Southern Cross University biogeochemistry researcher Dr Damien Maher says the initial report on coal seam gas (CSG) activities in New South Wales, by the state’s Chief Scientist and Engineer, Professor Mary O’Kane, ‘vindicates’ the university’s research.
Dr Maher, from SCU’s Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research, said the report highlighted the need for comprehensive baseline data.
‘We welcome this report, which really vindicates our position that it is very difficult to assess the impact of any industry if you don’t have baseline data to start with,’ Dr Maher said.
‘The report is comprehensive and endorses the need for research, and for that research to be independent so the public trusts the outcome.’
Renewed moratorium calls
Not all groups have reacted so positively to the news, with the Nature Conservation Council of NSW renewing its call for a moratorium on CSG development.
‘Much more analysis of longer-term effects is required before the community will be satisfied the serious human health and environmental threats of this polluting industry can be managed,’ NCC Campaigns Director Kate Smolski said.
‘When there is so much at stake, the government has a duty to apply the precautionary principle to minimize risks to communities, water supplies and wildlife.
‘The government must halt any CSG development until the concerns raised in the report and cumulative impacts are dealt with fully – we must not gamble with our water and agricultural lands.’
SCU’s Dr Maher and his research colleagues, Associate Professor Isaac Santos and Douglas Tait, released data in late 2012 showing methane concentrations around the Tara gas fields in Southern Queensland were significantly higher than surrounding areas where there was no coal seam gas infrastructure.
The team has also produced a peer-reviewed paper, published in the international scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology, reporting the results of a field experiment specifically designed to look into potential influences of CSG on the chemistry of the atmosphere.
That study found a significant link between atmospheric concentrations of radon gas in CSG fields and the number of CSG wells nearby.
Dr Maher said their research focus was on providing rigorous scientific data to inform the debate on CSG.
The chief scientist’s report also calls for robust baseline data.
‘Solid baseline data help to reduce concerns around an activity and helps with “social licences” to operate by potentially removing inferred links to environmental impacts such as groundwater quality and seismicity. In other words, baseline data are critical in providing context and allowing critical assessment of any associated risks,’ the report says.
Recommendation 3 of the report states that before any major CSG mining is undertaken, a ‘whole-of-state subsidence baseline be calculated using appropriate remote sensing data going back, say, 15 years. And that, from 2013 onwards, an annual whole-of-state subsidence map be produced so that the state’s patterns can be traced for the purpose of understanding and addressing any significant cumulative subsidence.’
The chief scientist’s initial report also confirmed that analytical equipment instrumentation, of the type used by Southern Cross University, can be used to measure concentrations of methane and other gases that may arise from local sources, stating the instrument is useful for getting precise baseline data; however, continuous monitoring is required and it can miss large diffuse sources such as soil.
Dr Maher welcomed this affirmation of the manner in which the data produced by SCU researchers was obtained.
He said the analytical equipment used by their research team was the first of its kind in Australia. It was funded with Australian Research Council grants.
‘With this equipment we can make our measurements in situ and we can analyse the data in real-time. This enables us to make more detailed observations,’ he said.
The research team is continuing to collect data from the Tara gas fields and is currently working with scientists from the University of Melbourne to develop modelling techniques to calculate methane emissions.