Australia's new carbon bomb: uncounted coal seam gas emissions | RenewEconomy

Australia’s new carbon bomb: uncounted coal seam gas emissions

Report warns Australia’s vastly underestimated CSG emissions – potentially equal to entire transport sector – would make Paris targets impossible to meet.


Australia could be underestimating its annual greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to the output of the nation’s entire transport sector, a new report has warned – an oversight that could see Australia sail past its Paris climate target by double the amount of emissions it has committed to cut.

The report, published on Wednesday by the Melbourne Energy Institute, attributes the oversight to “significant weaknesses” in the way Australia measures emissions from unconventional gas mining.

A gas flare burns at a fracking site in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania

According to the report, coal-seam gas leakages and fugitive emissions released during the ‘production’ phase of unconventional gas are effectively set to zero in Australian reporting, at only 0.1 per cent.

But according to MEI’s Tim Forcey, the report’s author and a former gas principal at AEMO, this is in stark contrast to “actual measurements” made at US unconventional gas fields, where leakage rates have been found to be up to 17 per cent of production, or 170 times the Australian assumption.

“Looking specifically at methane emission rates from unconventional gasfields, measurements in the US are up to 10-25 times higher than rates reported by the Australian Government to the UNFCCC,” Forcey writes.

This, he adds, means that if methane leakage from Australian gas fields matched US measurements, then at current production levels Australia would actually be emitting an extra 92Mt of CO2 equivalent per annum – or double the amount of emissions reductions we have committed to under the Paris Agreement.

The UN 2015 Paris Agreement for net zero emissions, which Australia is signed up to but is yet to ratify, comes into force next Thursday, after the quickest ratification of an international treaty in history.

The Australian government is already under pressure, both nationally and abroad, to develop a plan that will meet the most basic of its own climate targets, let alone those laid out in the Paris deal, which seeks to avoid more than 1.5°-2C° global warming.

The issue around CSG emissions is highly topical, given the push by the Australian government to boost gas exploitation and to put a cap on state-based renewable energy targets, particularly after the South Australia blackout which it has blamed on renewable energy.

This week’s MEI report suggests that task could be even more out of reach than many already suspected.

“We’re potentially not measuring the equivalent of the emissions from our entire transport sector,” said Mark Ogge, a principal advisor at The Australia Institute, which commissioned the report.

“If the 20 year global warming potential of methane is considered, this would equate to emissions of 232Mt carbon dioxide equivalent per annum over the 20 year period, equivalent to Australia’s entire electricity emissions.

“Australia must set about accurately and independently measuring and reporting these fugitive emissions, or we risk breaching our international climate commitments,” Ogge said.


Emissions aside, the pros and cons of coal-seam gas mining in Australia are a hotly debated and extremely divisive issue.

While the practice of “fracking” for unconventional gas was banned by Victoria’s Labor state government in August, coal-seam gas was being talked up by Queensland’s Labor state government just last week as the “fuel of the future”.

NSW’s energy minister, meanwhile, has described the growing number of the state’s farmers who oppose coal-seam gas exploration and development as “eco-fascists.”

Industry is also somewhat divided on the issue, but in February this year, AGL Energy announced it would quit all gas exploration and production as part of a move to accelerate the company’s focus on the “evolution” in the energy industry – and in response to “volatile” commodity markets.

“Australia’s national interest in climate action is clear but unfortunately keeps getting pushed to the edge by those who prefer to cling to the energy systems and politics of the past, rather than the opportunities of increasingly accessible modern, smart and clean economies,” said Climate Institute CEO John Connor in a statement on Wednesday.

“The International Energy Agency has just released a report on the global surge in renewable energy capacity transforming global energy systems. Tomorrow week the Paris Agreement …comes into force. Yet the Australian government is struggling to develop a plan that integrates our national interest in strong climate action with inclusive economic and social strategies for the switch to a clean energy net zero emissions economy,” Connor said.

Forcey also notes that Australian gas fields may actually have actually higher levels of leakage than their US counterparts, with Australian gas far closer to the surface.

“Depressurising of coal seams over vast areas increases the risk of migratory emissions,” says Forcey. “Currently measurements are taken just on the well, ignoring surrounding infrastructure through the refinement process.”

