According to the prime minister, we’re in the midst of a ‘gas-led recovery’. Until about five minutes ago, the gas in question was methane (mostly found using unconventional techniques like fracking) but now he’s also talking about hydrogen, in a desperate attempt to have some connection with science, the 21st century, and the new direction of the United States.
Unfortunately the PM’s imagination and aspirations rarely extend beyond fossil fuels, which isn’t surprising when you have a look at the men surrounding him. The federal COVID-19 recovery commission is being led by iron-and-gas man Nev Power, and another gas industry shill, Andrew Liveris (of Q&A mansplaining fame), is co-chair of the NT’s Economic Reconstruction Commission.
Hydrogen is attractive to miners because you can make it with dirty fossil fuels, while confusing the public with the fact that you can also extract hydrogen from water using renewable energy.
Carbon capture and other unicorns
Scott Morrison hasn’t brought any lumps of coal into Parliament recently, but his admiration for the semi-mythical technology of carbon capture and storage is undiminished. This allows business as usual to continue, while pretending to do something about Australia’s rising contribution to global warming.
Meanwhile the gas industry has nothing meaningful to say about fugitive methane emissions, which are 80 times more destructive to our atmosphere in the short term than carbon dioxide, and remain an unavoidable part of the fracking process, whether in coal seams, tight sands, or shale formations. This means any warming advantages over coal at the burning stage are wiped out.
In spite of the well-documented damage it does to air, water, and the future prospects of life, unconventional gas exploration continues to spread across Australia, almost everywhere except the community-protected Northern Rivers of NSW.
State by state
Queensland continues to be worst affected by the ‘rape, pillage and run industry’. The last time any official figures were recorded, in 2016, there were over 5,000 wells in production across the state. Scientific advice recommending a ban on fracking of the sensitive Queensland channel country has been ignored by the Palaszczuk government. Mines minister Anthony Lynham gave QGC and Origin another 30,000 square kilometres to explore in October 2019, then a further 1,500 square kilometres in June 2020.
In Victoria there were celebrations when Gina Rinehart failed in her attempt to overturn the Seaspray community’s opposition to invasive gasfields. While the statewide fracking moratorium remains, onshore gas exploration was reopened during COVID-19 by the Andrews government. The iconic Otway Coast is now being drilled for gas by Beach Energy.
The Western Australia government is pushing gas exploration into many new areas (after promising it wouldn’t), and South Australia has recently had its arm twisted by Scott Morrison to expand future gas production, despite taking a famous leadership role in renewables.
Most alarming is what’s happening in the Northern Territory, which has some of Australia’s largest gas reserves, and a tiny, scattered population to defend itself. Since the NT government ended the moratorium, it’s given a green light to unconventional gas in 51 per cent of its territory (and over $100 million in public funds).
Gas on the move
The gas industry would like to connect many of its fields around the country with pipelines, to maximise profits, and taxpayer’s money is currently being diverted to make this happen, as well as to build the Inland Rail, which is going to carry fossil fuels.
Weirdly, as well as exporting gas, Australia is also importing it (only WA has a reserve policy). A terminal built at Port Kembla is doubling in size, and another recently stopped by the community in Victoria, at environmentally sensitive Crib Point. More terminals are planned. The economics of importing gas are justified by the gas cartel inflating the price, leading to shortages in Australia, despite the country exporting more gas than ever before.
While the gas industry continues to claim it’s heavily regulated, and is happy to point to large piles of paper to prove this, the reality is that they are their own regulator. Affected citizens need to gather their own evidence to defend themselves.
Last year in the Darling Downs, a farmer commissioned a hydrogeologist to check gas company claims regarding groundwater impacts and found they were completely false, in the company’s favour. Retired Queensland water bureaucrat and whistleblower Tom Crothers said, ‘All of the data were out of kilter and it was just a sheer shambles’.
Other studies by Dr Geralyn McCarron have found heightened cancer risks and neurological damage as a result of unconventional gas production.
Backyard of NSW under threat
Meanwhile in NSW, despite overwhelming community opposition, Santos has been green-lit to destroy most of the Pilliga Forest near Narrabri, although less than half of the recommendations of the Chief Scientist to ensure the safety of unconventional gas in NSW have so far been implemented.
While Santos say they don’t intend to frack in the Pilliga (they tried that and found the geology unsuitable) there are clear threats to the Great Artesian Basin, threatened species, the community, and the climate if this gasfield is allowed to expand.
House of cards?
In the USA last year, the giant company Chesapeake Energy filed for bankruptcy, the latest in a long line of international gas companies to do so. Fracking is what made these companies rich, but it didn’t save them. Their only legacy is poisoned land, air, and water.
Whether a bridge to nowhere, or to renewables, unconventional gas is an industry that has no long-term future. It operates more like a Ponzi scheme than a genuine business enterprise, and is likely to collapse as soon as it loses the support of Rupert Murdoch and the federal government. If the USA is serious about doing something about climate change, that may be sooner than anyone expected.