Anger and angst

PETER Doherty is a joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, a former Australian of the Year, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, and he is not a happy fracker.

Nor are Dr John Sheridan, communicable diseases epidemiologist from Queensland Health and Australian National University Professor of Population Health Anthony McMichael.

All three combined to make a joint submission to the Senate inquiry into coal seam gas in 2010, highlighting the dangers of the so-called BTEX group of chemicals.

BTEX -- benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene – are bad for you. Benzene is a carcinogen, associated particularly with leukemia. Toluene can cause reproductive or developmental problems, ethylbenzene does nasty things to your blood, liver and kidneys, and xylene messes with your central nervous system. You really don’t want them in your morning coffee.

The scientists warned the senators that even if these chemicals were not used as additives in fraccing fluid, the fraccing itself could release BTEX from natural gas reservoirs into aquifers or the air.

The use of BTEX chemicals for fraccing has now been banned in Queensland, NSW and the Northern Territory.

In South Australia, a DIMITRE spokesperson said: "Modern upstream petroleum operations avoid the use of BTEX chemicals and that is the case in South Australia.

"No exploration, development or production activities, including the use of chemicals in petroleum well operation, can be undertaken in South Australia until risks to social, natural and economic environments are assessed. This includes defining risk management strategies and providing the appropriate information, and time to respond, to people and businesses that may be affected."

The problem is that when natural gas, which is mostly methane, comes out of the ground it also contains small amounts of other gases and contaminants, including BTEX nasties. The raw gas has to be processed before it can be piped to consumers. (Once removed from the gas, the BTEX are destroyed using high-temperature incineration.)

So even if there were no added chemicals, fraccing is a problem if it opens fissures which allow natural gas to seep into aquifers.

Victoria took the most decisive action, banning all fraccing pending the release of federal guidelines.

The whole issue erupted as a mainstream political hot potato in 2010 when the Queensland Government shut down the Cougar Energy pilot plant near Kingaory, after BTEX chemicals showed up in the water in nearby bores.

Farmers were instructed not to use their drinking water for themselves or their stock, and a ban on cattle sales from the area was imposed for a while.

Cougar wasn’t strictly in the coal seam gas business (CSG), it was one of three companies trialling methods of underground coal gasification (UCG). Fraccing is not essential in UCG, which essentially involves drilling into the coal, setting it on fire underground, and collecting the resulting gases to either drive an electricity generator or to process into liquid diesel or aviation fuel which is cleaner than the traditional diesel derived from crude oil.

Following the Cougar controversy, the Queensland government ordered an independent scientific panel to take a hard look at UCG. On July 8 this year, the ISP finally released its report, saying it was satisfied with the practices and processes of the other two companies, Linc Energy and Carbon Energy. It recommended that both be allowed to continue, and progress to full commercial operation, provided they could first demonstrate that they could decommission their plants – which both companies are already doing. (Cougar has already turned its attentions overseas).

The more traditional coal seam gas, however, has been the real headache for Queensland. Methane (a more damaging greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) is bubbling up through the Condamine River, suspiciously near an Origin Energy CSG operation.

Gas seep compositional analysis undertaken by DNRM Petroleum and Gas Inspectorate in the Condomine.

-- Qld Department of Natural Resources and Mines.

Investigation by the Queensland government has so far determined essentially that there is “no evidence of environmental harm or water quality risks to the community” but they don’t yet know why the gas is coming up or where it is coming from.

“Results indicate that the gas is predominantly composed of biogenic methane. This is consistent with gas originating from Surat Basin geological formations.

“While these results do not provide definitive evidence of the source or cause of the Condamine River gas seeps, the investigation is taking a long-term approach to find science-based answers to this phenomenon,” it says.

Origin, meanwhile, has begun its own independent , long-term investigation.

Condamine is not unique. Gas is also bubbling in the Chinchilla River.

In August last year, a small grass fire near Dalby was easily controlled by firefighters but extremely difficult to extinguish because methane leaking from an old exploration well continued to burn.

