Damning interim report finds fracking is toxic, unsustainable

May 5, 2016
A coal seam gas well in Spring Farm, NSW. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Senator Glenn Lazarus's 117-page interim Senate report on unconventional gas mining in Australia was released on May 4. It makes a case for much tighter federal control of the industry and the public resources it has access to, but does not recommend its closure.

If anything the report underscores the need for a royal commission into the toxic industry that relies on commercial in confidence provisions to get away with poisoning people and the environment.

Senator Glenn Lazarus, who won support for the Select Committee on Unconventional Gas Mining last November, concluded with 18 recommendations which include farmers having greater control over land use and more independent investigation into the industry's practice.

The Greens senators reiterated their call for the industry to be closed down. The ALP senators called for a moratorium on the industry. The Coalition Senators said the unconventional gas industry in Australia “has an exciting future”.

Useful resource

More than 300 submissions were made over several months, mostly from community groups and individuals opposed to unconventional gas mining. This makes the interim report a very useful and detailed resource for anti-fracking activists.

Coal seam gas (CSG) has been used for energy in Australia since 1997. Unconventional gas has been mined in Queensland since 1996 and in New South Wales since 2001.

Despite mounting evidence of the health and environmental problems associated with the industry this is one of the first national inquiries into the industry.

Lazarus had wanted a royal commission, but only managed to get agreement for a Senate committee. He maintains there is a need for a royal commission.

Exploration for unconventional gas mining is currently under way in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia and for shale and tight gas in the Northern Territory.

Australia's main reserves of CSG are in Queensland and New South Wales, with the two largest basins (the Surat Basin and the Bowen Basin) located in Queensland.

Queensland and New South Wales are the only states with commercial production of CSG. Queensland is projecting an expansion, with unconventional gas expected to supply electricity generation at two power stations. It is also the state where most of the health and environmental problems have arisen and are being documented.

The committee heard from landowners and community members about their experiences with gas mining companies. The evidence it has collected is damning.

Co-existence impossible

Dr Geralyn McCarron, a Queensland GP, put it starkly: “Co-existence in the Tara/Chinchilla gas fields effectively means living within an immense gas processing plant.

“Decision makers need to understand that healthy co-existence with unconventional gas is a myth. Healthy communities cannot thrive in the middle of an unconventional gasfield.

“The choice to be made is between pre-existing industries such as agriculture or gas. It is a choice between healthy food production or gas. It is a choice between the long-term safety of the water supply or gas. It is a choice between tourism or gas.”

The committee received many submissions and heard evidence from residents of the Western Downs Region of Queensland about the adverse impact of the industry on health. McCarron said there had been no baseline testing and no health impact assessments conducted prior to CSG production licences being issued in Queensland. “Comprehensive health studies have still not been done”, in Queensland, she said.

Jobs illusive

In its submission, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APEA) maintained the industry is a strong job creator and offered “employment opportunities in regional and remote locations”.

This was disputed by the progressive think-tank The Australia Institute which said: “The CSG industry clearly does create some jobs. But the number of people it employs is far lower than many of the industry's exaggerated claims suggest.”

Many submitters said that despite the existence of codes and frameworks, many landowners felt powerless, downtrodden and as if they do not have sufficient control over their land.

The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) said: “Land access agreements may be the only time where landholders can actually positively influence the process, and receive some protections and assurances from the mineral and petroleum industries. However, it is worthwhile noting that farmers may be overwhelmed, confused and under stress.”

Many submitters called for legislative change so landholders could “refuse CSG mining on their land” and “refuse to enter agreements with energy companies”.

Many also called for a new statutory obligation requiring energy companies to recommend that landholders seek independent advice prior to entering agreements.

A 2015 private members' bill supported by the Greens and Lazarus, which sought a ban on hydraulic fracturing, also sought to provide landholders with the right to say no to gas and coal mining. But it did not win support from the government and Labor opposition.

Danger to health

The Senate committee was told of many people who are suffering adverse health impacts from living near CSG wells. McCarron said: “Residents from the Western Downs Region had experienced, and continue to experience, headaches and migraines, nosebleeds, fatigue, nausea, skin and eye irritations, and rashes.”

McCarron surveyed the health of 113 residents from the Tara rural residential estates and surrounding areas, and reported that the pattern was outside the scope of what would be expected in a small rural community.

“In all age groups there were reported increases in coughs, chest tightness, rashes, difficulty sleeping, joint pains, muscle pains and spasms, nausea and vomiting ... Approximately one-third of the people over 6-years-of-age were reported to have spontaneous nose bleeds, and almost three-quarters were reported to have skin irritation. Over half of the children were reported to have eye irritation.

“A range of symptoms were reported which can sometimes be related to neurotoxicity (damage to the nervous system), including severe fatigue, weakness, headaches, numbness and paraesthesia (abnormal sensations such as pins and needles, burning or tingling).”

These are the same types of symptoms residents in Spring Farm in New South Wales reported to Stop CSG Sydney when activists met with them two weeks' ago.

Fracking chemicals unknown

Dr Marion Carey, from Doctors for the Environment Australia, told the committee that some chemical exposures can be tested for, but others are more difficult. “As we know, there are numerous problems with chemicals. There are different chemicals used in different places, in different wells and at different times.

“One of the big problems is transparency around the chemicals. If we do not even have any information about what chemicals are used in a particular well, it is very difficult for a doctor to order appropriate testing, even if that testing is available, without knowing what people have been exposed to.”

She said a major concern was the lack of information on which chemicals are used in unconventional gas mining. A risk assessment can only be carried out when you know what the hazard is. The vast majority of chemicals that the industry uses have not been assessed for safety and health practitioners do not even know what they are because they are commercial in confidence.

The adverse impact of the unconventional gas mining industry on agriculture led to the Australian Dairy Industry Council and the Australian Wine Industry expressing some concern about co-existence.

The use of and contamination of water was another major concern for submitters. Apart from the large volumes of water the industry uses, the safe disposal of the water brought up from the well has been problematic. Submitters and witnesses in Dalby in Queensland said they were concerned over the amount of water being used in CSG mining in their area and the affect it may have on their ability to maintain their agricultural operations.

“Many said their bores have been depleted and that the remaining water had been contaminated, after noting that their water had changed colour and developed an unusual taste and smell. As a result, many landholders advised the committee that they no longer used the groundwater for fear of toxins and dangerous chemicals.”

Anne Kennedy, a farmer who appeared at the public hearing in Narrabri in New South Wales, summed up the views of most of those who want the industry shut down when she said: “Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, and we have one incredible resource: our Great Artesian Basin. The governments can forget about gold, uranium, coal or gas. The single greatest resource we have is our groundwater.

“This is not just a fight to save our water and our farms and our communities; this is actually about the future of agriculture and the future of Australia. I am not exaggerating one iota when I say that. We will not be able to live out here without water, and this coal seam gas industry will destroy our water.”

[Pip Hinman is the president of Stop CSG Sydney, formed in 2010 to stop a test drill in St Peters. Stop CSG Sydney's submission to the Senate Select Committee can be found here.]

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