Santos must come clean on methane and accept its responsibilities to human health | RenewEconomy

Santos must come clean on methane and accept its responsibilities to human health

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On what basis does Santos claim that LNG exports lower emissions in client countries when it is known that fugitive emissions negate any advantage over coal?

An ambulance is seen at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Monday, March 16, 2020. Federal, state and territory leaders are meeting regularly to coordinate their response to the coronavirus pandemic. (AAP Image/Tim Pascoe) NO ARCHIVING
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Putting aside the inadequacies of government in addressing climate change, many Australians are coming to recognise that the fate of the planet resides mainly in numerous corporate board rooms. The recent Santos annual general meeting will increase their anxieties.

Santos, along with other Australian gas producers, has a significant role in increasing world emissions of methane, a fast-acting greenhouse gas.

At the AGM it was encouraging that 43 per cent of shareholders supported a resolution from the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility for Santos to reduce emissions, a resolution also supported by large superannuation funds.

But many Australians will find it quite remarkable that two major Chinese investors in Santos should be in a position to have a significant impact on the control of our greenhouse emissions.  At the AGM they supported the Santos targets “aligned to the goals of the Paris agreement”

The problem for Santos is that its own figures are not aligned to the Paris goals because they do not include leakage of methane in all stages of production and transportation (fugitive emissions).

Santos has never addressed the increasing body of evidence that total emissions from gas are little different from coal, as detailed in several recent peer reviewed scientific studies.

Rather the CEO of Santos in his address to the AGM relied upon the words of chief scientist Alan Finkel, that “natural gas is already making it possible for nations to transition to a reliable and relatively low-emissions electricity supply. Professor Finkel referred to the UK where the combination of natural gas and renewables has led to a 50 per cent reduction in emissions from electricity generation since 2009”

It is important that Finkel’s words are perhaps looked in context.

An analysis of the UK’s reduction of emissions by Carbon Brief states: “It is worth noting that this analysis of electricity sector emissions is incomplete, as it does not consider methane leakage during gas extraction and transport.”

No doubt Professor Finkel will readdress this issue for it of great importance in the management of the current climate emergency.

The statement from the Santos chair that “Increasing LNG exports is the best thing we can do to reduce global emissions by replacing coal in household heating and cooking, industrial processes and power generation in Asia” must surely lead to some wealthy shareholder phoning Elon Musk to ask for a seat on future space transport.

Many doctors and scientists have concerns for the health and wellbeing of residents in or near to gas fields. Some doctors were present at the meeting but some crucial questions were not addressed by Santos.

However, a question from Dr Graeme McLeay, board member of Doctors for the Environment Australia related to the increasing world emissions of methane from fossil fuels detailed in a leading scientific journal, Nature.

Climate change has been recognised by the Australian Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association, and the World Health Organisation as a major global health threat. Global methane, responsible for 25% of global heating, is rising, now at 60% higher than preindustrial levels.

The evidence is now strong that fossil fuel methane is now a major source of global methane. Extraction of natural gas is a major source of fossil methane and these emissions have been underestimated by 25% to 40% as reported in Nature.

Mcleay asked how does Santos reconcile its stated climate policy with the now clear evidence of rising fossil methane emissions related to gas extraction and deployment?

On what basis does Santos claim that LNG exports lower emissions in client countries when it is known that fugitive emissions negate any advantage over coal?”

The response from the CEO was;

-“Look, the Nature study picks up all the methane emissions around the world and then it makes assumptions to allocate those emissions between customer end use, coal mining, gas production, and natural geological sources such as seeps and mud volcanoes. The authors themselves acknowledge that the oil and gas practice has substantially improved since particularly the 70s and 80s—reducing venting and flaring and the associated gas etc…but this isn’t evident in the data they produced in that article.

Getting away from that argument…..we comply….we build a bottom up inventory on our emissions, we do regular checks on our emissions, we have physical data that we measure. As we come into a new area we are establishing baselines so that we actually understand the natural background levels of methane are so that we can see if we are having an input through our operations, we haven’t got any evidence of that so far. So basically we’re very confident about the data we report. We base that on evidence not on assumptions, not on rates that are applied holistically, our reporting is audited and we’re confident about the veracity of our data” Video here

Bearing in mind that there are many studies indicating that total emissions from gas are little different from coal, the readers of this response will make their own judgement. However, the issue is so important for emission control it is vital that Santos publishes its data rather than having it “audited”.

Dr Melissa Haswell, Professor of Health, Safety and Environment asked “Research has linked a higher prevalence of harmful birth outcomes – for example neural tube and congenital heart defects, pre-term births and lighter birth weight – among women who live close to gas operations during pregnancy.

A list of these studies is available here. I would like to know how Santos has analysed these risks and what the company is doing to communicate the findings of these studies and eliminate these risks to pregnant women, infants and children living near Santos operations?”

In view of the significant and disturbing body of evidence from the United States about endocrine disrupting activity linked to a mixture of 23 chemicals commonly found in the vast quantities of wastewater produced during operations,  Dr Haswell also asked;-

“Please explain in detail how Santos will be monitoring and eliminating potential exposure of residents and workers to chemical mixtures with endocrine disrupting potential known to be present in wastewater as well as air?”

With regard to these health studies, we noted in a previous article “Clearly there are legal and insurance implications for industry and governments allowing these risks to proceed”

Also in relation to a question on possible impacts on food asked at the AGM, has the company estimated what scale of liability it faces with no suitable insurance products available from unexpected environmental damage from the Narrabri gas project?

Santos is in denial over these findings but the whistle has now been blown and they are accountable for any dismissal of the firm evidence for these dangers published in the scientific literature and it would be financially prudent to prepare for them.

Boardrooms of the companies that invest in fossil fuels are the battle ground for our future and thanks are due to Market Forces and to the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility  for their efforts.

Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide



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