When it rains near Tara, about five hours’ drive west of Brisbane, gas bubbles up through the puddles. Children collect it in jam jars and set fire to it. There are hundreds of gas wells in the area, some only 400 metres apart or even less.

Brisbane GP Dr Geralyn McCarron visited the area and found that “the children are sick. The parents are sick. There is a recurring narrative of constant headaches, nose bleeds, sore red eyes, nausea, fatigue, chest pains, cough, sinus problems, rashes, tingling and numbness of limbs, collapse, fits, twitchy babies, children becoming clumsy and unsteady on their feet….

“There is a background level of illness which is way above anything you would expect. In addition, there are severe exacerbations where many people are very ill at the same time. These are usually associated with odour events, changes in wind direction and temperature inversions.”

Dr McCarron is a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, Bachelor of the Art of Obstetrics, Fellow of the Australian College of General Practitioners, Member of the National Toxics Networks and Member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Yet Dr Keith Adam, commissioned by the Queensland Department of Health to visit Tara and investigate health complaints, reported that he was not able to identify any specific clinical condition or pattern that would point to an obvious relationship between the reported health complaints and exposure to chemicals or emissions involved in the CSG industry.

Dr Adam is a specialist in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Medibank Health Solutions Pty Ltd and adjunct associate professor at the University of Queensland.

There was some question as to how well his visit was advertised – only 23 people in total turned up to his clinic at the local hospital or were interviewed over the phone.

He was also working in Tara itself, about 25 to 30 kilometres from the Wieambilla Estates visited by Dr McCarron. However, he commented that his review of peer-reviewed literature in regard to occupational exposure to CSG did not identify evidence of unique or substantial harm to employees in the industry, who presumably were more at risk than nearby residents.

Clearly, neither doctor is an idiot. You might suspect that anyone who is a member of the National Toxics Networks and a Member of Doctors for the Environment might have a greenish, left-of-centre bias.

Equally, someone who works for an insurance-related company whose services include assessing people’s fitness for work might be considered likely to be more right of centre, or at least so exposed to malingerers and chancers in their daily work that they have become more than a little cynical about health complaints.

What is certain is that both were dealing with very small, very localised samples which were not randomly selected.

Dr McCarron comments: "The problem essentially is that the health studies have not been done, and health impact assesments are not a requirement for licensing."

Gasfields john.cotter

With the Lock the Gate movement becoming a real force in Queensland (and south of the border in NSW) the Queensland government last year established the Queensland GasFields Commission as an independent statutory body to try to get the industry and the landholders and local communities talking to each other. The commissioners include local mayors, an APPEA representative, farmers, an academic and a local authority lawyer. Based in Toowoomba, it is chaired by John Cotter (above), a landholder and former president of the Queensland farmers’ body AgForce.

In February, Brisbane announced a more proactive approach to inspecting, checking and auditing Queensland’s CSG industry.

It promised to randomly inspect 250 CSG wells, audit 45 per cent of all CSG drilling activities and inspect 80 per cent of CSG seismic activities this year alone, “to ensure industry conducts activities in a safe manner and in compliance with Australian standards and codes”.

At a federal level, the Standing Council on Energy and Resources produced its National Harmonised Framework for gas from coal seams. The council paid tribute to the “increasingly important role” of CSG in Queensland and NSW, particularly with LNG exports through Gladstone in Queensland due to start next year. The framework consists of 18 leading practices which it is hoped all Australian governments will seek to apply.

The CSIRO and the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education are working together to quantify and monitor fugitive emissions from the CSG industry in Australia. They are also developing atmospheric techniques to quantify and monitor methane levels for up to tens of kilometres away from the source.

In July last year the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (which comes under the federal Department of Health) was given the job of leading an examination of human health and environmental risks from chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing for coal seam gas extraction in Australia.

There will be a lot of fraccing in South Australia before then. The good thing is that you will know all about it, if you want to look, by checking out the minerals and energy section of the DMITRE website, and especially the South Australian Resourcces Information Geoserver

Adelaide Independent Reporter 2013