In August 2012, two Australian research scientists attached a highly sensitive spectrometer to a vehicle with a GPS tracker and took a 700 kilometre drive around gas fields in Queensland.
Starting at 3.30am in the morning, Dr Isaac Santos and Dr Damien Maher, of Southern Cross University, wanted to measure the levels of methane and carbon dioxide in the air around coal seam gas fields operated by BG Group, formerly known as British Gas.
Twelve hours of driving took them past fields with about 300 wells that tap coal seams to release gas, often with the help of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology.
They also drove past other areas where you might expect levels of methane to be high such as wetlands, fields of cows and sewage treatment plants.
The researchers found methane levels at the gas fields were triple the background levels.
The chemical fingerprints of the methane they detected near the gasfields — known as isotopic signatures — matched those from the gas produced from the wells.
Methane is important because as a greenhouse gas it is more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide over the course of a century.
Santos and Maher made their findings public at a forum and in a submission to the federal government. They also sent them to a journal for peer review.
Predictably, the industry group Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) attacked the scientists claiming — wrongly — that they had targeted the gas fields while ignoring other potential sources of methane.
At that time the Federal Resources Minister was Martin Ferguson.
He joined in the attack on the scientists, characterising them as unprofessional media opportunists — a claim he had made without having actually read the scientists’ submission.
Data from this study indicates that unconventional gas may drive large-scale increases in atmospheric CH4 (methane) and CO2 concentrations, which need to be accounted for when determining the net [greenhouse gas] impact of using unconventional gas sources…
Considering the lack of previous similar studies in Australia, the identified hotspots of GHGs and the distinct isotopic signature within the Tara gas field demonstrate the need to fully quantify GHG emissions before, during and after CSG exploration commences in individual gas fields.
The findings are identical to the initial publicized research. The response from APPEA is similarly identical.
The gas industry lobby group has again attacked the scientists, repeating the criticisms addressed two years previously as if time had stood still.
Astonishingly, APPEA reported it had written to Southern Cross University Vice Chancellor Peter Lee two years ago with a series of questions, but “no response was ever received”.
In fact, DeSmogBlog understands Lee wrote back to APPEA on 20 November 2012, defending the work of the scientists at his university and defending their right to speak about what they had found.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time that Lee had written back, rejected APPEA’s assertions and also accused them of issuing a “misleading” press release.
According to APPEA, the group asked four questions of the researchers and their findings. The questions seem to me to be more an effort to produce doubt, rather than to produce responses. Repeating them now when all the answers are in plain sight adds to this suspicion.
APPEA first asked if the work was being peer reviewed – the answer to that now seems clear.
APPEA asked if the university would “provide GPS data highlighting exactly where and how many readings/measurements were recorded in the Tara area, on which roads and when”.
The original submission clearly shows detailed maps of where the measurements were taken. Maher told DeSmogBlog that the university had also shared GPS and data with the Queensland state government’s GasFields Commission. One of the commissioners is Rick Wilkinson, the chief technical officer at APPEA.
APPEA asked if the researchers had taken into account “other potential sources of emissions such as naturally-occurring hydrocarbon seeps” even though it was made clear in the original submission that the researchers had done this by taking measurements at locations including “wetland, sewage treatment plant, landfill, urban area and a bushfire”.
We surveyed 100’s of km’s inside and outside of the gas fields. The high methane concentrations were not found directly outside of the gasfield, in spite of identical geology and topography, etc.
Our research cannot definitively say how the gas is escaping to the atmosphere. What we can say is that it had the identical chemical fingerprint to the gas within the coal seam, and that we did not find any similarly elevated concentrations directly outside of the gas field, i.e. as soon as we drove out of the gas field the CH4 (methane) concentrations returned to near background levels for 100s of kilometres.
The data indicates that [the increased levels of methane] is related to some of the activities or infrastructure within the gas field which is leading to gas of an identical chemical fingerprint to CSG being released to the atmosphere.
One key claim by the gas industry is that their product emits less greenhouse gases than coal when used for generating electricity.
But critics cite other studies which suggest that when so called “fugitive emissions” are taken into account, such as leaks at well heads, pipelines and production facilities, the gas is just as bad for the climate as coal.
An unrelated study published by the government science agency CSIRO surveyed 43 coal seam gas wells, mostly in Queensland. The study found that “only three showed no emissions” of methane, but said the levels were “very low”.
However, the study stressed the sample “represent less than 1 % of the 5,000 CSG wells across Australia” and that “many more wells are likely to be drilled over the next few years”.
The study also said there were “many other potential emission points throughout the gas production and distribution chain” that had not been examined.
Finally, APPEA said it had asked if “other potential sources of emissions such as large scale feedlots” had been taken into account. A section of the journal paper read that during the surveys:
… a number of other potential point sources were observed including the following: vehicle emissions (from passing cars), wetlands, a combined sewage treatment plant and landfill site, an abattoir and cattle holding complex, urban areas, and a bushfire.
One central claim APPEA has made in relation to the elevated levels of methane is to suggest that the gas around the coal seams is also escaping though natural seeps in the ground, and so this could be the key source of the emissions rather than elevated levels caused by drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
No studies of the atmospheric concentrations of methane or carbon dioxide were carried out in the gasfields before the industry boom centred on Queensland where $60 billion of projects are being rolled out.
But APPEA points to a “historical data search” that had identified natural gas seeps “from the landscape” in major coal basins in Queensland “prior to the current onshore gas industry boom”.
However, these measurements were taken in soils rather than in the atmosphere. Maher and Santos say this gas in soils can become oxidized (turned into CO2) once it reaches the atmosphere.
Dr Santos told DeSmogBlog:
These soil gas observations are not comparable to our study in the open atmosphere.
The soil gas data reports were initially confidential, and are not peer reviewed. This soil gas work was designed as a CSG exploration tool – not as a baseline study to assess long term environmental impacts.
High soil gas methane is not necessarily good evidence of gas seeps – we can find high CH4 in soil gas in many locations.
And what of Martin Ferguson, the Federal Minister who two years ago was so critical of the research and the researchers?
Ferguson is no longer an MP. These days he sits on the board of BG Group, the operator of the Tara gasfield under scrutiny, and is the chairman of an APPEA advisory group.
Image credit: Isaac Santos, left, and Damien Maher. Credit: Southern Cross University