Issue 40 / 15 October 2018

TODAY everybody seems to be talking about the cost of energy. While politicians seem to be hanging on to energy provided through burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), scientists and doctors are urging governments to transition as fast as possible to renewable energies (solar and wind) in order to protect the climate and human health.

One fossil fuel – natural gas (methane) – has a reputation for being clean and “good” for the climate because burning gas for cooking, heating and power emits fewer pollutants compared with burning coal. But it is the process of obtaining the gas that creates major health and environmental concerns.

Easily accessible “conventional” gas deposits have met domestic purposes for decades at low cost. Recently, however, new techniques have made it possible to extract natural gas from previously unobtainable (“unconventional”) deposits of coal (coal seam gas), sandstone and limestone (tight gas) and deep shale deposits (shale gas).

One unconventional gas mining technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves deep downward and sideways (horizontal) drilling, then using intense pressure to inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to smash the rock and release gas or oil to be collected on the surface.

Fracking is always required for shale and tight gas mining, and often required for coal seam gas mining, but it is only one of many environmental health concerns associated with oil and gas extraction.

The moratorium on fracking was lifted by the Northern Territory government in April 2018, raising alarm among doctors and others with knowledge of the industry’s potential health, social and environmental impacts.

While oil and gas have been mined in Australia for decades, the reserves potentially extractable through fracking far outstrip current production levels. Australian states and territories are independently assessing risks and benefits, and as of September 2018:

  • Victoria banned fracking and placed a moratorium on onshore conventional gas exploration until 2020 after a Parliamentary inquiry. However, offshore gas exploration is permitted using horizontal drilling into the seabed from onshore sites.
  • South Australia is currently legislating a 10-year moratorium on fracking in the southeast region after an inquiry conducted by the Natural Resources Commission. However, fracking continues elsewhere in the state, and most of the state is under exploration tenement grants, particularly the northeast corner.
  • Western Australia imposed a state-wide ban on fracking in September 2017, after an initial inquiry in 2015. A second Independent Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing Stimulation handed its final report to the government on 12 September 2018 for consideration. Limited areas are under gas exploration tenement grants or applications, with extensive offshore oil and gas wells in production and significant activity in the northeast and southeast.
  • New South Wales Chief Scientist and Engineer conducted an Independent Review of coal seam gas mining activities in NSW in 2014. This led to a reconsideration of the industry and a number of no-go areas and setbacks from residential areas. Projects are proposed in the Illawarra, Gloucester, the north coast and southwest Sydney, with production in Camden winding down. However, fracking is poised to progress in the Piliga Forest and Narrabri region.
  • The Queensland government has continued to embrace unconventional gas mining developments since 2005 without conducting any formal inquiries, independent reviews or research on the health impacts of the industry. By 2016, over 5000 wells (1634 drilled in a single year, 2014–15) plus ancillary infrastructure, including 5000 km of pipelines, compressor stations, three liquefaction plants and an export terminal, were operating. Currently, there are large and rapidly expanding coal seam gas developments in two basins (Surat and Bowen Basins), while conventional gas production is in sharp decline. The government is currently accepting proposals for oil shale developments.

The green light to fracking in the NT came as the government accepted the recommendations of its Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing of Onshore Unconventional Reservoirs, concluding that the risks of the industry could be “made safe” through “strict regulation”. The NT government is now proceeding with development applications, with most of the NT already under gas exploration grants and applications.

However, the green light has alarmed doctors supporting NT communities because of:

  • the large potential for the industry in the NT;
  • its typical pattern of vast spread and sprawl;
  • the extreme difficulty in ensuring compliance with regulation;
  • the high potency of its product (methane gas) as a greenhouse gas; and
  • the extensive environmental health risks and stressors linked to shale gas mining.

Of particular concern to both Indigenous communities and pastoralists, who will be most directly affected due to the remote location of gas deposits, is the potential for contaminating water and land. Unconventional gas extraction requires handling potentially harmful chemicals in vast quantities of waste water.

There are no proven methods for safe disposal of the salty waste water. Currently, an approval to dump 15 million tonnes of salt waste from fracking in Queensland close to the headwaters of the Murray–Darling River is generating fears of contamination of the vital river that supplies much of Australia’s agriculture.

Spills during routine operation are common. Duke University, in the United States, investigated reports from 3900 unconventional oil waste water spills in North Dakota – a similar environment to the NT – from operations at approximately 9700 wells. They found evidence of both land and water contamination with radioactive materials, heavy metals and corrosive salts, with inadequate clean-up responses. This research group also revealed a 7.7-fold increase in water used per well and a 14-fold increase in waste water produced over a 5-year time period within a gas field.

