Unconventional gas, health, economics and incompetent regulation - an everyperson’s guide to what’s going on.

Flaring at Hazelgrove SE SA

We know from the work of William Nordhaus that coal has no economic value to communities if all social, health and environment, and climate related impacts are taken into account. Coal remains viable only in the minds of climate deniers, some governments, and fossil fuel barons who continue to profit despite its harms.

There is increasing information that shale gas may also have little value and by inference coal seam gas. A study from Manchester University points out that shale gas is not a sustainable option when compared to renewable energy because of environmental and social impacts.

As with coal, shale gas is economically viable only because its externalities are passed to the community to pay for.

Whilst touted as an interim fuel in the transition from coal to renewable energy there is increasing evidence that Ugas is an impediment.

Fugitive emissions

Atmospheric levels of methane are rising and there are many causes including increasing food production (farting cows and more rice paddies), thawing tundra, and increasing forest fires. But there is increasing evidence that fugitives from Ugas sources are much greater than previously recognised. This has been demonstrated in a series of papers and from satellite studies.

Health effects

The scientific evidence of health impacts is growing steadily. Evidence is greatest from the US where gas fields were longest established. This evidence is reviewed in DEA’s Narrabri submission.

Particularly important is the identification or air polluting hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides probably responsible for the increased illness and hospital admissions in gas field communities (see Queensland below).

Current action in the Australian states

Northern Territory

A Fracking Inquiry is in its final stages, and DEA had made two submissions, has made a submission to the draft final report, has had correspondence with the Inquiry and Rosalie Schultz has appeared before them. A moratorium holds till the report is made. The huge gas reserves in NT could produce as much greenhouse emissions as Adani. There is huge political, budgetary and financial pressure for the New Labor government to succumb.

Western Australia 

There is a moratorium on fracking till a review is completed (submissions by March 19) and the final report is issued. Background papers are available

DEA expressed concern in a detailed letter to the Premier about lack of health membership on the review committee and this correspondence is ongoing.

South Australia

Welcome to the state which promotes renewable energy and the transition from coal (it has none) but not Ugas.  A parliamentary enquiry into Ugas development in SA prime agricultural region, the South East, concluded there was no social licence to proceed. Yet exploratory drilling and triumphant flaring is in progress under approval using current regulations which do not cover fracking in Environmental Impact Reports and Statements of Environmental Objectives. 

This drilling for gas is occurring in one of the most complex aquifer systems in Australia where the advice of the federal Independent Expert Scientific Committee is excluded because the development is classified as shale. Not that the state government would take notice anyway. To add to the complexity, an election is due in March. Labor supports development, Liberals oppose and Mr X has no discernable position. Finally SA has only one newspaper and it has decided that community ignorance on the fracking issue in the SE is best for the economy.

New South Wales

The Narrabri development is nearing decision. DEA made an extensive submission and our local members are involved. It is difficult to have confidence in any decision emanating from the NSW EPA when the CEO Barry Buffier recently resigned and referred the EPA to the NSW ICAC. Need one say more?


A topic best saved till last in this review in case the reader stopped reading in despair. The unbridled development in the gas fields is epitomised by the publication in a reputable peer reviewed journal by a DEA member, of her health findings in the gas fields, see Croakey. The responses to her paper do not auger well for Queensland moving into an era of responsibility.

Some conclusions

The complex and obscure regulatory processes and the adoption by governments of a proponent role instead of arbiter ensure that development is very likely especially with huge financial and political pressure from industry. It is hard to see Labor in WA and NT standing firm.

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