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  1. howardpatr 4 years ago

    Josh Frydenberg will need to spend quite a bit more of his time with the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann to try to ensure what comes out of the ABC is as close as possible to the position of the LNP’s many anthropogenic climate change deniers.

    From the perspective of Frydenberg, the LNP and the Galileo organization, (chaired by Alan Jones and the former employer of Senator, (“empirical evidence”), Roberts this story and the information needs to be closed down ASAP. Uhlmann could be a good ally for them to have.

    • john 4 years ago

      Yes the Galileo Movement web site does make dismal reading.
      However the general message that RE is a farce is working as i continually run into people who express that opinion.
      Some of the media is less than truthful especially on this subject.
      As to the accounting for gas leakage i would expect it is higher than reported, especially from some of the gassier coal seams.
      As to CSG one can only expect there is leakage just as an aside i know they use electric drive vehicles to monitor the pipelines and wells because of the fear of incinerating the workers if using an ICE vehicle.
      Pretty obviously they know there are leaks.

      • Ken Dyer 4 years ago

        I think the Galileo Movement illustrates the worst of Australian thinking, or non thinking. Everything is a conspiracy according to them. By them, I mean the old white men who run that organisation, if it could be graced with such a term. It offers no evidence, empirical or otherwise, for its assumptions. It offers no solutions. The Galileo Movement, should one assume to believe their histrionic hubris, is a dud. Galileo, that wondrous polymath, responsible for much of the advancement of science of the Seventeenth Century, would turn in his grave if he knew this “movement” has linked his name to regressive science, conspiracies and neo-luddism.

        • john 4 years ago

          I have noticed that several of these nut case outfits have taken the names of previous people of stature and adopted them much to the ire of all sensible people.
          I guess we live in the age of knowledge and unfortunately idiots.

  2. Mark Roest 4 years ago

    re howardpatr’s statement (irony?): by the same token, the renewable energy movement needs to very forcefully and publicly push the argument on this. It’s a good way to activate the majority who care about the world around them and national reputation. And if the right does try to shut down the story and our side is ready to challenge them publicly every step of the way, that heightens the contradictions between their promises leading up to Abbot’s election (and at Paris), and their real (though ignored by their allies in the media) interests. That in turn drives a wedge between those who care and those who don’t — and there are more who do, I think.

  3. Brad Sherman 4 years ago

    Hold your fire, everyone. What has appeared in the media today does not accurately represent at least the monitoring activity with regards to the environmental seeps.

    Considerable effort has gone into measuring the environmental seeps (I’ve been monitoring the river seeps since 2013 and colleagues at CSIRO have been monitoring terrestrial seeps as well) but I don’t know about measurements along the entire infrastructure chain downstream of the well heads.

    I’d be careful about reading too much into an extrapolation of the US experience given the significant differences between the Australian CSG industry and the North American shale gas industry. Certainly, there is a pressing need to get a good quantitative understanding of fugitive emissions from all of the infrastructure and surrounding environment here in Australia. I’ve never been comfortable with the emission factor approach – give me real data any time.

    I was somewhat surprised that the reports out of the Australia Inst did not attempt to contact the CSIRO scientists who have been conducting the seep research.

    Tracking down the terrestrial seeps is tremendously challenging because the landscape is riddled with coal exploration bores (some leak and most don’t and there are many 1000s of them) from many decades ago as well as a large number of cattle feed lots. Don’t underestimate the technical challenge of surveying an entire landscape for small individual seeps (it is like locating a needle in a haystack) and then trying to disentangle the confounding effects of methane leaking out of the landscape and methane emitted by livestock in the same area (remote sensing only sees the sum of the two).

    Our final report on the river seep work conducted so far is currently being finalised prior to undergoing external peer review. The next step after that is preparation of a manuscript for a journal such as Environmental Science and Technology.

    • Tim Forcey 4 years ago

      Hello Brad:

      See my other comment below to David re emissions from surface equipment…

      …and as mentioned in our first report (released today), it will be followed up (I can say shortly) by a second report that looks into the migratory part of the emissions.

