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Current coal seam gas approach not covering risks

28 March, 2012

Australia would greatly benefit from a "slow down and learn approach" to managing possible risks from coal seam gas extraction given the near impossible challenge of modelling its impacts, argues Professor Alan Randall from the University of Sydney.

"The grand Australian coal seam gas project is just getting started, so there is still the opportunity to slow things down, learn more about its impacts and apply what is learned to control the direction, scale and speed of future development," says Randall, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University.

In an article to be published in the forthcoming edition of the Environment and Planning Law Journal, Randall said: "Regulatory approaches are continuing to evolve but I am suggesting something much more comprehensive than anything currently under serious consideration."

Coal seam gas is trapped in pores inside the coal and held in place by large volumes of water. It is released by withdrawing this water, producing huge volumes of waste water (an estimated 300 gigalitres annually) which is very salty.

"Coal seam gas development (CSG) has a much greater footprint on the land and environment than the fairly modest area devoted to its well-heads would suggest, given the need for accompanying infrastructure such as roads, pipes, processing and waste storage and treatment facilities," he said.

"It will impact rural and community ways of life and reduce agricultural productivity everywhere it operates."

While the necessary modelling exercise for CSG would be enormous, the problem goes beyond that, according to Professor Randall. The cumulative shock to the system from CSG will be so large that standard modelling methods, better suited to modelling marginal changes, will be increasingly inaccurate and perhaps literally misdirected.

"The scale of planned CSG development is far beyond anything yet experienced. It is not just that we have not convincingly modelled the cumulative impacts of projected groundwater withdrawals for CSG, we simply don't know how to do it for shocks as great as CSG will create," he said.

The key elements of a "slow down and learn" approach to CSG, as outlined by Professor Randall, would include curtailing CSG expansion until the completion of in-depth scientific studies and analysis of the impacts of existing CSG extraction technology on soil, the surface and the aquifers and developed and tested models of cumulative impact including: a study of impacts on groundwater; research to design state-of-the-art and cost-effective waste water treatment technologies, and a comprehensive plan to direct, manage and control future expansion of CSG extraction.

In addition an integrated risk management approach to CSG would require adequate regulatory protections at the project level for future and, where feasible, existing projects.

"Of course, slowing down future CSG development will entail opportunity costs in the form of foregone economic benefits, but these costs could be less than we might think," Professor Randall said.

"It will take some time until we know better how to identify projects that entail manageable risks, how to manage those risks and where to draw the line on unacceptable risks. But when we do, the gas will still be there and depending on developments in energy markets, it may be even more valuable later than it is now.

"If the 'slow down and learn' approach seems rather banal, compare it with adaptive management, which seems to be the Australian regulatory answer to the issue of unpredictable impact.

"Adaptive management is essentially reactive - basically, feeling our way in the dark - and is a perfectly acceptable trial-and-error approach to unanticipated problems.

"Defaulting to adaptive management in the case of CSG, where we still have time to be proactive, is more like standing aside while the lights go out and then feeling our way in the dark," Professor Randall said.

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Monique Wright | Friday, March 30, 2012, 1:14 PM
Yes we do need to slow down on the whole Coal Seam Gas Campaign as there are extreme side effects to the land and risks to the towns surrounding the wells as documented in the film "Gas Lands". When water is pushed into the ground - "fracking" it is mixed with many toxic chemicals, which then get into the land and into our water supply. The public need to be aware of all the risks not just believe the glossy, high budget advertising campaigns
Tony Gilbert | Sunday, April 1, 2012, 9:51 PM
Just what is the rush! The gas, and for that matter coal, iron ore, oil and the whole host of minerals which we seem hell bent on retrieving in the shortest possible time, have been there for millions of years, and they will keep, providing that they remain undisturbed, without losing quality for many hundreds of thousands more. We must stop thinking of the future in terms of one or two hundred years and start planning for tens of thousands of years.How do we get this message through to governments and influential think tanks etc . Interesting to consider that no projections ever seem to go beyond 2 to 300 years and that is only 3 lifetimes! How incredibly selfish, and stupid, can we be? Happy to discuss what steps we can take to get this message over.
Rhonda De Stefano | Monday, April 2, 2012, 1:23 PM
At last some sense on this issue! The impacts need to be thoroughly researched before we do something that may do more harm than good. We cannot afford a reduction in resources for growing food and supplying potable water. Also there needs to be a more sensible approach to extracting resources than we currently have. What about future generations? Are we intending to use what is easily available and not care how our grandchildren and beyond will source theirs? These coal reserves took 50 million years to generate, so once it's gone, that's it!
Graeme | Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 1:30 PM
I am not a greenie and I am for development. However, there is a lot of let's go for the dollar and everything else will be OK going on out there. Governments of both persuasions seem to be addicted to monetary gains. There is to much qualitative evidence out there that says that CSG is a very high risk exercise. We do need to take a break and properly investigate the impacts. The amount of water being used is incredible. On the one hand we are trying to kill off agriculture in the Murray Darling basin and on the other hand water is of no consequence if it's to do with CSG mining! It definately needs proper investigation.