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Why natural gas fracking is not SA's 'new asbestos'


Natural gas extraction – including fracking – poses no threat to human health and the environment, despite the claims of ‘Chicken Little alarmists’, argues Steve Wright.

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Anti-gas activism comes in many forms – among them are roadblocks, track spiking, worker obstruction, machinery sabotage, personal and cyber bullying, and vexatious litigation.

A protest group in NSW even dumped a pile of poo on the doorstep of a state MP who had the temerity to support responsible development of a proposed natural gas development hundreds of kilometres away if it were approved by environmental authorities.

Thankfully, these manifestations have been seen in Australia only in northern NSW, where a strong coastal protest movement from areas around Lismore, Nimbin and Byron Bay was activated to stop a properly licensed and approved conventional gas exploration project at Bentley a few years ago.

There is an element of similarity with possible development in South Australia’s South-East.

Ask someone from the Bentley protest what it was all about and they will say it was to stop the spread of hydraulic fracturing, a gas extraction technique safely in use since the 1940s, but which activists have dubbed “fracking” so that they can tell gas companies to “frack off”.

Yet the approved exploratory drilling at Bentley was for conventional gas extraction, which does not include fracking. The activists simply did not care about that “detail”; they were there to stop fracking so that is what they did.

Natural gas has been part of the global energy mix for more than a century, including in every Australian state and territory bar the ACT.  The record is longer in the Americas and Europe.  And who can name a single gas-extraction ecological disaster, anywhere, in this time?

So it is just plain fearmongering for Doctors for the Environment (DFE) or anyone else to say that natural gas, or the fracking of it, is a terrible threat to people, animals, land and water (David Shearman, InDaily, July 14).

Gas extraction has occurred safely for the past 50 years in the SA South-East and, with fracking, to the north in the Cooper Basin.  A certified organic beef grazing enterprise operates in the gasfields there. In the NT, the safe record goes back a similar length of time, again in co-existence with cattle grazing.

In Queensland, natural gas was first put to use in a commercial sense in Roma in 1901, where it was used to power the town’s first street lights.  There was so much shallow gas in the area it was simply separated from groundwater – no need to drill a kilometre or more below ground as happens today.

In its latest incarnation, coal-seam gas has been drilled in and around Roma for the past decade, and fracking has been part of the process.  Just as east coast businesses and consumers have had the benefit of SA gas for the past 50 years, now people all over the country are getting the benefit of this new enterprise in south-west Queensland.

As in SA, the “new” wave in Queensland is happening in co-existence with agriculture.  Over the past decade, a total of 5000 farmers have signed up to participate in and benefit from this new phase of an old industry which is now revitalising the region, reaping hundreds of millions of royalty dollars for the state and billions of dollars of export income for the Commonwealth.

Years later, the 5000 farmers remain signed on, many with new income, new fences and access roads, and some with access to water (from deep underground) previously well beyond their reach.

If you believed the emotive voices in the Gasland  (USA) and Frackman (Queensland) movies released several years ago, the State of Pennsylvania and the south of Queensland ought by now to have been reduced to “industrial wastelands”, but the truth is both places are actually better off.

The world is supposedly on the brink of destruction because of this dreaded process, fracking – despite the fact it has been used safely in the USA and Canada since 1947. More than two million wells have been fracked. Crossing a road has risks, but if you did it safely two million times, you would likely regard it as a pretty safe road.

In addition to warning of the supposedly imminent ecological devastation, Frackman also introduced us to a small number of residents of Tara, in south-west Queensland, identified in the film as the “Tara blockies”, some of whom complained of the health impact of living near gas fields. Two investigations were carried out, by independent doctors and by Queensland Health doctors.  The properly conducted investigations found no problems with air quality in the area and no link between gas drilling and the reported illnesses (such as headaches, nose bleeds and eye irritation).

They did note, however, that there were many possible explanations for the symptoms, and that the lack of town services available to the families living on the Tara blocks and the methods they used for heating, sanitation and water collection may be relevant.

Activists make much of US states like New York banning fracking. Can anyone imagine New York City without fossil fuel products? Look back 200 years and you can see it – a lot of stone and wood and a lot of horse poo.  In fact, some argue that mounting horse poo in NYC was a key driver of the establishment of the US motor vehicle industry.

Despite its fracking ban, NYC has just patted itself on the back for making a switch to liquefied gas to power its bus fleet. Natural gas is actually the No.1 source of energy for NY electricity, and most of it comes from fracked wells. By the way, New York also bans nuclear plant development, but is happy to “import” nuclear-powered electricity from neighbouring states in order to help keep the lights on in Manhattan and the boroughs.

Does that eyes wide shut approach ring any bells in SA? How about being at the forefront of renewable energy deployment at the same time as relying on brown-coal-fired electricity from 1000km away (Victoria’s La Trobe Valley)?

In the United Kingdom a few years ago, Green political forces had their day, winning a temporary ban on fracking. The ban has now been reversed and exploration is underway.

Back Down Under, in NSW, the site of the Bentley “stop the fracking before it comes to NSW” protest, the reality is that fracking has been safely conducted at Camden for the past 16 years.  There are no cancer clusters or other health anomalies.  There is no atypical incidence of asthma among the hundreds of workers who have happily toiled in the AGL facility there, many living nearby, on the outskirts of Sydney.  Cows and horses graze happily; they are not diseased or dying.

People are entitled to their opinion and to be concerned, but Chicken Little alarmists are not contributing to a sincere debate

Over many years, the Camden facility has also been proved to pose no threat to air, soil or water.  And it has been subjected to extensive testing, given its location adjacent to Sydney’s primary water source, the Warragamba Dam.

A number of wells at Camden are submerged every time the Nepean River bursts its banks – and yet still no problem with “contamination”.

As DFE says, South Australians have much to be proud about in joining the world’s transition towards an innovative energy future.

At the same time, they can be proud of the state’s ongoing history in being a big contributor to Australia’s industrial development, due in no small part to affordable and reliable energy.

They can also be relieved that natural gas is part of the government energy plan to restore reliability to an SA power grid challenged by the intermittency of wind and solar power and the greenhouse gas implications of “importing” brown-coal electricity from 1000km away (with all the inherent transport efficiency loss).

And they need not worry about natural gas, fracked or not, causing health, soil or water problems. Those claims are the work of people determined to find trouble, not people who have actually encountered it. People are entitled to their opinion and to be concerned, but Chicken Little alarmists are not contributing to a sincere debate.

Anti-gas groups like to draw attention to the myriad studies carried out in the USA by individuals and groups sponsored to try to persuade people that greenhouse emissions  “kill thousands worldwide through climate change”, as DFE puts it. Making such claims is easy; substantiating them is a lot harder.

For genuine science, and real information on fracking, these are just some of the Australian authorities which can be relied upon: the Commonwealth Chief Scientist, the NSW Chief Scientist, CSIRO, the Gas Industry Social & Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), The Australian Council of Learned Academies, and the state governments of Queensland, NSW, SA and WA.  All these authorities have rejected the Armageddon claims.

As the Commonwealth Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel said late last year: “The evidence is that, if properly regulated, it’s completely safe.”  Concluding the same thing, the NSW Chief Scientist added: “There is a lot of misinformation about this industry.”

Doctors, would our best scientists, backed by technical expertise and extensive research, come to these conclusions if natural gas fracking really was your “new asbestos”?  I don’t think so.

Steve Wright is director of the Energy Resource Information Centre, which is funded by the gas industry.

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