SA says no to Santos shale gas

Protest in Adelaide, December 14. (Photo: Ryan Mallett-Outtrim).

Australian gas company Santos have recently commenced commercial drilling for shale gas in the Cooper Basin in Moomba, South Australia. Like coal seam gas, shale gas is a form of unconventional gas that requires "fracking" to release it.

The Climate Emergency Action Network (CLEAN) held a protest on December 14 in front of Christmas shoppers in Adelaide's Rundle Mall, before marching to Santos HQ. Their message to the SA state government was: "No to unconventional gas - Yes to renewables".

The text below is a speech given at the protest by CLEAN activist Gemma Weedall.

The Climate Emergency Action Network rejects shale gas for three basic reasons.

First reason: Shale gas is a fossil fuel. Climate scientists are urging the world to take radical action to cut greenhouse gas emissions to avoid climate catastrophe. This means swiftly phasing out all fossil fuel use, so that global greenhouse emissions peak within the next few years, then begin a rapid decline.

If we don’t do this, we risk passing climate tipping points that will see huge extra amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere – potentially taking us beyond a point of no return and into dangerous climate conditions with severe consequences for humanity.

Second reason for rejecting shale gas: it's a dirty, dirty fossil fuel. Extracted and delivered using present technology, shale gas appears to have the worst warming effects of any fossil energy source, including coal. The only source in the same league is coal seam gas.

The methane that makes up most of shale gas (and coal seam gas too) is a very powerful greenhouse pollutant. Over 100 years, methane has about 25 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

A much better way of looking at the effects of methane, though, is to consider its impacts over 20 years. That's because the next 20 years will probably decide whether our climate gets pushed past a series of tipping points. Over 20 years, methane has a warming effect at least 72 times that of carbon dioxide.

Shale gas corporations try to pretend that there’s almost no leakage of methane in shale gas production. But one independent study estimated between 3.6% and 7.9% of the shale gas extracted leaks into the atmosphere. If it's only 3%, that makes electricity generated using shale gas roughly twice as polluting as electricity from coal – in reality, it’s likely to be worse.

Third reason: shale gas extraction can do serious damage to the local environment. Shale is an impervious sedimentary rock. To get the gas out of it, you have to open up cracks in the shale by pumping down a high-pressure mix of water, sand and various chemicals. The process is known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Exactly which chemicals are used is normally kept secret, but it's clear that some of them are highly poisonous, and/or cancer-causing.

Fracking is a hit-or-miss business, and pathways can easily open up that allow gas to flow straight to the atmosphere, missing the well entirely. Too bad about the climate.

Meanwhile the fracking chemicals, plus poisonous hydrocarbons from the shale, can reach underground water.

The energy corporations might argue that there's no need to worry about groundwater in remote regions like Moomba, where almost no-one lives. They should try telling that to the pastoralists, because in the US, farmers in shale gas regions are finding that the water from their bores now kills their stock.

For all of these reasons, shale gas is a disaster. What makes it more unforgivable is that a viable and brilliant alternative exists for providing energy to our state.

We could build the first solar thermal power station in Australia right here in South Australia, at Port Augusta, replacing the existing coal fired power stations there. This could provide clean, renewable baseload energy 24 hours a day, as well as creating large numbers of jobs and alleviating health impacts for the local community.

So what can we say about the shale gas magnates - and fossil fuel bosses in general? Of which Santos CEO and bosses are way up there. Socially responsible? Friends of the environment? Defenders of civilisation?

I like to think of them in these terms. They're on board the Titanic, steaming across the Atlantic. And they're in the ship's casino.

Rich and influential, they could be up on the bridge, pleading with the captain to slow down and watch out for icebergs. But no - they're making a killing. No way in the world are they going to quit the blackjack tables while their winning streak lasts and they're raking it in.

The icebergs? They'll think about them when they get to New York.

Looks like it’s up to all of us to stop this ship from sinking.

Meanwhile, the South Australian government recently launched their "Road Map for Unconventional Gas" – a plan to roll out new unconventional gas projects in our state, starting with shale gas, with the full support of irresponsible corporations like Santos.

To take SA in this direction in the context of a climate emergency, and when there are viable renewable alternatives available is nothing short of despicable. Condemning us to climate disaster? To Santos and the state government, I say "No Fracking Way!"