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. I think we should be using gas to replace coal not as an additional source of energy. The offshore gas deposits have a much smaller impact on we humans but are more expensive to bring to market which can reduce profits. Unconventional oil & gas exploitation, including CSG,tar sands & shale oil are the most obnoxious forms and only become profitable when energy prices rise and a profit can be turned, often at a major ongoing cost to the environment.
    The greater the use of alternative energy sources the less environmental damage we inflict.
    We should be focusing more on efficiency as the world’s population increases as does the power consumption per person with standards of living increases and our situation spirals downward.
    Greater population control and compulsory triple bottom line economics which do not rely only on growth & profit may help our longevity on earth when we know “THERE IS NO PLANET B” or method of getting there that can save us.
    What can be done to reduce greed in all it’s forms?

  2. There is one definite negative; CO2, the greenhouse gas that we produce by continuing to use fossil fuels. I would rather see nuclear power plants than any fossil fuel burner. But I have read two Helen Caldecott’s books and similar and “The truth about Chernobyl” and “Chernobyl”, so I am not worried about reactors that comply with IAEA rules. It didn’t.
    I was amused by the journalist covering Fukushima forced to bunk in a luxury mountain spa resort where the radiation fallout was higher than near the exclusion area and the bus load of television journalists who breached the exclusion zone, whereupon the silent Geiger counter suddenly started beeping. Nuclear power is extremely dangerous when you believe the opponents.

  3. Factors affecting my prejudice against CSG are:

    1) aerial photos of the road and pipeline degraded woodland or farmland required to harvest CSG
    2) my guess at the inevitability of leaks across those networks of wells, pipes and valves and complications of bushfire.
    3) dismay at governments grasping for any alternative to reducing GHG emissions by adopting renewable energy, especially since CSG is mostly exported to pollute the global atmosphere with GHG overseas, unchecked by Australian standards.
    4) If industries continue to insist on exploiting every hydrocarbon “resource”, we can never stabilise global GHG concentrations. We must recognise that while ever these hydrocarbons are utilised by burning, they do not constitute a viable resource.
    5) Mindless adoption of US conventions for networked bores, fracking and above-ground harvesting of “unconventional gasses” without exploring alternative models, eg. conversiont of gassy coal mines to gas mines with horizontally drilled radial bores, collection manifolds, storage tanks, condensate separators and power-producing ventilation systems, all totally underground as previously used for safety degassing during coal production.
    6) Neither governments nor industry are interested in utilising CSG with non-polluting processes, such as producing hydrogen and structurally useful forms of elemental carbon by metal-oxide-catalysed pyrolysis with concentrated solar heat.

    I am afraid that research focussed on isotopic measurements and geological models will not answer the kind of questions that bother me.

  4. Brian, you will have to forward the names of the affected people to Alex, and Alex, you will be pleased to report on what you have found. Hmmm?

  5. Thanks Brian for raising the issue of gas bubbling up in the Condamine River. There is certainly anecdotal evidence that gas has been escaping into the river for decades and that the current bubbling has in fact been occurring for a very long time. So the questions we need to answer include (but may not be limited to):
    (a) Where does this gas come from?
    (b) Are gas emissions increasing or not?
    (c) If emissions are increasing, what is causing this?

    Answering these questions is an active area of research for us. Unfortunately, the final, peer reviewed work is not yet publicly available, which is the minimum quality bar we’re setting for ourselves. However in case it is helpful though, I can outline the approaches we’re taking to address these questions. Question (a) regarding the source can be answered by analysing the composition of the gas (specifically the types of isotopes it consists of). Our preliminary results show that the gas is likely to come from fossil (i.e. coal seam) not biogenic sources (i.e. decomposing biological matter). But this doesn’t necessarily mean CSG developments are responsible. This region has many seeps and the bubbling in the river could very well be a natural phenomenon , eg caused by gas escaping via the naturally occurring fault line in the area. Such natural seeps in coal seam gas regions are not unusual. This is where question (b) becomes relevant that looks at changes over time. We’re currently developing a method to measure baseline methane emissions in this area before large scale gas production occurs. By comparing this baseline against any future measurements, we can then determine whether the flow of gas is increasing or not. This measurement though does not yet answer question (c) regarding the cause of changes, which could be man-made or again natural (eg as a result of the re-charge of aquifers since the drought has broken). At this stage, we haven’t seen evidence that the nearby coal seam gas developments have caused an increased release of methane. Given the distance of the current production wells (approximately 5 km) and exploration wells (approximately 1 km) to the river, we think it is unlikely for them to be the cause. But as you can see from this response, there is certainly more work needed and we’re working on it to gain a better understanding.

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