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Coal seam gas: undermining Australia’s clean energy future

By Ethan Bowering - posted Friday, 17 August 2012

Australia’s coal seam gas industry has significantly expanded over recent years, with over $45 billion recently invested in coal seam gas projects along the east coast.

Production is expected to increase by over 200 per cent by 2030, and will dramatically alter Australia’s energy profile into the future. Natural gas exports alone are expected to triple in the next three years.

The proliferation of the industry has been driven by international demand, technological innovation, and domestic policies, which promote the expansion of the coal seam gas industry because of its economic and comparative environmental benefits. In Queensland alone, coal seam gas mining is expected to provide the State Government with $850 million a year in much needed royalties.


Compared to coal, coal seam gas is seen as a cleaner alternative, and is expected to play a major role in the transition period until lower emission renewable energy technologies become more cost effective. For example, using coal seam gas to create electricity produces 70 per cent less emissions than a coal-fired power plant.

However, there has been widespread condemnation of this industry from media commentators and community groups such as the Lock the Gate Alliance.

These groups argue that the extraction of coal seam gas contaminates surface and groundwater, threatens agricultural land, and poses a public health threat. However, many of these fears are so far scientifically unfounded.

The first scientific study into the environmental impacts of shale gas, what coal seam gas is known as in the United States, found no evidence of groundwater contamination.

The study released earlier this year by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas concluded that any methane found in aquifers was naturally occurring, and that the actual environmental consequences of coal seam mining were no different from conventional mining and drilling.

These included surface chemical spills, road traffic, waste disposal, contamination resulting from well-bore casing and cementing, and uncontrolled fluid releases due to technical faults.


Although it is clear that further research is needed in Australia to investigate the ground and surface water impacts of coal seam gas mining, the University of Texas study recommends that these environmental impacts can be quite easily managed through existing policy instruments and improved regulatory frameworks.

Already in Australia, Dr Graeme Bethune from EnergyQuest, an Australian based energy advisory firm, notes that the coal seam gas industry is more regulated than the uranium industry.

But without dismissing or belittling these environmental concerns, what media and public commentators fail to recognise is that groundwater contamination is not the greatest long-term threat posed by the expansion of the coal seam gas industry in Australia.

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About the Author

Ethan Bowering is a Prime Ministers Australia Asia Endeavour Award Scholar, and is currently studying environmental policy at Griffith University.

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