Fracking site wellhead

Remaining mining equipment at fracking site

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

By Alex Wonhas, CSIRO

Can you match the following three statements with the answers just below?

  1. Coal seam gas is bad for the environment and we should all protest against its use.
  2. Genetically modified foods are a part of multinational plans to take over the world’s food supply.
  3. Wind farms are dangerous to human health and should be restricted.

a) Yes, everyone knows it is bad news.
b) Well, I used to think that, but now I wonder if I was being manipulated by interest groups playing upon my emotions.
c) I’m not really sure about that. I think there is more misinformation than information around.

I’m guessing if you passed these questions around at your family dinner table, you’d match different statements with different answers. This is largely because we tend to look for answers that suit our views – and often form our views based on what our “tribe” thinks.

But imagine a new technology came along – let’s call it Technology X – that could provide a source of energy for Australia, but which comes with social and environmental impacts. How would you form your opinion on it?

You might consider doing your own research, but be quickly overwhelmed by the amount of information for and against, and not know quite what to believe. At that point you might look for the opinion of somebody you trusted, or make a decision based on your intuition. In this article I encourage you to form your own opinion based on your own and independent assessment of the facts.

Our rational and emotional brains

Our intuition is a useful thing that has served us well for tens of thousands of years, keeping us from wandering out of our warm caves into the dark and dangers of the night – but it is something that has become less suited to the modern high-technology world.

We like to think we are rational beings. But when faced with uncertainty, we still have a tendency to make decisions based on emotions, before looking for information to support our decision; even sticking with that decision when data proves it is wrong.

What if we were able to put that aside and make decisions on contentious issues, such as coal seam gas, based on our own individual assessment of the data?

What is conventional versus non-conventional gas?. The Grattan Institute, Getting Gas Right, June 2013.

As with any issue, there are interest groups on all sides that would have you believe that they are the only people providing a true interpretation of the data.

Yet despite differences on interpretations, there are some common things we should be able to agree on about unconventional forms of gas, including coal seam gas and the process of hydraulic fracturing (often nicknamed fracking or fraccing). Some of these coal seam gas facts include that:

  • There are clear benefits and there are clear risks.
  • There are many overstated benefits and there are many over-stated risks.
  • There are impacts on the economy, environment and communities, and it is not really possible to talk about one without including the others.
  • Despite all the things we know, there are still some unknowns.

Putting bad science to the test

A healthy approach to any contentious issue is to treat all information as possibly coming from a self-interested point of view, until you can confirm it or not.

There are some great resources for testing the claims of dubious alternative medicines, such as Quack Watch and of the claims of major pharmaceutical companies such as Bad Science. But where do you go to test the claims being made about unconventional gas?

I’d start by saying look at the calibre of the data, rather than the source. What studies support the statements being made? Who conducted them? Where were they published? Has any independent source agreed with the claims, or disputed them? When figures are given, do they give all the information needed?

As well as giving this scrutiny to statements you’re a bit uncertain of, it’s also useful to apply it to those that appeal to you.

Deciding whether coal seam gas is good or bad is wholly dependent on the individual’s definition of the words “good” or “bad”.

It is in the interests of the industry to make you believe that coal seam gas is good for Australia, while the opposite is true for other groups. The role of scientists, and organisations such as the CSIRO, is to act as an honest broker and try to bring some clarity to the debate.

We know that coal seam gas can be used as a source of energy and that Australia has vast reserves. But we also know that its development can have environmental and socio-economic impacts on our rural communities.

CSIRO’s aim is to inform the community, government and industry about the risks and opportunities that stem from developing Australia’s unconventional gas resources.

It is a complex issue, and a divisive one. There are things we know and there are things we don’t.

So what would you like to know? Please leave your questions and comments below, and let’s start the discussion.

Alex Wonhas will be available between 3-4pm AEST today (Tuesday 22nd July) to answer your questions about coal seam gas, fracking, or other issues related to unconventional gas.

Alex Wonhas oversees a team that receives funding from the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), which is a collaborative vehicle co-funded by CSIRO, Australia Pacific LNG Pty Ltd and QGC to undertake research that addresses the social and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industry. The partners in GISERA have invested more than A$14 million over five years to research the environmental, social and economic impacts of the natural gas industry. GISERA projects are overseen by an independent and publicly transparent Research Advisory Committee and made publicly available after undergoing CSIRO’s peer-review process.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


  1. Sorry Alex, i posted on the main CSIRO FB Page as well. Back here though I was out with a team testing water the other day and I think it is important for your team to know that there are now a rapidly increasing number of water bores next to and nearby the bubbling river sit that are now forcefully blowing gas. When i say forcefully I mean rumbling and even catching fire at the surface and has to be smothered to be put out. These owners also maintain there was no gas, or at least no significant gas prior to the industry drilling, I am happy to point your team at these land owners if you are interested. Please treat this as a matter of urgency as the deterioration is alarming and I feel no logical precautionary principle is being followed regarding water, air and food security. Thanks in advance brian monk

  2. Why is the evidence being ignored about the leaking evaporative ponds into 3 separate aquifers in the Pilliga forest NSW by Santos? There have been over 35 separate reported incidents from leaks, spills etc in the history of exploration mining here. It’s only EXPLORATION! What happens if they get approval for the 850 wells in the PEL 238? And then spread to the other districts they have licences over? Has CSIRO done testing (or going too) to show the true life of a gas well? Industry figures are showing 1 in 20 fail (leak) straight away and 50% fail in 30 years. That’s a lot of wells leaking chemicals, heavy metals and methane back into the Great Artesian Basin which we rely on to water our crops and drinking water for both livestock and humans. It doesn’t just affect small country towns but everyone (including people in the city) that comes in contact with meat, dairy and cereal foods. Also, have CSIRO conducted studies (or going too) on the health effects of VOC’s emitted by gas flaring and venting (as shown by the effected people of Tara QLD – seizures, fits, 3 day nose bleeds etc)?
    Please reply as I am concerned that we are going too fast with a lack of understanding of the later effects on the land, water, air and our future.

  3. Given that there are often significant social and environmental costs associated with unconventional gas, how is it a viable option compared to renewable energies such as solar and wind (which have much less of an impact)?

  4. Has the CSIRO come to any conclusion as to what has caused the Coal Seam Gas to bubble massively into the Condamine River. I might add the land owners on both sides of the bubbling, clearly shown in documentaries and on youtube state that it never bubbled there before the CSG industry drilled near by. I believe the CSIRO has confirmed this is CSG as the Qld Gov has confirmed it.

  5. I guess under “Putting bad science to the test” and inferring that CSIRO is an “honest broker”, some mention should have been made of looking at funding sources: “Alex Wonhas oversees a team that receives funding from the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), which is a collaborative vehicle co-funded by CSIRO, Australia Pacific LNG Pty Ltd and QGC to undertake research that addresses the social and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industry”. So funding from a very pro-CSG government and 2 gas companies. Oh please…….

    1. Science is currently being done on the health impacts of the CSG industry but I’m not seeing the CSIRO or the Qld or Au Government doing any. I would suggest that the science or absolute lack of it behind the Qld Gov health report on CSG should be investigated. The company orders the sampling, reports on the sampling and pays for a company to write a report on the sampling. And not one human body was tested. Is that medicine or science, I think not.

      1. Ive always felt it is like going to a crime scene and giving the criminal the fingerprint kit and say “go find the evidence”. Independent testing away from political and big business influence is needed.

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