Instant expert

Instant Expert: Fracking

Following the release of the US documentary Gasland earlier this year, fracking has become an explosive topic. What is it and why the controversy?

Chinchilla gasfields

This photo of 74 Gas Wells was taken in December 2010 near Chinchilla, Qld.

Credit: Lock the Gate via Flickr (Creative commons)

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What is fracking?

Fracking (sometimes spelt fraccing) is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a process used in Australia to increase the flow of coal seam gas (CSG) from underground coal deposits. It involves pumping water, sand and chemicals down a well under pressure to create cracks in coal seams. This is an expensive undertaking, so it’s not carried out on every well. Between five and 15 per cent of wells in Australia have been fracked. However, a report commissioned by a CSG company suggests this figure could rise to 70 per cent in some areas.

Is coal seam gas the same thing as natural gas?

Conventional natural gas is found in permeable sandstone reservoirs. Coal seam gas, found in underground coal deposits, is classified as an unconventional natural gas. In 2009-2010, it accounted for 10 per cent of total gas production.

Is fracking new to Australia?

Commercial CSG extraction is a relatively new industry here. In NSW, it began in 1996. The industry has boomed since 2004, with the bulk of production from the Surat-Bowen Basin, which extends from northern NSW into Qld. With a growth rate of 32 per cent in 2009-2010, CSG is our fastest growing gas sector.

Why all the fuss?

In the US, fracking has been used extensively in 27 states to extract natural gas from shale formations (another unconventional gas). The 2009 documentary Gasland investigated the impact of the industry on the environment and human health. Residents of areas that had been fracked reported contaminated water supplies, air pollution and health problems.

Of particular concern are the BTEX chemicals, including benzene, which is a known human carcinogen. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association states on its website that BTEX chemicals, though used in the US, are not used in fracking fluids in Australia. In July last year, benzene and toluene were found in groundwater monitoring wells in Kingaroy, Qld. The plant was closed by the Qld Department of Environment and Resource Management and has yet to be reopened. Later in the year, benzene was detected in the wells of two other Qld operations. All three companies denied using fracking fluid containing BTEX chemicals and their investigations pointed to diesel and lubricants as possible sources of the contaminants. The Qld government has banned the use of these chemicals in fracking fluids, and NSW is considering a similar ban.

In November 2010, community, farming and environmental groups around Australia who are opposed to fracking on environmental and health grounds formed the Lock the Gate Alliance.

The Australian Greens have called for a moratorium on CSG extraction and exploration “until adequate environmental protections are in place.”

What the movers and shakers think

Jeff Angel, executive director, Total Environment Centre
“CSG is paraded as the greenhouse saviour with typical mining hyberbole. Governments have let the industry come in under the radar without public knowledge of the risks such as water pollution and an almost industrial drilling matrix across rural and natural landscapes. People can find out about the risks and potential extent of the industry from local and state environment and farming groups and should keep the pressure up.”

Dr Helen Redmond, Doctors for the Environment
“There’s a number of potential areas where I believe the rapid expansion of the CSG industry is going to threaten human health … Our concern is that a full economic analysis which includes population health, environmental degradation and the wider economy has not been done. One is needed urgently.”

Martin Ferguson, Federal Minister for Resources and Energy
“In Australia we have significant environmental regulation to ensure companies develop resources in a responsible manner, this includes measures to ensure the environment and the health of our communities are protected ... The expansion of Australia’s CSG to LNG industry will deliver benefits to the Australian economy in terms of jobs, export earnings and government revenue. These projects are also important in diversifying the economic base of rural towns and regional areas