A year ago I reviewed some of the impacts of coal seam gas and fracking in Queensland and concluded
“The national agenda today must be to limit the use of coal and to move to alternate forms of energy which do not affect our health. Fracking does not fit into this agenda”.
There was not much press interest the topic and so I published the article on the DEA web site.
How times have changed!
Today there is not a day’s media without coal seam gas; disinterest has changed to regular phone calls to DEA asking for articles. During the year we have published numerous articles and delivered many talks. We played a key role in achieving a senate committee and in providing the only submission from the medical profession to this Committee before which we appear next Friday
It is perhaps time to take stock and analyse what remains to be done.
A summary of the health impacts
Coal seam gas is a fossil fuel and so increases greenhouse emissions. Since it is composed of methane its combustion results in much less carbon dioxide than coal so it is pushed by industry and governments as an interim fuel in the conversion to renewable energy. The cased against this is:
• Large scale usage as an interim fuel will still increase the earth’s rise in temperature above 3 degrees. This is the most important health impact
• Gas fired power stations have a life span of 30-40 years and investors will be reluctant to abandon this investment.
• Fugitive emissions (leaks) occur at the wells and during distribution which greatly reduce the advantages of methane combustion; methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
• The International Energy Agency has warned that the investment in coal seam gas, which is cheap in infrastructure and profitable, is crowding out the investment in renewable energy
• None of these issues have been analysed by state governments n their rush to sign up projects and pocket royalties. As far as we can determine none have been considered in any of the environmental processes carried out in Queensland and New South Wales.
CSG mining threatens water supplies both in the volume of usage and in the possibility of contamination of aquifers. The effluent is salty and contaminated. These pose health hazards.
• Water authorities expressed concerns before many contracts were signed and have increased their concerns recently. Concerns have been expressed by financial institutions over risks from contamination
• Some chemicals used in fracking are potentially carcinogenic in the long term and other chemicals have not been properly assessed by NICNAS
• When fracking is not used there remains the potential for the effluent to contain similar chemicals like those used in fracking derived from the coal seams. Heavy metals are also present.
• Potential will always remain for contamination of aquifers. In questioning by Senator Heffernan at the senate inquiry, the industry has admitted that however good the engineering this potential remains and there is no remedy for a disrupted aquifer.
• The US EPA is investigating the health complaints of large numbers of individuals from shale gas mining areas
• The hydrology of the great Artesian Basin is poorly understood and a consensus is developing that contamination of its potable water should not be risked
CSG mining is occurring or is proposed on prime agricultural land. This is a health issue:
• In a world with increasingly constrained food resources Australian food production will be increasingly important.
• Productivity will be reduced by encroachment by mining and by contamination of land and crops.
• These impacts are recognised belatedly by the Queensland government’s attempts to quarantine prime agricultural land
Community impacts on health
• Many stable rural communities are being disrupted by these developments with resulting stress and breakdown of social cohesion.
• Coal seam gas mining is part of the mining boom bubble which is conferring Dutch disease on the wider community and jobs are being sacrificed in tourism and agriculture for transient employment in mining
What should be done?
Regulation and monitoring of health issues:
• DEA has proposed a moratorium
• This is bedevilled by complicated mining and exploration acts and differing assessment processes in each state
• Reform of process under a federal formula is urgently needed, this will be difficult under persistent dysfunctional state-federal relationships but health will suffer without it
• DEA has recommended a federal health impact assessment process, paid by industry but independent.
All these issues are covered in detail in the DEA submission to the Senate
The NSW government has set up a further enquiry to which DEA will be making a submission: