No "Armageddon scenario" from CSG

One of Australia's top groundwater scientists says there's no reason for landholders to fear an "Armageddon scenario" from coal seam gas mining, known as fracking.

Professor Craig Simmons says there have been "millions of fracking jobs" in the United States over the last 70 or 80 years.

"It's really important for us to remember that we aren't the Robinson Crusoe of coal seam gas production.

"Having said that, I think there is still a lot of work that is useful to wrap our heads around... to get a bit of a sense around how these things work more comprehensively."

Speaking as director of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, Professor Simmons says it's important to remove the heat from the public debate about CSG, "to make sure that the scientific discussion and the technical discussion are really well-informed and not just emotive ones."

Professor Simmons is also a member of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee, advising the federal government on the impact of coal seam gas and large coal mining projects on water resources.

He lists a wide range of potential issues with fracking including groundwater contamination, subsidence, depletion of aquifers, surface-groundwater connectivity, and the impact on waterways, trees and ecosystems.

Professor Simmons emphasises that "just because something's possible doesn't mean that it's likely or probable" and there's a need for more research to collect data for better computer modelling and risk analysis.

"One of the real challenges is... it's often difficult to see what's underground. We can't see it so there's an out of sight, out of mind thing.

"Groundwater involves drilling through rocks or sands. The actual basic measuring instrument is bore holes and that's in itself a more expensive exercise."

He says while coal seam gas mining has grown with "astonishing speed" in Australia in the last decade and a half, there is a lot to be gleaned from the international experience.

"In North America and in particular the United States they call it coal bed methane production. CBM has been certainly going on for a lot longer than it has been in Australia.

"It's really difficult to uncover the sort of Armageddon scenario that's arisen."

He says one factor shaping public attitudes to CSG in Australia may be who owns mineral wealth.

"There are some fascinating things that are quite different about the Australian experience compared to the United States that are not scientific issues.

"The issue of who owns minerals and energy under your property. In Australia it's the Crown on average that's dealing with the mineral rights. In the U.S. the Crown does in some cases, but in others if not many cases actual farmers own the minerals under their property.

"If we think science is the only thing that will save the day on this we are kidding ourselves.

"There's many other aspects, public engagement, consultation, looking at public policy, regulation. All of it's got to be on the table."

Professor Craig Simmons, director of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training.

ABC Radio National - Producer: Bel Tromp, Tuesday 1 October 2013


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