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The dangers of coal seam gas

While scientists and environmentalists are blaming cattle for the rising levels of methane, Helen Lobato says there's another culprit which is just as dangerous.

Coal seam gas is a form of natural gas promoted as an alternative fuel to coal.

The gas lies deep under the ground and secured in coal beds by water pressure.  The search for alternative and greener fuels has led to this growth in coal seam gas as an interim alternative while renewable industries are further developed and marketed.

‘The rationale for the use of natural gas has been because its combustion produces less carbon dioxide than coal,’ says Dr David Shearman, the honorary secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

But new studies undertaken by Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University show that the impacts of methane leaks make the life-cycle greenhouse gas footprint of coal seam gas worse than those of coal and fuel oil.

Dr Shearman suggests that these fugitive methane emissions, along with other environmental effects of coal seam gas mining such as water contamination, loss of productive land and disruption of communities, mean that there are more adverse effects of the gas when compared to coal.

Professor Howarth argues for a rapid move toward an economy based on renewable energy rather than to one dependent on the gas industry.

Nevertheless, the rush to mine CSG is set to be the next big mining boom – this time it’s taking place in the eastern states of Australia.

In our energy-hungry world, coal seam gas provides a vital source of fuel, and resource-rich Australia has vast deposits of it.

Queensland is already home to 3,000 wells, with a total of 40,000 wells to be constructed across the state – often on very valuable agricultural land.

But the $60 billion industry, promoted as an alternative to dirty coal, is anything but clean.  Health experts, landowners and environmentalists are raising the spectre of serious social, health and environmental impacts, and calling for a moratorium on the industry that threatens the livelihoods of farmers, scarce water sources, and  food supplies.

Pollution levels are increasing due to the escaping methane that is released during the extraction of coal seam gas. Toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene are used in the extraction process. Then there are the heavy metals and radioactive isotopes – also damaging to health. There is also the risk that up to 40 per cent of the toxic chemicals remain within the structure of the seam and can move through the groundwater polluting the Great Artesian Basin – water used for agriculture.

Residents are reporting strange body rashes, with some suffering from ongoing headaches. There are stories of stomach problems and many residents affected by the coal seam gas industry are now wondering if their water supplies are safe to drink and bathe in. The National  Toxics  Network  (NTN) is calling for a  moratorium  on  the  use  of  drilling  and  fracturing chemicals  used in the  hydraulic  drilling  and fracturing  of  coal  gas  seams.  It wants these chemicals fully assessed for their potential health and environmental hazards by the industrial chemicals regulator, the National Industrial Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS).

Dr Shearman says he is concerned about how the CSG industry will affect Australia as a food producer both for the nation and as an exporter.

‘Large swathes of prime agricultural land are being degraded to facilitate gas wells.  A recent federal government report from its Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, warns that Australia could become a net importer of food in the future,’ he says.

There are billions of dollars to be made and 18,000 jobs created but the community, environmentalists and landowners have come together to fight the gas companies all the way.

Last year, representatives from over 40 community groups formed the Lock the Gate Alliance calling for a moratorium on the coal seam gas industry. The rural way of life is under threat with many farming families leaving their land as the intrusions caused by the mining process become too much to bear. And it’s not just the rural communities who are fighting the imposition of coal seam gas mining. It was recently reported that residents of the suburb of St. Peters in Sydney were rallying to stop mines being built in their area following the New South Wales government’s  approval for an exploration company to drill a well searching for gas.

The Australian Greens are calling for a moratorium on all coal seam gas extraction in Queensland and promise to introduce environmental laws to protect productive farmland and precious water supplies. The Greens believe that in this time of global food insecurity, any threats to Australia’s food bowl should be treated with great caution.

According to David Shearman, there is little chance that the industry will stop as the  government has signed coal seam gas contracts worth billions of dollars at a time when moratoria have been called in several other countries.

However, a Senate inquiry has been announced into the impacts of CSG mining.

However, neither the coal seam miners or governments are questioning the cost of this relentless cycle of economic growth that continues.

And the fears are that this will continue to be the case unless communities and other supporters fight back.

Helen Lobato is a final-year Bachelor of Media Studies student at La Trobe University. This piece first appeared on her blog, Allthenewsthatmatters. You can follow her on Twitter: @allmediamatters

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