Pollution and Profit

Finally, some great news for those trying to keep their backyards free of coal seam gas wells. In world-first research, two scientists from Southern Cross University, Dr Isaac Santos & Dr Damien Maher, have found evidence of extremely high levels of atmospheric methane near coal seam gas (CSG) fields. Using a high-precision methane detector, Santos & Maher took thousands of air samples between Lismore (in northern New South Wales) and Tara (in southern Queensland), creating a pretty clear picture of methane levels across the region.

Tara is the largest CSG field in Australia and has been a hub of gas production for a few years now, whereas the Northern Rivers region (near Lismore) has lots of ‘natural’ or non-CSG methane producers, such as natural wetlands, sewage treatment plants, an airport and plenty of cattle. In northern New South Wales, the scientists found atmospheric methane concentration never rose higher than 2.1 ppm (natural background levels are around 1.8 ppm). However, around Tara, the methane levels went up as high as 6.9 ppm, with no recorded values below 2 ppm in this region.

Why is this important? Well, methane is a greenhouse gas, and can be more powerful than carbon dioxide over short timescales (which is very important when considering carbon emissions – even if we stop emitting tomorrow, what we’ve emitted up until today will continue to affect the atmosphere for the next few decades). Before these data were released, methane’s burgeoning presence in the atmosphere had been blamed on cows and rubbish tips, both of which have been around since civilisation began. Even more interestingly, supporters of CSG claim that developing this industry will reduce national greenhouse gas emissions.

So this research is pretty exciting for a lot of reasons (despite what the Commonwealth Minister for Resources & Energy would have you believe). Santos & Maher have recently submitted papers presenting their results to peer-reviewed journals, where they are currently undergoing such review (I hope their research doesn’t take as long as this to reach publication). You can watch part of a public lecture they delivered presenting some of their main results here.

We can only hope that scientific evidence prevails over profit margins, both here and overseas, considering greenhouse gas emissions hit a record high last year. Even countries like the UK, which has a moratorium on fracking because of the tectonic disruptions they suffered after earlier CSG explorations, are now swaying to the siren’s song. How sad.

(Read an English perspective here by The Guardian’s Damian Carrington.)

Ironically, our Hon Minister’s words (as quoted here) are most appropriate, only with a completely different meaning:

In terms of this debate, let’s ensure that it is of scientific nature, rather than [listen to] people who are trying to score political [or economic] points without proper consideration of the best interests of the broader community.

It's not their fault.
It’s not their fault.

© Manu Saunders 2012

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