Myth Busting

The gas industry makes a lot of claims about the benefits of unconventional gas extraction that just don't stand up under close inspection. This page sorts the fact from the fiction and gives you the answers you need on the common questions asked about fracking, coal seam gas, shale gas and tight gas operations.

Myth One: “Fracking and coal seam gas (CSG) extraction can be done safely.…” Busting this myth!

Governments and the unconventional gas industry claim that fracking can be done safely if it is regulated appropriately. However there is growing evidence to show that even strict regulations are simply not capable of preventing harm . Industry studies and independent analyses indicate inherent engineering problems including uncontrolled and unpredictable fracturing, induced seismicity leading to an increase in earth tremors, plus well casing problems, infrastructure integrity issues and leaks that cannot be prevented despite apparent ‘best practice’ regulations.

Coal seam gas and other unconventional gas has not been proven safe for human health or for the environment.

In Australian CSG operations, testing of water and soil has demonstrated thae impacts of coal seam gas activities on the natural environment. Testing of samples from areas near the Pilliga forest coal seam gas operations detected heavy metals up to 37 times higher than natural levels and five times drinking water. The NSW EPA issued fines and warnings to two coal seam gas operators for pollution of the Pilliga state forest. Other risks that have been observed include unexpected well blow-outs resulting in venting of polluted foam into the air close to a drinking water canal, gas bubbling up through the Condamine river close to coal seam gas operations, and a spate of ongoing symptoms consistent with gas exposure experienced by residents living among operational coal seam gas wells.

According to Doctors for the Environment Australia, unconventional gas operations may have adverse impacts on human health by contamination of drinking and agricultural-use water and air. In a submission to a state government inquiry Doctors for the Environment say that public health consideration has been inadequate leaving the public at risk from the health impacts of unconventional gas operations. The National Toxics Network(NTN) agrees and says that there are a number of concerns associated with unconventional gas drilling and fracking including chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as well as those naturally occurring in the coal seam and released during the drilling process. The NTN maintain that health risks may also be posed by the process of flaring gas into the atmosphere and from methane exposure caused by fugitive emissions from various parts of the coal seam gas extraction process.

There is now so much evidence worldwide of the environmental and health risks from fracking and unconventional gas production that many governments have imposed bans and moratoriums. Jurisdictions with bans/moratoriums in place include Victoria & Tasmania, the US States of New York and Maryland, and the countries of Scotland, Wales, Germany and France.

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Myth Two: “Unconventional gas has a small surface footprint and can coexist with other land uses…” Busting this myth!

Coal seam gas and shale gas development requires industrialisation of the landscape with infrastructure required to connect wells with access roads, water management facilities, processing facilities, compressor stations, pipelines to power stations and export terminals. Depending on the environment, the impact on the surface can undermine the agricultural productivity of an area or significantly disrupt reliant ecosystems and environmental values of bushland.

The National Water Commission noted it is concerned “coal seam gas development could cause significant social impacts by disrupting current land-use practices and the local environment through infrastructure construction and access”.

Unconventional gas requires an ever expanding network of wells to be commercially viable. Over time, this will require a large area to be available for the wells and associated infrastructure. Unconventional gas development cannot co-exist with intensive farming operations. Large tracts of farmland will become unavailable for food production, forests and native bushland will be cleared and fragmented, and residential communities and metropolitan centres will become industrialised.

This Flickr set shows what coal seam gas production looks like in Queensland.

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Myth Three: “We’ve been fracking for years….” Busting this myth!

The risks of fracking are often downplayed by the gas industry and governments with the rhetoric that ‘we’ve been fracking for more than 30 years’. However, when they make these claims industry and government representatives are deliberately misleading local communities by obscuring the fact that fracking techniques, and the associated risks, have changed over time. The facts are that in Australia, hydraulic fracturing for unconventional gas has only been occurring relatively recently. Prior to this fracking was applied to vertical wells in conventional oil and gas reservoirs. 

This deliberate game of semantics disguises the fact that fracking for unconventional gas is vastly different to the techniques used in conventional gas extraction.  Fracking for unconventional gas usually involves high volume “slickwater” hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling. This modern fracking technique was pioneered in the 1980’s in the USA and has only been implemented on a commercial scale in the United States since the 1990’s, and commercially in Eastern Australia (in coal seam gas operations) since the early 2000’s and in exploratory shale and tight gas drilling in the last decade in other states.

Modern slickwater fracking for unconventional gas, utilising horizontal drilling, is a very different process to older vertical conventional gas fracking in several ways: it uses significant quantities of a large variety of chemicals, many of which are known to be toxic or their toxicity is as yet unassessed; it requires massive volumes of water and produces large volumes of toxic wastewater; and much higher pressures must be applied to the well to undertake a frack. In addition when the use of new horizontal drilling techniques makes effective and secure well construction much more difficult to achieve.

The attributes of modern fracking techniques make it a risky process with a whole range of potential risks to land and water resources- and it is not just the fracking process that has negative impacts! The entire shale gas production process requires industrialisation of vast areas of land with ever-expanding networks of multi-well pads, gas and water pipelines, access roads, treatment plants, compressor stations, and toxic wastewater ponds.

