Here’s an interview with Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, Senior Advisor to the National Toxics Network and co-chair of the International POPS Network (Persistent Organic Pollutants), who digs into the chemicals that are part of coal seam gas mining.
Chemicals are both used and released as part of coal seam gas mining and, while their effects are played down by the industry some have not even been investigated by the national regulator. The industry acknowledges using some 46 chemicals and the National Toxics Network has identified some 23 common ones.
The BTEX chemical group consist of benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene are used in the drilling process but are also naturally occurring toxic compounds in the coal seam. While these chemicals are to be banned from use in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) they are not banned in the drilling process and the fact that they are released in the extraction process is overlooked.
Just a few weeks ago Arrow Energy announced that BTEX had contaminated five out of their 14 monitoring wells and in some cases the benzene levels were up to 15 times the drinking water standard. Benzene is associated with leukaemia, ethyl benzene is a carcinogen and the others BTEX chemicals affect central nervous systems.
The actual drilling of the bore well requires a lot of lubricants as well as biocides to stop bacterial build up, along with emulsifiers and surfactants to improve the drilling. Once the gas well has been drilled, then hydraulic fracturing can take place, a process requiring very high pressure and a solution of water, sand and fracking chemicals to be pumped into the seam to open the mcracks or ‘cleats’ in the coal seam and allow the gas to escape.
This process takes out a lot of the groundwater found in the coal seam and enables the BTEX in the coal seam to escape, along with heavy metals and radioactive substances. The waste water that escapes can be contaminated with barium, and radioactive thorium, as well as cadmium, other heavy metals and BTEX.
Over the life of one coal seam gas well, up to 18,5000 kg of chemicals can be pumped into it to assist hydraulic fracturing with some 7,500 kg remaining in the seam itself.
This is what risks the aquifers that surround the wells. There is already evidence of water contamination by methane in the USA, along with Australian incidents of BTEX contamination of bore water and noxious air emissions. Anecdotally, health issues are arising from people living close to gas wells, emphasising Dr Lloyd-Smith’s call for greater government monitoring of the industry.
All is not well? On 17 May 2011, the Sugarloaf 3 gas well near Glen Alpine, (Campbelltown region) began unexpectedly spewing a soapy mist high into the air. Click here for video and news report The incident was was described by an onlooker as ‘A foamy, gassy substance started shooting into the air (and) after five minutes a spray of foamy liquid was spurting about 10m high and blowing back towards the water supply canal’. According to AGL spokeperson this incident had no environmental impacts and they have now taken steps to safeguard against this type of incident happening again. Souce: http://macarthur-chronicle-campbelltown.whereilive.com.au/news/story/agl-study-shows-gas-well-leak-to-be-harmless/
Many of the chemicals used in coal seam gas mining are known skin irritants, so rashes that clear up when people leave a property to go on holiday, for example, are a worry. Other chemicals used in coal seam gas extraction are volatiles or semi-volatiles, known for creating respiratory problems, headaches and nose bleeds.
While those links are yet to be proved in Australia, it needs governments and health agencies to instigate proper air monitoring. Testing in America has detected very high pollutant levels in air up to 3,000 times the safety levels. Indeed, in America, there are questions about why gas mining is exempt from the federal government’s Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act and, while some states have moved to ban hydraulic fracturing, there is little being done to address the chemical issues.
Both South Africa and Europe are moving towards a ban on hydraulic fracturing and the first UK well, in Brighton, was closed because of instability in the earth, mirroring the earth tremors that have occurred in gas wells in central states of the USA, which are moving towards bans because of concerns over earth stability. Even more staggering is the fact that one coal seam gas well can produce five tons of salt every ten days and one megalitre of contaminated water, some of which is then reused in the drilling process at great risk to aquifers. The use of reverse osmosis as a treatment for these contaminants is not only energy guzzling but does not remove all the contaminants.
Unintentional methane leakage from coal seam gas wells: how much? Methane is 20 to30 times more potent a green house gas than carbon dioxide. Click here for video and story. Souce: http://www.northernstar.com.au/story/2011/02/24/local-gas-wells-found-leaking-metgasco-lismore/
This, combined with intentional venting and methane leaks, calls into question the notion that coal seam gas is a climate friendly, transitional fuel. Indeed, the total pollutant effects of coal compared to coal seam gas are minimal, in the most recent study, in the order of 7% less greenhouse gases and that’s without factoring in the electricity used in the production and transport activities or methane leakage from the seam itself.
Even industry studies recognise that coal seam gas is only 15% cleaner than diesel and petrol and, because they do not accept that there is a problem with methane emissions from the vents, pipes and condensate tanks, they play down those emissions, even though some Queensland wells bubble methane.
I’ve fracked everywhere…. enjoy another CSG song – this one is a parody by Back Deck Rehearsal based on I’ve been everywhere. Click here to access website and song.
The hype and public relations that advertises coal seam gas as clean and green is industry driven, sidelining the real science and public information. The federal government’s Water Commission has already stated that any damage to the Great Artesian Basin will take up to 1,000 years to repair. The risks for a nation that relies on water are great.
Perhaps more chilling is the fact that aerial photographs of places like Chinchilla, Tara and Dalby in Queensland show the fragmentation of the landscape where gas wells are in place.
A stark reminder that as far as coal seam gas goes, all is not well.
Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Summary text prepared by Victor Barry, October 2011.