PhD candidate Marnie Atkins will study the effect of CSG on groundwater systems. Photo supplied
The first independent baseline study to access groundwater and aquifers prior to coal seam gas (CSG) development is set to commence on the northern rivers and scientists are seeking access to private properties for sampling.
The research will provide reference points at specific sites from which to determine the effects of any future coal seam gas development.
The absence of such data has been the bugbear of environmentalists and CSG opponents frustrated with the argument from the coal seam gas industry that there was no science to prove this form of unconventional gas extraction unsafe.
Southern Cross University’s (SCU) associate professor Isaac Santos said assessing the potential impacts of CSG exploration into groundwater was a major scientific challenge.
‘We are unaware of similar studies in Australia in which groundwater methane surveys are specifically designed to assess impacts potentially brought about by CSG mining,’ he said.
Professor Santos will supervise the study to be conducted by postgraduate student Marnie Atkins as part of her doctoral thesis.
He heads the team at the university’s Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research in the School of Environment, Science and Engineering responsible for the ground-breaking study of fugitive methane emissions from Queensland gas fields last year that caused a national furore and asked serious questions of CSG’s status as a ‘clean’ fossil fuel.
Attacked in the public domain at the time by industry groups and some politicians, the besieged scientists from the team were vindicated earlier this year when their study was peer-reviewed and published by an international scientific journal.
Jointly funded by NOROC (Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils) and SCU, the $30,000 preliminary study will enable the collection of baseline groundwater chemistry data and the design of a long-term monitoring program for the region ahead of any potential development of the coal seam gas industry.
The research will initially cover the broad Richmond River catchment extending from Byron Bay in the north, to Evans Head in the south, and west to Casino and Kyogle.
The study builds on Ms Atkins’s Honours research, which was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Hydrology.
That paper, ‘Carbon dioxide dynamics driven by groundwater discharge in a coastal floodplain creek’, focused on the connectivity between regional aquifers and surface waters. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022169413002801.
Ms Atkins said the effect of CSG on groundwater systems was not well understood and was likely to be site specific.
‘In order to better monitor and understand the implications of CSG production on aquifer connectivity, baseline research on the chemical composition of groundwater is critical,’ she said.
‘Our region still provides an opportunity for gathering baseline data. Determining baseline groundwater chemistry will enable comparisons of “before” and “after” CSG exploration and production.
‘Baseline studies may function as a type of insurance for the community, government, and the industry. If we have good, independent baseline data, it will be much easier to settle on some of the major issues related to the CSG debate.’
Professor Santos said little was known about the region’s aquifers.
‘Apparently, no basic groundwater data have been collected in the northern rivers region with CSG in mind. The lack of independent scientific data has created unrest in several communities,’ he said.
The scientists will focus on methane because CSG is composed mainly of methane. During CSG extraction, fugitive methane emissions may escape into the atmosphere or travel via groundwater pathways into rivers and creeks.
‘Methane may provide an early indicator of aquifer disturbance by CSG activities,’ said Dr Damien Maher, another of the scientists involved in the project.
‘Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
The study will also enable the scientists to create a library of regional groundwater samples that can be revisited several years into the future for specific chemicals that are not currently considered an issue.
Community members located in the Richmond River catchment who are interested in having their groundwater bore sampled should contact Marnie Atkins on 0434 013 110 or email [email protected].
The information required from landholders is: (1) property address; (2) depth and approximate age of the bore; and (3) whether a pump is available. The survey will be performed over the next six months.