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Myth Four: “The chemicals used can be found in household products….” Busting this myth!

The unconventional gas industry is fond of saying that most of the chemicals used in fracking can be found in household products, thereby inferring that they are safe. While it is true that some of the chemicals can be found in products you might use in your home, this statement overlooks the fact that they may not be safe for humans and the environment if they make their way into water supplies. Particularly in the large quantities used in fracking fluids and in various untested combinations with numerous other chemicals.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          This industry claim also deliberately glosses over the fact that many fracking chemicals are known to be toxic and many others have not been assessed for their long-term impacts on the environment and human health. For instance, fracking compounds used in Australia have been shown to include many hazardous substances, including carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive toxins, irritants/sensitisers, and endocrine disruptors. It is also worth noting that some of these chemicals are toxic even in extremely small concentrations[4].

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Myth Five: “Only a small amount of chemicals are used in fracking…” Busting this myth

In addition to claiming that the chemicals used in fracking are safe, the industry also claims that chemicals only make up a small percentage of overall fracking fluid volume so there is nothing to worry about. Whilst it is true that chemical additives only make up between 0.5 - 2%[5] of fracking fluids, and this is only a small proportion relative to the large volumes of water used, it translates to very large actual quantities of chemical additives. For example, a typical 15 million litre fracturing operation would use from 80 to 330 tons of chemicals[6].

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Myth Six: “There’s no real risk of wells leaking.…” Busting this myth

Governments and the unconventional gas industry claim that there is a minimal risk of wells leaking and causing groundwater contamination because well casings are thick and made of concrete and steel. However, ‘world’s best practice’ well construction just isn’t enough to stop wells leaking. A 2014 gas industry study in Pennsylvania found that more than 6% of gas wells leaked in the first year of operation, and up to 75% of existing wells could have some form of integrity failure[7].

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Myth Seven: “The gas industry will revive ailing rural economies….” Busting this myth!

The gas industry claim that unconventional gas will be an economic elixir for Australia’s regional economies. However, the most advanced unconventional gas development in Australia, in Queensland’s Darling Downs region, shows that gas development negatively impacts all sectors of local industry other than the gas industry itself. While the industry employs some people, and some businesses profit by servicing the mining industry, overall it is a small, short term employer that drives up costs for local businesses and negatively impacts the community.

Detailed research by the mining industry funded Sustainable Minerals Institute[8] found that while those working in the coal seam gas industry in the Darling Downs region had a positive view of the impact of the industries, people working in local businesses, agriculture, government and the community sector consistently believed CSG development and mining had led to a deterioration of:

Financial capital- revenue streams and economic resources.

Built capital- local infrastructure including buildings, transport, equipment and communications.

Human capital- skills, knowledge, abilities and good health.

Social capital- organisations, networks and relationships, based on shared values, mutual trust and reciprocity.

The main reasons for these social and financial impacts is the loss of skilled staff to the gas industry and the increased cost of labour, rent, transport and goods and services for local businesses. 

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Myth Eight: “The unconventional gas industry will create lots of local jobs….” Busting this myth!

While gas companies spruik the promise of more jobs for local communities, in actual fact the oil and gas industry is one of the smallest employers in Australia, employing less than 0.2% of the Australian workforce. Of this number, only around 25% are direct employees, the rest are contractor positions and are not necessarily full time equivalent positions. As a comparison, McDonald’s employs around four times more people than the coal seam gas companies, and manufacturing employs fifty times more people than the coal seam gas industry.

In addition, the majority of gas industry jobs are required for the short construction phase only- they are not ongoing, as modern gas fields are highly mechanized and need very few people to operate them. Local employment opportunities are minimal with the majority of skilled workers being brought in from elsewhere with fly-in-fly-out workforces. Those employed locally are usually skilled workers poached from local industries that have spent years training them, leaving these industries short of labour and unable to compete with gas industry wage rates. Therefore, unconventional gas projects often crowd-out existing industry and negatively impact on existing land-users such as farmers and tourism operators, with a down-turn in existing industries leading to job losses. New jobs cannot come at the expense of existing jobs.

Overall, the gas industry fails to provide the long term, sustainable, locally sourced employment opportunities and pathways that are needed to properly address rural unemployment. In the US, experiences in various states and accompanying studies have shown that the oil and gas industry’s promises for job creation from drilling for natural gas have been greatly exaggerated. Likewise, in Queensland, with the 4 year construction phase of the CSG production gasfields in the Surat Basin now coming to an end, the gas ‘boom-towns’ of Dalby, Roma and Chinchilla are experiencing a crippling economic down turn with associated job losses and loss of revenue for local businesses[9].

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Myth Nine: “We want coal seam gas…” Busting this myth!

In Queensland, the February 2012 Newspoll published in The Australian found that 40 per cent of Queenslanders were opposed to CSG development, and 27 per cent were undecided. While in NSW a Galaxy Poll conducted in August 2011 found that 74% of people polled wanted a moratorium on coal seam gas in NSW. Everywhere the industry attempts to drill it is being met with non-violent direct action as community members put their bodies on the line to defend our land, water and future. All of this is despite the coal seam gas industry’s multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. 

