In October 2015, an unconventional gas mining well head ruptured at Aliso Canyon near Los Angeles. It belched out a massive plume of methane – the most potent greenhouse gas. Overhead, a Hyperion spectrometer aboard a NASA satellite measured the equivalent of the yearly emissions from 572,000 cars surging into the overburdened atmosphere.
It’s no accident the Hyperion was aboard that satellite. Data from it was being crunched by NASA scientists as part of a continuing assessment of “fugitive emissions” from the leak-prone gas mining industry.
America’s Environmental Defence Fund estimates a quarter of anthropogenic global warming is caused by methane emissions. Almost half of that comes from fugitive emissions – leaking wells, pipes and compressors used in coal or gas mining.
The United States has had an enormous, largely unregulated gas extraction industry since the 1950s. Known as shale gas in the US, the industry accounted for 40 per cent of natural gas production as at 2014 and is on the rise, having generated 1.7 million new jobs, while drastically lowering the cost of domestic gas.
“The political sensitivities are real. It would be surprising to me if it had no effect.”
Despite this employment and revenue boom, and in a political climate coming to terms with the realities of climate change, the Obama administration has been bankrolling concerted fugitive emission research projects. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules specifically aimed at curbing gas-mining emissions.
That’s a startling contrast with Australia’s pro-coal seam gas (CSG) Coalition government. The government’s studies of gas fields in Queensland have been funded largely by the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), a joint project between the federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and big mining companies. GISERA provided $14 million for a study that found fugitive emissions to be negligible.
The department declined to comment on the issue.
However, Dr Michael Borgas, formerly a principal research scientist and head of the staff association at CSIRO, has observed how government cuts impair serious research.
“We’re losing some of that capability to be able to do proper measurements and monitoring of those sorts of emissions … and to make sure it’s done in a publicly funded, transparent way, so that the knowledge is better trusted,” Borgas told The Saturday Paper.
The government’s scientific body, the CSIRO, has had 1300 jobs cut in two years by successive federal budgets – 150 of them from climate research, according to Borgas. It is as yet unclear what to make of this week’s announcement by new Science Minister Greg Hunt that the CSIRO should refocus on climate change science.
Borgas has lodged a case with the Fair Work Commission for unfair dismissal from his CSIRO position.
“The reason given in my case was reduction in the need for near-field particle analysis. So … they wanted to remove capabilities related to air quality and the exposure of humans to toxic chemicals.
“There’s a contention about whether the decisions [on job cuts] were made on factors like union membership. That came to the fore on the basis of emails that were released to the senate inquiry.”
Federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are estimated to be about $7.7 billion annually. The Coalition and Labor between them have received $3.7 million in donations from fossil fuel companies since the 2012 election.
A Sydney Morning Herald investigation found 24 ministers or advisers moving into high-level industry jobs after careers spent facilitating mining projects. A former adviser of New South Wales Premier Mike Baird is the current CEO of the NSW Minerals Council, and Baird’s draconian protest laws were promised to the mining industry at a pre-election dinner in 2014.
The prevailing message from ministers and lobbyists has been that Australia needs CSG to forestall an energy crisis. Yet The Sydney Morning Herald investigation revealed how Australia is essentially giving away liquefied natural gas (LNG) resources to multinational miners while claiming a shortfall in gas supplies.
The new federal minister for the environment and energy is Josh Frydenberg – a confirmed proponent of CSG as a means of ensuring Australia’s domestic gas supply.
In this political environment independent scientists struggle for funding research of fugitive emissions.
Professor Isaac Santos is a researcher at the National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour. An expert in greenhouse gases, he has worked all over the world, from Antarctica to China.
Since 2008, Santos has been the beneficiary of 14 Australian Research Council (ARC) grants worth $4.5 million. But he says that when it comes to getting funding for CSG studies in Australia, he has hit a brick wall.
“I applied for nine research grants in 2013,” he says. “I got five. The four I failed are CSG related.”
Santos is quick to assert he’s not a coal seam gas activist.
“I just believe in science,” he said.
In 2012, he and a team of Southern Cross University scientists made a submission to the government’s now defunct Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency on fugitive emissions from gas fields in south-west Queensland. Using a cavity ring-down spectrometer, the baby cousin of the Hyperion, they demonstrated hugely elevated leakages.
“It took us one day driving a car to obtain more on methane in Australian CSG fields than has been made available in over 10 years,” Santos said.
That report provoked a savage response from ministers and industry. Santos and his colleagues were pilloried for not having a baseline study with which to compare their findings. That would mean having data on natural methane emissions before gas mining infrastructure was introduced, in order to prove that these elevated emissions were directly caused by industrialised gas fields.
But no gas fields in Australia have baseline studies – energy companies were not required to have these before they were given exploration licences in the late-20th century.
Santos and his team were vindicated when the paper was peer-approved, meaning their methodology and results were found by the scientific community to be impeccable.
However, without adequate funding, he says that research into gas field emissions can never match the findings made by US scientists.
“What you’re really missing in Australia now is the landscape scale. You can do this bottom-up approach of adding up a bunch of wells, or we could fly over and get the gas fields as a point source. But we don’t have that capacity here.
“The Americans have those models but they are flying. We should be flying but it’s a money issue. We’re 10 years behind the Americans in that respect.”
The University of Melbourne’s Professor Peter Rayner, one of Australia’s foremost carbon cycle and climate researchers, says that while the ARC is well insulated against political interference, other funding avenues are more vulnerable.
“The political sensitivities are real. It would be surprising to me if it had no effect, particularly on direct government funding.”
Rayner says that CSIRO scientists in Australia are doing serious research and postulates a midpoint between their findings and those of Santos.
“There’s only one truth out there and at the moment we’re seeing different aspects of it. It’s worth remembering that [fugitive emission] doesn’t have to be very serious before it cancels out much of the climate benefit of the gas [in comparison with coal].”
While acknowledging the integrity of individual scientists, Santos questions the CSIRO findings. He says they are compromised by the nature of their funding body.
“The data that’s come out in the past two or three years is … cherrypicked,” Santos says.
“They’re not measuring the worst wells, because they’re being guided by the industry. There are a thousand wells in the catchment, so they give them a list – can you please choose 50 for me?”
Rayner also says that the inability to conduct proper research means that scientists are missing another crucial contributor to gas field emissions.
“The sleeper issue is the geology in these CSG areas,” he said. “There might be evidence … to be concerned about whether the geology … is conducting methane to the surface.
“There’s evidence of that in the US – hotspots of methane where they’re not extracting anymore. While worrying about the infrastructure we might miss the slow-burning percolation of methane through the soil that could change the overall picture.”
In mid-July Borgas had a hearing over his case for unfair dismissal from the CSIRO. He has been directed to further negotiate with the institution.
“There are up to 30 people, maybe more, that have claims that their redundancies are not valid,” he says.
“The current minister [Christopher Pyne] was an advocate for improving air quality in Australia as a national priority, so whether or not he brings that to the new direction [of research priority] remains to be seen.”