      Indeed over the last few years there has been some focus in the CSG fields of Queensland on emissions from WELLS and from MIGRATORY EMISSIONS coming up out of the ground, but less focus on emissions from all SURFACE EQUIPMENT potential emission points.

      With the technologies available today, the sources of emissions CAN be differentiated and pinpointed, as has been done in the US (and reports published very recently, for example There they have tackled the problem in the USA’s largest coal seam gas region… a region that also has conventional oil and gas, and coal, and agricultural activities, just like QLD.

      This invisible gas no longer needs to be invisible to scrutiny. However, money must be allocated to addressing this in the right way in Australia, or we will all remain in the dark on this topic.

  4. David leitch 4 years ago

    Some quite good work was done on this as part of the EIS for APLNG. As I recall a consultants report was devoted to this topic including some numeric estimates that did show some emissions. Just don’t remember how much. USA shale well have little in common with Australian CSG wells. CSg wells are typically 300 meters deep in qld. Shale wells in the USA are 3000 meters deep are fracked over several stages and have several km of horizontal extent. There may well be significant emissions from qld csg wells but I wouldn’t be making too many strong conclusions based solely on USA data.

    • Tim Forcey 4 years ago


      I would say, David and other readers, don’t just focus on the “wells”. This was a shortcoming of some of the Australian investigations that have been done a few years ago.

      There is a lot of equipment downstream of the wells from which methane can be released. It all needs to be installed correctly, maintained correctly, monitored correctly, regulated correctly. Whether the gas comes from coal or shale or sandstone, whether there is fracking or not, if billions of dollars of surface equipment is installed, there is lots of opportunity for methane to be “released” (intentionally) or “leaked” (unintentionally).

      In the USA’s largest coal seam gas producing region, significant emission of methane was evident. It was seen by satellite, it was seen by airplane, and it was seen by surface-based investigators.

      Recent reports (published even after our review research was concluded) tracked it down, in many cases, to emissions from surface equipment. Not rocket science to rectify, but there needs to be money in the gas company’s maintenance budget and in the government’s regulatory budget, or there will be emissions. A recent ref here: Part of the “firehose” of research data that has come from North America over the last year or so.

      The technology exists now to keep tabs on this lighter-than-air, invisible, odourless gas. Time to use it in Australia.

      And the level of emissions that gas companies report to the Aus Gov and what the Aus Gov reports to the UN is one of several other matters…

      • David leitch 4 years ago

        I’d also note that many of the over 1 mn shale gas wells in the USA were drilled some time ago and some of the downstream equipment likely older than in qld.

        It absolutely should be properly measured in Australlia. Let’s get the facts.

        • Steve 4 years ago

          Recent reports put US methane leaks at 1.1% of production or 10x the 0.1% estimate, but I agree Australian operations are different and need to be measured. Major differences also exist in the infield flow lines which in Australia often use rigid PVC pipes. Thousands of small wells, thousands of km of short term use pvc pipes, tight time and cost pressures, and a “she’ll be right” attitude is a recipe for leakage. The US leakage levels are likely a stretch goal for Aussie fields. Why is there no actual data on this?

          US info –

          Example of pvc use –

  5. Leroy Essek 4 years ago

    Good news is coal can’t compete with the future of Joi Scientific located at NASA’s KSC

  6. Radbug 4 years ago

    This need not be problem. Using a DOE grant, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory have removed the enzymes from methanotroph bacteria and affixed them to polymer substrates and this combination efficiently converts methane to methanol. This work was undertaken SPECIFICALLY to address the problem of well-head flare gas, fracking well leakage gas, and coal seam methane leakage gas. It’s a cheap, small scale investment that yields a profitable, easily transportable, product, one that can trucked away from a remote location and sold. It’s like Translink’s driver shortage & the Dreamworld maintenance complacency, Australian management’s couldn’t find their intellectual dicks in a dunny!

  7. Macabre 4 years ago

    This problem is bleedingly obvious. And it adds to the other hidden issue which is fugitive methane emissions from natural gas which probably put gas emissions on a par with coal. Great that the report is out there but I imagine the Coalition will ignore the issue.

  8. Alan S 4 years ago

    Given the size of the great gaping holes in the ground, emissions from open cut coal mines are difficult to quantify but must add considerably to CSG emissions.

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