RISK assessments for the coal seam gas (CSG) industry only tell half the story and fail to consider catastrophic events such as floods, an independent expert has warned.
Dr Stuart Khan, an environmental engineer and water quality expert from the University of NSW, has issued perhaps the starkest and most plaintive warnings to date about inherent risks of CSG exploration and extraction.
But he fears nobody’s listening.
“We are not giving adequate thought to what could go wrong – unforeseen things such as an earthquake, vandalism, which is possible in a controversial industry, human error, equipment malfunction. The water industry has learned in the last decade these things are drivers of hazardous events,” he said.
And while there has been much hue and cry about the potential adverse effects of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), with both the chemicals and fracking currently banned in NSW, Dr Khan pointed out that deep under the earth these naturally occurring toxic substances were plentiful.
CSG activities could mobilise benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX) along with chromium, strontium, lead, iron, zinc, arsenic, fluoride and selenium, and promote bacterial growth.
Naturally occurring substances in coal seams include traced elements such as mercury, arsenic and lead, and, in some locations, radioisotopes such as radium, thorium and uranium, he said.
“People think about the chemicals used in fracking fluids, but the major issue is the chemicals you mobilise by changing the chemistry from what was insoluble and very stable, sitting there for millions of years, and suddenly it ends up in the water,” he told The Land.
Dr Kahn made a 15-page submission to the NSW Upper House CSG inquiry but said the inquiry’s final report had missed the mark.
It didn’t address the fact NSW government regulators and policy-makers were vastly under-resourced with “with a severe lack of guidance, support, knowledge and experience for assessing and overseeing the safe management of CSG activities”, he said.
When Dr Khan started receiving phone calls from perplexed officials, he realised there was not sufficient knowledge or experience among those charged with regulating the industry.
“I was getting calls from regulators, environmental agencies, because proposals (for CSG) were landing on their desk and there was no experience or knowledge.”
Tightening the draft coal of practice for CCS was meaningless, as it was little more than a glossy brochure with the main focus being on how to politely interact with landholders, he said.
“It contains no serious insights or requirements for assessing and managing risks to groundwater or surface water supplies.”
He said national guidelines should be developed instead.
He said the federal government’s independent scientific committee was a good first step because it showed issues surrounding CSG were being taken seriously.
“There needs to be realistic acceptance there are risks that need to be taken seriously to be managed well.”