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Byron Shire
May 18, 2021

CSG research reactive rather than precautionary

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SCU researchers Isaac Santos (left) and Damien Maher have developed a technique to ‘fingerprint’ methane to determine whether it has emanated from underground sources.

Melissa Hargraves

A near-capacity audience was privy to a presentation of cutting-edge research held at the Southern Cross University (SCU) Whitebrook Theatre in Lismore last night. Researchers Dr Isaac Santos and Dr Damian Maher shared results from the first Australian independent scientific overview on how CSG can influence the chemistry of the atmosphere, groundwater and surface water.

The internationally recognised research was made possible by SCU and an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant, which included the acquisition of expensive equipment that can test for methane, which is the first and the only one of its kind in Australia. The isotope fingerprinting of methane can determine the source, either naturally occurring or extracted from a coal seam.

Dr Santos disclosed the testing results of the Condamine methane bubbles as ‘having the same fingerprint as the methane from extraction… which has a different composition than what occurs naturally’.

Dr Santos’s area of expertise is in groundwater and surface water exchange. His research questioned whether CSG mining releases methane into creeks and rivers and whether CSG is a source of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. He acknowledged that although there are no final answers to any of these questions, there are worthy observations and the preliminary data are invaluable.

The project involved mapping in Queensland and NSW and showed significant increases in methane levels inside gas fields over those outside, unless Tara (QLD) had an unusually high existing concentration of methane.

He disclaimed the result by adding that there are no historical baseline studies to compare current data with. Interestingly, Tara has fewer people, less water and less biodiversity than the proposed areas of CSG mining in NSW.

Unfortunately, the research will only be reactive to the mining industry, but Dr Santos believes that their baseline studies, particularly methane plotting in NSW, will help determine any increases and should then inform the industry and concerned bodies.

Dr Santos noted that ‘methane levels in the atmosphere have doubled in the last 200 years’ and that ‘mining is going ahead at such a fast rate that more up-to-date data are needed, particularly over the last decade’.

All reports that are currently available from industry and government bodies provide no data, which is incredibly frustrating for the scientific community. The local water authority, Rous, do not have a single methane data point available so this research will also be valuable to them. To add further difficulty, there are no groundwater level observations currently designed to assess CSG impacts.

Dr Santos added, ‘The CSG mining industry is moving very quickly and we don’t have the data to make future predictions’.

Dr Santos explained the difficulty in separating surface water from groundwater due to the variability in exchanges and that historically, ground and surface waters were treated independently and as single resources. There is more than just the risk of contamination of these water supplies.

Dr Santos ‘doesn’t like to exaggerate but we have heard of examples in Tara QLD where the groundwater has dropped by 100m’!

Many people in this area drink from these sources. One audience member from Alstonville informed us that when ‘Rocky Creek Dam goes below 97 per cent the Alstonville residents drink from the groundwater.’

Ideally, each location should have monitoring wells but Dr Santos implied that ‘deep monitoring wells are expensive. There is not one single government monitoring well in NSW designed to assess CSG impacts.’

Rather than be held back by financial constraints, Dr Santos believes that there are more affordable solutions to understanding what is happening underground by observing the surface. One of these, which Dr Maher described as ‘Dr Santos’s baby’ is using radon as a natural geochemical tracer.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas and traces any water or gas that is moving underground. Dr Santos explained that ‘radon is much higher in groundwater than surface water’.

By mapping radon concentrations, Dr Santos believes that you can determine where groundwater is entering the creek.

‘I would be advising the CSG mining companies to drill in areas where there are low concentrations of radon as we know that groundwater is not feeding those areas.’

Interestingly, high levels of radon were detected in five creeks across local catchment areas by students of Dr Santos, so they are being fed by groundwater.

‘This is the kind of information we need so we can see what happens after major development,’ said Dr Santos.

Dr Maher suggested that there were potential major policy implications from their findings. His research focused more on the atmospheric impacts of CSG mining and is concerned about the ideology of mining industries who sell it as a ‘bridging fuel with clean and green credentials’.

He continued, ‘that is correct if we only look at end-use combustion and ignore all the upstream processes. It does not include emissions associated with extraction and transportation and so on. These are what we call fugitive emissions.

‘These must be included if we look at lifecycles.’

Dr Maher acknowledged the presence of some fugitive gas estimates, which are based on average leaks from the engineered side of CSG and that governments rely on for their accounting.

‘NSW and QLD have a code of practice for well-head emissions which relates to how explosive the well-head is. For a well-head leak to be reported the methane concentration needs to reach 5,300 parts per million, compared to 1.8, which is natural in the atmosphere.

‘It is like we have a fire alarm instead of a smoke alarm.’

Rather than focusing on CSG as a bridging fuel, Dr Maher believes we should be ‘looking to the future and looking at its footprint compared to renewables’.

‘There are billions of dollars at stake. There is a lot of money involved in accurately measuring these emissions. The big question is if we can’t say how much methane is leaking, how can we say it is green and clean?’

Dr Maher refused to answer that question but rather pointed out that the data are not available. There are no CSG estimates, only previous estimates of shale and conventional gas directly lost to the atmosphere.

‘We can work out the leaks from an engineering perspective, pipes, valves etc,’ Dr Maher said, ‘but that doesn’t include leaks from diffuse sources. What if we have a series of Condamine-type leakages across the landscape – we won’t pick that up with conventional measuring techniques.’

The new testing instrument has enabled researchers to start measuring data on levels of methane and carbon dioxide. A local map was presented that showed various sources of methane including wetlands and sewerage treatment plants.

‘It is highly sensitive: we can pick up individual cows! The figure to take home is methane levels in the local area did not go above 2.1 parts per million. In the CSG production area of Tara QLD, the concentrations of methane in the atmosphere were consistently higher than what we saw in this local area. The highest concentrations were over three times the atmosphere background values.’

Dr Maher closed his presentation by highlighting the importance of baseline data and that ‘they will need to monitor closely any changes to these levels’.

Echonetdaily questioned the researchers about any obstacles they may have faced with mining companies in undergoing this research.

Dr Maher responded, ‘all our research was undertaken in public areas so we did not have to approach mining companies. The Tara gas-field samples were taken on public roads, which in some places were only ten metres from a well-head.’

Dr Santos added, ‘we did not get to the heart of the gasland’.







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