CSG – APPEA tries it on again: Part 2

If you haven’t already, best to read this first: APPEA tries it on again Part 1

I drew the second “myth” to address out of a hat (actually, out of a mug – my hat’s too floppy).

APPEA says:

Myth: CSG is not safe as gas leaks are common.

The facts: A recent wellhead safety report in Queensland surveyed more than 2900 wells. It found only 35 leaks of concern; only six of these were significant enough to be able to hold a small flame and none were large enough to be explosion risks. None of these leaks posed any threat to human health but the companies were required to rectify them.

Summary:

This “mythbusting” is misleading for (again) three reasons.  First, it ignores the dangers of sub-explosive gas leaks.  Second, important examples of significant gas leaks (given in government and NGO reports as well as in the media) have been conveniently omitted.  The report that was quoted mostly used data provided by the companies themselves, and in fact examined almost 200 fewer wells than claimed.  Finally, the phrasing of the “myth” and the “facts” misrepresents and trivialises the real concerns about CSG.

The long version:

a) Cherrypicking

Let’s take a closer look at what APPEA says:

“The facts: A recent wellhead safety report in Queensland surveyed more than 2900 wells. It found only 35 leaks of concern; only six of these were significant enough to be able to hold a small flame and none were large enough to be explosion risks. None of these leaks posed any threat to human health but the companies were required to rectify them.”

Does this sound to you like gas leaks are nothing to worry about?  That’s because they left out some of the story.  This is sometimes called “biased sample” – they’ve cherrypicked the facts that make gas leaks look like they’re an insignificant concern.

Most importantly, they’ve elected to deal with the danger of explosive/flammable methane leaks only.  They simply ignored another major cause for concern about gas leaks:  serious toxins, which are dangerous at even very low levels, can leak out with the gas.  These then seep into the air we all breathe. A report entitled “Gassed!” (by the NGO “Global Community Monitor”)  which monitored air quality in the vicinity of homes, schools and playgrounds near gas developments found:

“a total of 22 toxic chemicals in the air samples, including four known carcinogens, as well as toxins known to damage the nervous system and respiratory irritants. The chemicals detected ranged from 3 to 3,000 times higher than what is considered safe by state and federal agencies.”

Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith of the National Toxics Network has said there is no way to know in advance what toxins will be in the gas coming from our coal seams.  While most public concern about CSG focuses on water contamination, it is also true that any gas leaks, even those below explosive levels, have the potential to release significant levels of carcinogens, neurotoxins and respiratory irritants into the surrounding areas.  Instead of addressing this issue, APPEA has pretended it doesn’t exist.

But even considering only potentially explosive methane leaks, APPEA left out some very important information.  First, they left out that on May 22, 2011, there was a gas blowout at Arrow Energy’s Daandine field 25 kilometres west of Dalby. The incident occurred at about 9 am but was not reported to Tom O’Conner, the landowner, until 2 pm.  The gas and water reached 100 metres into the air and the following day was still at 40 metres. It was the fourth incident on the O’Conner property.[1]

They also left out gas leaks not directly associated with well heads.  For example, although gas companies claim that the methane bubbling from the Condamine River is nothing to do with them, the coincidence in timing is startling.  Consequently, in order to effectively bust the gas leak “myth”, it ‘s important to address the issue of leaks such as these that are potentially caused by gas extraction activity.

Additionally, while APPEA didn’t say which report they’re referring to, the closest one I can find is the Qld government’s 2010 CSG Well Head Safety Program Audit, which audited 2717 well heads[2].   The man who signed off on this report is Stephen Matheson, whose title is “Chief Inspector, Petroleum and Gas”.  He told me that as far as he is aware, there are no other similar reports, and that this is the one that APPEA is likely to be referring to.

This particular audit was carried out mostly by the companies themselves, that is, in the main, the companies inspected themselves for leaks: the report states “all companies applied their own methodology to investigate and remediate the leaks based on the relevant company’s best practice at the time.”   Mr Matheson confirmed this.  He said most of the tests were carried out by “the companies’ own people or by third party contractors” (who would have been paid by the company).  Ever been asked by a teacher to grade yourself?  Sounds like the same thing to me.  The role of the Petroleum and Gas Inspectorate (who was the auditor) was mainly to compile the companies’ self-reports and write up the results.

The Inspectorate did perform “verification tests” on 226 wells for comparison with the information provided by the companies.  However, it is not clear from the the report whether these tests were performed before or simply after the leaks were fixed.  That is, whether they actually verified the original percentage of leaks, or whether they simply verified that leaks were fixed as claimed.

Why didn’t APPEA mention the 2010 investigation conducted by the Safety and Health Division of the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation (DEEDI) in conjunction with Simtars (Safety in Mines Test and Research Station) for the Qld government[3].  It looked at 58 gas wells in the Tara area and found 45% were leaking in some capacity. “Four (7%) of the gas wells were leaking at a rate at or above ten percent of the lower explosive limit (LEL) of methane… One (2%) of the gas wells tested was found to be leaking above the LEL (lower explosive limit) of methane.”

Another important point is that CSG in Australia is still small compared with the mammoth unconventional gas industry in the US.  I think it’s important to look overseas to see what their experience of gas leaks has been, because that might give us a clue as to what to expect if ours grows as large as it intends to.

Unfortunately, the story is slightly complicated, in that unconventional gas extraction overseas, especially in the US, is not just coal seam gas.  It’s often shale gas (particularly in the US), and can be tight sand gas (like Metgasco’s Kingfisher well in Casino).  So reports of gas leaks tend to lump in coal seam gas leaks with shale gas leaks and tight sand gas leaks.

However, since there are many similarities between the three methods of extraction (all require drilling, all can involve fracking, and in all there is the potential for gas to escape in unforseeable ways), I’ve decided to include this edited excerpt from the KGAG submission to the NSW Upper House Inquiry into CSG.

“In September 2010, “Riverkeeper”, a New York-based clean water advocacy group, released a report[4] entitled “Fractured Communities: case studies of the environmental impacts of industrial gas drilling”. In it, they document hundreds of case studies involving known and documented adverse impacts of gas mining, including well blowouts, explosions, drinking water contamination, illegal discharges, surface water spills, improper wastewater treatment, stray gas migration, illegal operations, permit violations and so on. There is not room here to mention them all. Below are a few summarised examples.

Well blowouts, stray gas migration, and explosions

  • An incidence of gas migration caused a house to explode in March 2004 in Jefferson County, resulting in three fatalities.
  • In October 2007, pressurization of the surface casing in a newly drilled gas well caused an explosion inside a residence and impacted a private water well.
  • On June 3, 2010 gas well blowout in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles outside Pittsburgh, sent at least 35,000 gallons of wastewater and natural gas spewing into the air for 16 hours.
  • In June 2010, an explosion at a gas well in West Virginia sent seven injured workers to the hospital.
  • On December 15, 2007, high-volume hydraulic fracturing operations conducted by Ohio Valley Energy Systems Corp. caused an explosion inside a home in Bainbridge, Ohio. The structure was damaged significantly.
  • In July 2009, a resident was evacuated because of a gas leak from an East Resources well.
  • In November and December 2007, residents of Walnut Creek in Millcreek, PA were evacuated from their homes for over two months because recently drilled gas wells in the area caused a gas migration. Natural gas levels in and around homes were found to be at explosive levels.

Again, it’s important to note that these examples are from a mixed bag of CSG, shale gas and tight sand wells.  However, because the techniques, and therefore risks, involved in all three unconventional gas industries are similar, it is important not to disregard these incidences when trying to understand the risk posed by potentially explosive gas leaks from the Australian CSG industry.

b) “Steering” your thoughts: indirect misrepresentation

When you read this “myth”, did you get the feeling that gas leaks (probably explosive ones) might be the main reason that opponents say CSG is not safe?  Maybe you did, and maybe you didn’t.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but APPEA only needs some people to be fooled, some of the time.  The myth is phrased so as to imply, without directly stating, that opponents say CSG is unsafe simply because of the risk of potentially explosive gas leaks.  Of course, gas leaks are serious, and in the US have resulted in incidences of houses exploding (and fatalities), but in comparison to the real reasons CSG is not safe (for example, water and air pollution with serious toxins) explosive gas leaks are a side issue.

As a sneaky corollary, the phrasing may also create the impression that if APPEA can convince you that explosive gas leaks are uncommon, then they’ve proved that CSG is safe.  This is called a “false premise”.   It’s true that if gas leaks are common, then CSG is unsafe.  However, it’s not true that if explosive gas leaks are uncommon, then CSG is safe.  In fact, in order to prove CSG is safe, APPEA must also address the myriad of concerns about water and land contamination, air pollution, and so on.


[1] http://lockthegate.org.au/media/display/3430

[4] Michaels, C., Simpson, J., Wegner, W. (2010) Fractured Communities: Case Studies of the Environmental Impacts of Industrial Gas Drilling. Riverkeeper, NY.

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