Myth Ten: “We need coal seam gas…”

While the coal seam gas industry likes to explain the abundance of available reserves by providing examples of how long coal seam gas could power the city or state, much of the coal seam gas being developed is actually planned for export. Calls to reserve an amount of coal seam gas for domestic use have been rejected by the industry. Coal seam gas is an unsustainable fossil fuel and there are clean energy alternatives that are commercially and economically available to be developed in Australia right now. The roll out of the unsustainable coal seam gas industry is a matter of politics, not necessity. Investment in the coal seam gas industry is delaying investment in clean, safe and sustainable energy.

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Myth Ten: “We need coal seam gas…” Busting this myth!

While the coal seam gas industry likes to explain the abundance of available reserves by providing examples of how long coal seam gas could power the city or state, much of the coal seam gas being developed is actually planned for export. Calls to reserve an amount of coal seam gas for domestic use have been rejected by the industry. Coal seam gas is an unsustainable fossil fuel and there are clean energy alternatives that are commercially and economically available to be developed in Australia right now. The roll out of the unsustainable coal seam gas industry is a matter of politics, not necessity. Investment in the coal seam gas industry is delaying investment in clean, safe and sustainable energy.

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Myth Eleven: “Unconventional gas is a clean source of energy…” Busting this myth!

There is not enough Australian research to support industry claims that coal seam gas and other forms of unconventional gas are ‘cleaner’ sources of energy. Unconventional gas is an unsustainable fossil fuel that is almost entirely made up of methane. Methane, like carbon dioxide (CO2), is a greenhouse gas. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate the global warming potential of methane as 25 times greater impact than carbon dioxide over a 100 year period.

The gas industry frequently claims that using unconventional gas to generate electricity is up to 70% cleaner than coal. This is a ‘best case scenario’ comparing gas burnt in a new generation combined-cycle gas-fired power station with the most polluting (brown) coal burnt in an old sub-critical power station. 

While the industry states that unconvenitonal gas is a ‘cleaner’ fuel than coal, there is no way to ascertain the veracity of such a claim because there is no Australian research that considers the full lifecycle emissions of coal seam gas. A recent paper by The Australia Institute suggests that the impact of fugitive emissions (that is the unintentional leakage of gas during unconventional gas extraction, transport and processing) may be significantly higher than that of conventional natural gas. The Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency recently released a report it commissioned confirming that no one knows how much methane leaks during coal seam gas operations in Australia. Learn morn more about the science behind CSG’s “clean credentials” here.

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Myth Twelve: “Coal seam gas and mining is good for the economy…” Busting this myth!

The mining and unconventional gas industries say the resources boom brings jobs, taxes and increased exports, however they do not mention that this growth in their industries comes at the direct expense of other industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, education and tourism.

2011 report by The Australia Institute said: “One of the biggest adverse impacts that the mining boom has had on other sectors of the economy is through the exchange rate. While mining exports have increased by around five per cent of GDP over the period since the beginning of the mining boom, non-mining exports have declined by around five per cent of GDP over the same period.” The report also found that Australians overestimate the extent to which the mining industry contributes to the workforce and the economy.

The resources boom has resulted in a two-speed economy and a growing dependence on exporting our resources to China and India. This makes our economy vulnerable to global shocks. The high Australian dollar means high input and rising labour costs which hurt manufacturing and threaten local jobs. The high level of foreign ownership of the major coal seam gas projects means it is likely we will see much of the profits flow offshore. At the local and regional level, the predicted economic benefits to small businesses from nearby gas developments have been called into question.

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[1] Compendium of Fracking Risks, 2014

[2] http://dea.org.au/images/uploads/submissions/DEA_Hydraulic_fracturing_in_NT_inquiry_final.pdf

[3] National Toxics Network: Toxic Chemicals in the Exploration and Production of Gas from Unconventional Sources.

[4] Caram, Moss & Blashki, 2014 “Harms UnKnown: health uncertainties cast doubt on the role of unconventional gas in Australia’s Energy Future”, Medical Journal of Australia.

[5] Hazen and Sawyer, December 22, 2009. Impact Assessment of Natural Gas Production in the New York City Water Supply Watershed.

[6] Ibid

[7] Davies, R. J., Almond, S., Ward, R. S., Jackson, R. B., Adams, C., Worrall, F., Whitehead, M. A. (2014). Oil and gas wells and

Their integrity: Implications for shale and unconventional resource exploitation. Marine and Petroleum Geology, 56,

239---254. doi: 10.1016/j.marpetgeo.2014.03.001

[8] Everingham, J., Collins, N., Rodriguez, D. Cavaye, J., Vink, S., Rifkin, W. & Baumgartl, T. (2013) Energy resources from

The food bowl:an uneasy co---existence. Identifying and managing cumulative impacts of mining and agriculture. Project report. CSRM, The University of Queensland: Brisbane.

[9] - http://www.businessinsider.com.au/bhp-shuts-shale-operations-2015-1

http://www.couriermail.com.au/business/gas-companies-to-sack-staff-in-surat-basin-towns/story-fnihsps3-1227239152115

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