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Dealing with the health risks of unconventional gas

Many Australians are concerned about whether coal seam gas extraction will affect the quality of their water. Jeremy Buckingham MLC

Dealing with the health risks of unconventional gas

Many Australians are concerned about whether coal seam gas extraction will affect the quality of their water. Jeremy Buckingham MLC

Community concerns over unconventional gas (shale and coal seam) mining in Australia are increasing. These concerns relate to water and air pollution, land usage, fugitive emissions and to inadequate assessment and regulation. The environmental impacts have potentially serious human health consequences.

In 2010, Doctors for the Environment Australia first raised concerns about the potential health impacts of coal seam gas mining in Australia. We subsequently detailed these concerns in a submission to the Senate and to the NSW Parliament.

Professor Paul Stevens, energy expert at Chatham House, provides an independent view on this issue. He reviewed CSG in 2010; in 2012 he noted that disappointing outcomes had reduced the hype.

What could go wrong for public health?

Coal seam gas trapped in coal seams is the predominant form of unconventional gas in NSW and Queensland. Shale gas is trapped in shale formations; this is the predominant form in the US, and in Australia it has been located in the Cooper Basin in Central Australia. Proponents of coal seam gas mining often seek to draw distinctions from shale gas mining in order to play down the adverse impacts of shale mining reported in the US. In fact the public health concerns exist to varying degree with both forms of mining.

The fundamental public health issue is the potential for water contamination by chemicals which could seriously affect human health decades after exposure. Health impacts may arise from the use of fracking chemicals or from the release of hydrocarbons and other contaminants from the coal seams.

Pollutants - particularly volatile organic compounds - may be released into the air at the well head. In the United States, control measures determined by the US EPA in response to elevated levels of pollutants measured in several gas fields will be phased in by January 2015 In Tara, Queensland, it seems possible that the high recorded levels of fugitive methane may also reflect the presence of pollutants which are causing illness in local communities - similar symptoms are under investigation by the USEPA.

Public health experience indicates that in a range of environmental contamination issues prevention is the mainstay to protection. Think of lead or asbestos for example; adequate assessment and regulation are key measures.

The debate has failed to focus on these important issues because industry has placed the onus of proof of contamination on exposed communities. It has refused on many occasions to disclose what chemicals are actually used in fracking, and has circulated information inaccurately suggesting the procedure uses only benign substances.

Australia’s regulatory failures

Australia should have learned from the US 2005 Energy Act, which excluded fracking from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Act. This clause - which has become known as the “Cheney-Halliburton loophole” - meant that many shale gas operations began without a proper environmental impact assessment. Because they had no measurement of the “baseline”, they could not be properly assessed after the event either.

In Australia, baseline studies on aquifer water and air quality have not been done before CSG mining development. This is a failure of regulation in states.

The second and related failure is in chemical assessment of fracking chemicals by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme. Some assessment of chemicals is taking place after their widespread use and there is no national uniform means of imposing regulation. Assessment is just beginning, may take years, and there is no uniform requirement for disclosure. This is federal failure.

The third failure resides in the disparate and inadequate assessments in all states apart from SA, which has not yet completed its regulatory review. Despite potential environmental and health impacts, proper processes have been avoided by most states. A recent example of how the states should be made aware of the potential health issues is provided by the report from the Chief Medical Officer of Health of the province of New Brunswick in Canada, which details what every operator and regulator should know about the public health aspects of unconventional gas mining.

The Federal Government must take the lead

The fourth failure is that of the Federal Government, which should seek mechanisms to impose order and safety on the states. The tenuous access to Commonwealth regulation was to be through the EPBC Act via regulation of water. An Expert Committee has been formed to advise on the scientific aspects of CSG mining, but on track record, its advice is unlikely to be taken by the states. Other federal mechanisms will need to be sought.

However, it raises the vital question as to why the Federal Government under COAG proposals is likely to hand more environmental and therefore health regulation to the states.

Many health concerns could be allayed by tight regulation of mining technology, pre-emptive water analysis, monitoring for both water contamination and health impacts. Indeed it would be in the interests of industry to welcome such measures and promote them instead of spending large sums reassuring the public.

Finally what about regulation of the biggest potential health impact? The International Energy Agency has expressed concern about gas replacing renewable energy sources. This would delay any chance of early curtailment of greenhouse emissions. Climate change is accepted as a huge threat to health world wide.

In 2012, unconventional gas mining is expanding rapidly. Billions of dollars are being invested without adequate research, regulation and public health surveillance. We are trusting that the lucky country will get away with it. And as with coal the externality costs with be foisted onto to the public purse.