Experience suggests that similar circumstances occur in Australia. Hydrogeologist and geochemist Dr Matthew Currell highlighted a lack of baseline data and insufficient resources for monitoring and compliance to protect water resources from Santos’ coal seam gas operations in Narrabri, NSW. Currell’s concerns are in his submission to the NT hydraulic fracturing inquiry.

The possibility of the negative impact on health and wellbeing dominates public worries about the industry. While in 2010 little was known about the health risks associated with fracking, by mid-2018 over 1500 peer-reviewed articles had been published, with overall heightening of health concerns.

People living near gas operations experience lower infant birth weights; higher rates of birth defects and birth complications; more frequent hospitalisations for cardiovascular, neurological and existing asthma conditions; higher rates of depression and increased stress and traffic accidents. The social upheaval and economic worries caused by the boom and bust nature of the industry, and increases in stress caused to already stressed farmers, may explain why higher rates of depression have been found among people living close to gas operations in the US.

The health chapter of the NT fracking inquiry’s final report focused on evidence shortcomings and lack of proof of cause and effect, for example, confounding factors that could be involved. These could include a tendency to locate fracking near communities that are already disadvantaged and least able to oppose the development. Furthermore, the chapter overlooked the fact that Indigenous people, especially those living in remote areas where the industry would operate, already experience substantially higher rates of these health conditions that are likely to make them more vulnerable to further risks. The precautionary principle, which states that:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

favoured by many health organisations in relation to unconventional gas mining, including the Australian Medical Association, Doctors for the Environment Australia and the Public Health Association of Australia, was not applied.

We argue that the inquiry did not sufficiently consider the health impacts of the industrialisation of the NT landscape associated with ultimately hundreds to thousands of concrete pads for the gas wells and equipment, with extensive access roads, gas processing and compressor stations and truck movements. The wellbeing of Indigenous people, who have served as custodians of these lands for tens of thousands of years, is of particular concern.

The inquiry did not sufficiently heed the grave urgency of climate change mitigation and Australia’s rising fugitive methane gas emissions (12.9% in one year). The NT is particularly sensitive to the serious health impacts of climate change from increasing heat waves, droughts, floods, fires and cyclones from escalating greenhouse gas emissions.

The NT government’s acceptance of the inquiry’s conclusion that “[if all 135] recommendations made in this Final Report … are adopted and implemented in full … risks may be mitigated or reduced – and in some cases eliminated altogether – to acceptable levels”. Despite the significant word “if”, the door is now open for expansion of the fracking industry in the NT, even as renewable energies demonstrate their low cost, reliability and climate and environmental health advantages.

Doctors across the NT will gather in Darwin and Alice Springs for the NT chapter of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians Forum on 26 and 27 October 2018. Professor Melissa Haswell, from Doctors for the Environment Australia, will discuss important health concerns for patients and families should the industry progress as it has in the US, Queensland and NSW.


Dr Melissa Haswell is Professor and Discipline Lead of Health, Safety and Environment in the School of Public Health and Social Work at Queensland University of Technology. She has 30 years of experience as a public health educator and researcher, with an extensive publication record from her research in environmental and Indigenous health. As a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia, she has been communicating to governments, doctors and communities to highlight the latest evidence regarding health and environmental concerns about unconventional gas mining since 2011.

7 thoughts on “Health, environment impacts of fracking not adequately considered

  1. Anonymous says:

    The situation is fraught as detailed by Dr Haswell. Perhaps the best arguments against unnuanced fracking relate to the effects unknown on the water table.

    It would be useful however for Dr Haswell to consider the effects on health of –
    *the possibility of confounding factors such as socioeconomic status when listing associations with fracking
    *the alternatives for energy generation if we dont utilise natural gas or coal.
    *the consequence of expensive energy on socioeconomic degradation aka poverty, and decreased production of goods for local consumption and export

    I am a deeply concerned environmentalist but demonising two trace greenhouse gases, to wit CO2 and CH4, is deceptively simple and exceedingly stupid. It erroneously absolves believers from the real problems and solutions for too many humans over-utilising limited space and energy resources

  2. Skeptic says:

    Global warming/Climate change is a false religious belief system/hoax.
    Australia should use and burn our plentiful fossil fuels for the benefit of all Australians, and to put downward pressure on energy prices which are destroying Australian families budgets and lives.
    China’s exponentially increasing CO2 emissions make any Australian CO2 production totally irrelevant.
    Nothing Australia does will make any difference to the temperature of Planet Earth – as stated by Alan Finkel (Australia’s Chief Scientist)…
    America’s economy is booming because of fracking and their abandonment of the Paris agreement.
    We should follow their lead.

