old nemesis ....nuclear)

Only the woefully ignorant or Latter Day Luddites write crap like this.

Try keep both hands above the blankets for a change "Sicco"

November 22, 2012 @ 3:36pm
by Marcus

@ gabrianga. The only Luddites around here are the people who want us to cling to energy generation technologies that are almost 200 years old. Thus you definitely fit the mould of a "Latter Day Luddite", gabrianga.

November 22, 2012 @ 4:24pm
by Marcus

"Only the woefully ignorant or Latter Day Luddites write crap like this."

Well, you're definitely woefully ignorant, gabrianga, *and* you're a Latter Day Luddite-hence this crap that you've just written.

November 22, 2012 @ 4:26pm
by Prof Stick

This is a complicated issue that will only be addressed by more impartial science. The bottom line is that the science is not yet in and the claims of the CSG advocates are as threadbare as those of their opponents. For more take a look at the discussion of CSG @

November 22, 2012 @ 9:39pm
by Mango_lassi72

I found the article very interesting, balanced and raises new information I was not awre of - keep up the good work

November 23, 2012 @ 9:14am
by Doug Evans

I've assembled a fairly complete set of links to creditable studies and articles dealing with the greenhouse impact of life cycle (extraction to combustion) emissions from unconventional gas here

November 23, 2012 @ 9:47am
by Doug Evans

@ Peter Sommerville 2 above.
Goodness Peter you are a sensitive chap. 'Fossil Ferguson' is a term of endearment widespread in the minister's electorate of Batman. 'Bone headed' doesn't seem to me too strong as a descriptor for the Minister's uninformed condemnation of the release of scientific research into which he has no insight. Despite Ferguson's assertion to the contrary, there is nothing academically or scientifically questionable about the inclusion of the findings of research in a submission to a Parliamentary Inquiry prior to its peer reviewed publication so long as its status is not misrepresented. For a little support of my assertion that Ferguson's attack on the SCU researchers was motivated by a desire to maintain at any cost investment in Australia's booming fossil fuel export industry you might like to look at this piece sourced from Ferguson's own On-line newsletter

A bully? Well I think an elected representative who, in a meeting with his constituents publicly threatens one of them with legal action for the manner in which they publicly disagree with his policy initiatives can reasonably be termed a bully. I think that an elected representative who summons both State and Federal Police to be a visible presence at peaceful demonstrations outside his electorate office can reasonably be termed a bully. I think that an elected representative who facilitates private covert surveillance of the activities of community groups exercising their legitimate right to express opposition to what they argue (with some) reason is socially reprehensible policy, can be said to be a bully.

You might have forgotten Ferguson's involvement with this Peter so perhaps you should refresh your memory

The activities of such groups can be very irritating to the captains of industry and their political supporters as they go about the serious business of securing their investors' bottom line and might even briefly disrupt the process of capital accumulation. However they are inevitably peaceful and in a democracy well within accepted limits of political dissent. You may find it acceptable that a Federal minister sics the security apparatus of the State onto such people I find it at best paranoid, at worst sinister and definitely worthy of the term 'bully'.

November 23, 2012 @ 10:58am
by Peter Sommerville

@Doug Evans
Not sensitive Doug, just curious about what the Global Mail is prepared to accept! Obviously you have some proverbial s**t on the liver about Ferguson which I don't happen to share. But thanks for the polemic anyway.

As for the Santos-Maher paper I haven't seen it yet so I can make no comment on its scientific rigour. But I am looking forward to reading it in my own time.

November 23, 2012 @ 1:17pm
by SK

My friend project managed the study into the safety of CSG for the Government, and we have the best environmental standards and monitoring of any country currently doing CSG extraction. Furthermore, this is a transitory phase as the new reserves found in the Pilbara are a much better and bigger source of Natural Gas. I don't believe CSG has a long-term future outside of the Great Artisan Basin within Australia.

November 23, 2012 @ 2:29pm
by Greg Newall

... and for a little light relief: is that Great Artisan Basin akin to the "artisan bread" soldf at Woolies, or a more watered-down version?

November 23, 2012 @ 7:01pm
by Ann Morgal

No doubt that in assessing the validity of CSG mining the inevitable question of its viability as a suitable fuel will have to be weighed. Currently companies and Government are trying promote this gas as a clean, transitional fuel. Our exportation commitments at 95% produced gas however far exceed our personal use. So the real price we as Australians are paying for this supposed “greener energy” is in no way to our favor. It must be stated quite frankly that if the true costs of production and environmental affects where fully assessed in terms of financial feasibility, carbon footprint and cleaning up of industry contamination it would be clear to see that CSG poses the longest term risks for the least advantages. To look further into the true costs I urge the Senate to access the production process in true economic and environmental terms and see if the figures really add up.

The only thing that is clean about CSG gas is that it burns cleaner than brown coal,(used in Victoria) after you factor in the true costs of thousands of meters of land clearing, the trucks used for shipping water and waste, raw material exports to China, Imported pipe manufacturing from China, road infrastructure used and repairs needed, 140,000 workers to lay the initial infrastructure (mostly qualified overseas workers),costs to fly in workers from overseas and surrounding states, building of camps to house workers, compensation to landholders for land access and loss productivity, periodic release of methane “fugitive emissions” into the air which are 70x worse than co2, the use of up to 2.5 million litres of water per well...40,000 wells planned for QLD, thousands of tones of salt brought up every day, the shipment of salt for dumping into landfill and shipment of salt product for use overseas, construction of infrastructure including water treatment plants, compression stations and LNG storage, the importation of equipment trains such as water treatment facilities, storage facilities etc, energy to boil the brine water, transport of water back into water supply and agricultural land, the 1% of toxic waste left over from the process which will always pose a threat to the environment, the liquifying of gas, the dredging of the coast of Gladstone which is currently being destroyed, the shipping of the liquified gas, storage of the gas, litigation costs including land rehabilitation and cleaning, the permanent loss of agricultural land production and the possible need to import foods in the future for many generations, the health impacts from exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation and accidents, local job loss to industry, mental health issues arising from stress, noise, ill health and financial loss and then finally the transport and burning of the gas by China and Japan. There are many more costs to be listed.

November 28, 2012 @ 12:17pm
by brian monk

I live in a gas field, this water is coming from wells on my neighbors property. My grandchildren are unwell, the second youngest developing epilepsy, google USA, gas + epilepsy. My water bore ignites and the Government officials say there are no flammable gasses present, 3 different occasions. No doubt you can look at the impacts this industry is having on our health by looking at other clips we put up. Please look into this, nothing clean bout this industry and worse, your property is devalued and you health destroyed.
Please get informed, and please a self regulated industry is the same as an unregulated industry, get informed.

November 29, 2012 @ 10:00pm
Show previous 21 comments
by Matthew David Linn

"Only the woefully ignorant and those corrupted by vested interests now deny the urgent need to de-carbonise our economy" As I do not have any "vested interest" I must be "woefully ignorant" as I reject the the claim that there is an "uregnt need to de-carbonise our economy". There is sufficient contrary evidence about the contibution that humans are making to global warming for me to take a prudent view about any action being required. We should be reducing energy use (for many reasons) while still using the lowest cost energy options available or else we will price ourselves out of exisitence - a path along which we have already started.

December 1, 2012 @ 7:06pm
by L Stuart

Only renewable energy please. If Denmark can produce 100% of its power from the sun/renewable energy, why can't Australia?

January 12, 2013 @ 4:45am
by Redneck

I wonder what Ferguson will say when he sees the peer reviewed paper the SCU team just published.

March 10, 2013 @ 9:55pm
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