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Fracking: A risk to health, and healthy returns

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There is now growing evidence of international investor concern over some health impacts of fracking in shale gas mining.

An alliance of 200 institutions – which control more than $20 trillion of assets worldwide – is expressing concern over fugitive emission from gas mining and the potential impact on climate.

This further exposes Minister Moore’s recent action in WA on blocking community discussion on health risks from CSG mining as irresponsible; it also disregards the increasing international concern over the investment risks of unconventional gas mining

DEA had been invited to present health information at the country meetings in WA organised by the National party prior to Minister Moore’s intervention.

Scottish Widows Investment Partnership (SWIP), spokespersons for the alliance have released a detailed research study on fugitive methane from shale gas which concludes

“In the US and China-the world’s biggest carbon emitters-abundant and cheap shale gas could play and important role in displacing coal as a fuel in power generation. The climate benefit of this switch could be significant.

However, new research indicates that global warming caused by the fugitive methane emissions associated with gas production, processing and distribution greatly weakens this benefit. In particular, the high short-term climate impact of methane negates much or all of the benefit of coal-gas switching for the first two or three decades after it occurs (assuming mid range estimates of methane emissions levels).

Given the imperative to slow down the rate of climate change to give societies and natural ecosystems more time to adapt, fugitive methane emissions greatly undermine the attractiveness of natural gas a fuel source.

While the problem of fugitive methane emissions is most acute for shale gas, it is also a problem for conventional gas production, processing and distribution”

The report then falls back on the inevitable promise of technological solution

Even if this comes to pass there are no solutions to possible health impacts on water.

“The availability of low cost technological solutions to the majority of fugitive methane emissions means that this is a problem that the industry could solve without grate difficulty if it committed to doing so

There is a need for governments in gas producing nations to ensure they have effective regulations in place; and for gas customers to consider what role they can play in encouraging effective action by their suppliers to eliminate fugitive methane emissions

As a major shareholder in the oil and gas sector, SWIP is committed to supporting and encouraging efforts by the companies in which it invests to implement best practice methane control technologies.”

Fugitive methane emissions are but one of several health issues. SWIP mentions others in press releases but has not yet considered them. They are likely to emerge particularly once the US EPA reports later this year on the health impacts of gas mining.

It the science and potential health impacts continue to be ignored by Minister Moore and his likes and if human impacts occur then there is surely a lever for community class action. The SWIP report defines the government role for effective regulation and this appears to be absent in WA

There may be serious national consequences for commitment to unconventional gas; the energy white paper is oblivious to these; state governments are unaware of recent scientific studies and their information may be limited to that provided by the lobbyists of the oil and gas industry. Long term commitments are being made to gas fired power stations in the face of increasingly financially viable alternatives.

In its press release Doctors for the Environment Australia considers the current level of assessment, monitoring and regulation of unconventional gas exploration and mining in Australia to be inadequate. DEA supports a precautionary approach in this setting and recommends a moratorium on unconventional gas extraction until safety has been established by thorough, transparent and impartial analysis.

Potentially serious health risks to the community may result from; industrial scale water consumption, water contamination; air pollution, particularly by volatile organic compounds and methane; and the production and management of large quantities of toxic liquid waste, as well as long-term and cumulative impacts on freshwater aquifers.

A report from DEA to the Senate Submission 203 has detailed these potentially serious health risks to the community. These risks are summarised in a joint position statement on gas, shale oil, coal bed methane and ‘fracking’ by the Health and Environment Alliance.

David Shearman E/Professor of Medicine is Hon Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia, an independent public health organisation of medical doctors – www.dea.org.au.  

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  • Grenatec’s study ‘Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure’ calls for pipeline exports of gas to Asia. This is a more future proof method of exports and finesses many of the CSG fugitive emissions concerns since it can be used for other ‘future’ fuels apart from gas.
    If you’re interested in learning more, we look forward to hearing from you.

  • Ben

    Did you know that the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has delegated its duties to the Ministry of Mining and Petroleum if it comes to companies’ applications to exploration drilling? This is regularly extended to production drilling using fracking methods because those undertakings are too small for the over-worked EAP to monitor.
    Someone likened it to making Dracula in charge of the blood bank.