  3. Bruni Brewin says:

    I wish I could concur these are the lazy options for government and industry. The government and industry are making money out of these ventures (by most being ventures owned from overseas). It is like short-term gain will be long-term pain for Australia. These overseas ventures take from pristine environments with know degradation that they have left behind in previous environmental damage and health problems in our communities. Our government are mostly people from University training, solicitors who know the problems caused by mining but are just looking at the bottom line of making a profit. Yet the main profit goes to the overseas market, not Australia. If it makes sense to an ordinary layman like myself – just remember this at voting time, that our politicians do what the people who voted them in expected from them. As for climate change, there are scientists that disagree with this with this prophesy, some who see a partial ice-age coming our way in the next 10 years. Here are some Stats on Global Warming that confirms pseudoscience at the heart of the political system – and that would mean a lot of tax dollars lost – so the propaganda continues to stir the fear of global warming as it does many other things that are distortions of the truth. Nobel Laureate in Physics; “Global Warming is Pseudoscience”

  4. Dr Roger BURGESS, radiologist says:

    I wish to defend the Australian companies attempting to remove natural gas i.e. mainly methane, from, usually, thin layers of coal way down in the bowels of the earth, far too uneconomic to mine by conventional tunneling, long-walling etc methods, where human lives are put at risk to get the coal out. My two extremely qualified geologist friends have clearly explained the amazing advances in these techniques where, for example, they can drill way down to a seam and then turn 90 degrees to burrow along the actual coal seam itself, markedly reducing the need to drill further holes to exploit the full potential of the coal and its gas content therein. Melissa, using these and other modern, repeat modern, techniques, can you tell me of any event which has been conclusively/scientifically proven to allow the natural gas/fracking agents to escape from levels way down below and, by some miracle, traverse the steel collars in place at multiple levels, to contaminate the ground water i.e. thousands of meters above? We are clear-thinking trained scientists as well aren’t we? The world has been duped by these people, using methods akin to the anti-vaccination mob, who have gone to great lengths to fool the public. One classic example is that bloke in the USA who took great delight in turning on his water tap and lighting the gas which escaped. He was later found to have an LPG canister under his house plumbed into his domestic water supply…very anti vaccinationesque don’t you think. They will go to great lengths to conceal the truth and the truth is that fracked gas is safe and cheap to produce and Oz has ess loads of it. Meanwhile the MASSIVE CSG resources in NSW, for example, have been sequestered away from the energy industry by the antics of the “lock the gate” mob. They are mostly from Nimbin and it is the same faces you see time and again at any of these protests/rallies. Where do they get the time?
    Can you believe that they are considering importing natural gas, fracked or unfracked, FROM OVERSEAS!
    As that chap in the Fin Review said recently, it’s akin to the Saudis importing oil from the North Sea! If this mob ever get hold of power, heaven help our power prices. Melissa could not help herself but chuck in global warming, God bless her. As if us mere mortals can do anything MATERIAL about it. I have a theory that the Earth’s atmosphere is not only dictated by where we are in the orbit around the sun but also by volcanic activity around the world. Anyone had their Bali holiday messed by the massive volcanic eruptions nearby lately or prevented from going around the big island of Hawaii by those massive lava flows, swallowing up whole villages, vaporizing all the billions of tonnes of carbon in their paths etc. Some science please not waffle. God help us when the mini-Ice Age descends on us towards the end of this century! Please please don’t get me on nuclear power.

  5. Lisa Jackson Pulver says:

    The reliance on energy sources such as these are the lazy options for government and industry. We know that there needs to be new and innovative options to power our growing global population – cleanly. Time to finally do the right thing – not only for our peoples now but for the heritage we hold as custodians for the future. Thank you Prof Haswell for your persistence and insightful advocacy.

  6. Rosalie Schultz says:

    Thanks Melissa for your concern and commitment.
    Climate change is likely to set back decades of progress in reducing poverty and improving food security, and every fire, storm, flood and drought in the news is in a world of changed climate.

    The myth of gas as a transition fuel is contributing to delay in the urgent and life-saving actions to reduce climate change.

    We need to reduce energy use and get out of fossil fuels as quickly and safely as we can. Introducing fracking is a big step back. This is a key health issue of our time.

  7. Anonymous says:

    How can we best support efforts to put pressure on the government to transition to less harmful energy sources such as solar and wind? I’ve already written many letters to my local member, but don’t feel like that is having any affect. The coal and gas lobby must be very powerful.

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