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Aug 12, 2014

Fugitive CSG emissions are no big deal, right? Wrong.

You may have heard that the amount of methane that leaks into the atmosphere is similar to the amount produced by four cows. Not so fast ...

Paddy Manning

Crikey business editor

Leaking methane is the Achilles’ heel of Australia’s $60 billion-plus coal seam gas export industry, so there was a rush last week to welcome the CSIRO’s first measurements of these so-called “fugitive emissions”, which found very little leakage. But the finding was much narrower than initial reports suggested.

The CSIRO scientists themselves were acutely aware of the limitations of their study, but their qualifications got lost in the headlines. The Australian Financial Review trumpeted: Coal-seam gas releases very little Greenhouse gas, CSIRO findsThe Australian had fun trivialising the issue: CSG leaks ‘equal to that of cows’ (That line by the way was plucked straight from oil and gas lobby group APPEA’s press release, comparing daily fugitive emissions of methane to that of four cows). ABC Rural’s report online read: Coal seam gas well fugitive emissions lower than previous estimates: CSIRO. Sadly these headlines don’t stand up to scrutiny: the jury is still well and truly out on fugitive emissions from CSG.

Let’s back up a little. Gas burns more cleanly than coal, but there has been a ferocious argument whether higher emissions are associated with unconventional gas production — a loose category that includes coal seam gas, shale gas and tight gas. The debate has huge significance because if even a small proportion of methane leaks into the atmosphere — as little as 4% of lifetime production — then the advantage of gas over coal is lost, because methane has more than 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. If leakage rates are below 1-2%, then gas is likely to be cleaner than coal, CSIRO says. American studies found leakage rates of 4% or more, but the results could not be translated here because their unconventional boom has been overwhelmingly in shale gas, while Queensland’s industry is exporting coal seam gas, which lies shallower and requires less fracking.

Southern Cross University scientists Isaac Santos and Damien Maher caused a furore in 2012 when they did the first field work, driving through the most densely populated coal seam gas field in Australia, at Tara on the western Darling Downs, with a spectrometer and GPS, detecting elevated ambient gas levels in the production field and hotspots of methane and CO2.

“The implications could not be more serious … scientists suspect there is serious underestimation going on.”

They noted that existing techniques concentrated on leaks from gas equipment and did not account for leakage through the soil or water:

“When techniques such as directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing are used, methane can diffuse into overlying sediments and groundwater aquifers. The magnitude of the atmospheric flux associated with this diffuse source is currently unknown and difficult to estimate.”

The two scientists’ work was slammed by the gas industry and by then energy minister Martin Ferguson, when really they were calling for more study. They did not arrive at a percentage estimate of leakage rates from coal seam gas production. Now the CSIRO has found leaks from 43 wells are around 0.02% of lifetime production. But there are three huge caveats around this. Initial reactions criticised the size of the sample, but that’s missing the point: the wells were chosen by the industry partners in the study, who would be extremely unlikely to offer their oldest or worst wells for testing. Secondly, the study provides only a snapshot in time. To really assess the total leakage rate one has to track the lifecycle of a coal seam gas well, from drilling, completion, production, repair and maintenance, all the way through to decommissioning.

Scientists suspect the venting stage — after the well is drilled but before it goes into production — could have particularly high fugitive emissions. None of this counted in the study (which the authors acknowledge). Lastly, the CSIRO study only looked at emissions from the well pad — the slab of concrete the CSG wellhead sits upon. There are lots of other potential sources of fugitive methane emissions from a coal seam gas field, both in terms of the equipment and — as Santos and Maher’s work suggested — through soil and water. The study itself notes that an order-of-magnitude higher leakage rate was detected at a gas relief vent on a water-gathering line, but this was not included in the study, which noted:

“… there are many other potential emission points throughout the gas production and distribution chain that were not examined in this study. These include well completion activities, gas compression plants, water treatment facilities, pipelines and downstream operations including LNG facilities. Emissions from some of these sources are often estimated for reporting purposes using methodology based on emission factors largely derived from the U.S. gas industry. However, reliable measurements on Australian facilities are yet to be made and the uncertainty associated with some of these estimates remains high.”

The implications could not be more serious. National emissions data is based on inventories that often rely on estimates rather than direct measurement. Are US emissions really falling due to the unconventional boom and fuel switching from coal to gas? Scientists suspect there is serious underestimation going on. Then there are the imponderables. Two years since after bubbling gas was first detected along long stretches of the Condamine River, we are no closer to knowing whether it is attributable to coal seam gas extraction. Farmers and gas companies disagree over whether the bubbling gas was there before, but we may never know for sure because no baseline study was ever done. The river is still bubbling away. The CSIRO is working on a top-down methodology that will measure all sources of fugitive methane emissions. It will take years. Let’s not jump to conclusions here. *Paddy Manning is author of What the Frack: everything you need to know about coal seam gas, published by NewSouth Books

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8 thoughts on “Fugitive CSG emissions are no big deal, right? Wrong.

  1. Roger Clifton

    Thank you Paddy for the expose of methane leakage from CSG. There is also 1-2% leakage from long distance pipelines and larger leakage from municipal pipework, so much so that “gas main explosions” are folklore.

    Readers who did science at school will realise that CSG is mostly methane, but so is CNG, LNG, shale gas and yes, “natural gas” — and they all leak similarly. It is all the same stuff, an enemy of the greenhouse.

  2. Chris Key

    One area where the science is weak is the origin of the hydrocarbons. Volcanoes spew out vast volumes of methane and water. Where does it come from?

    In the absence of that knowledge we cannot have a planetary perspective on the carbon and water cycles.

  3. Chris Key

    And a further note – in parts of the US and Poland, shale gas does not burn, being more than 50% Nitrogen. How does that occur? Where does the Nitrogen come from?

  4. Stuart Coyle

    Chris a bit of organic chemistry should tell you, the nitrogen comes from the same place as the carbon and hydrogen that make up Methane: dead plants from millions of years ago. Fortunately nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas and it is so abundant in the atmosphere that we have almost no chance of buggering things up with it.

  5. Roger Clifton

    Chris Key admits to weak knowledge of the carbon cycle.

    It is only a cycle, with net zero carbon fluxes, when all runaway forces have spent themselves or pushed the system to a new equilibrium. There is no strong restoring force here.

    The carbon cycle is broken. Man’s carbon emissions have pushed atmospheric CO2 into runaway mode. Even if the new equilibrium is reached within the lifetime of our species, the climate everywhere is likely to be different from what we know now.

    The nitrogen cycle is broken too. Nitrogen fertilisers are synthesised and applied to crops worldwide, and the biosphere is changing in response, for the worse. At least, it’s for the worse from our point of view but certain algae and their grazers are probably delighted with the new nutrients.

  6. Lockie Histo

    Have you considered a mass balance in the carbon cycle using the CH4 emissions from volcanoes? So much for the bog theory of hydrocarbons.

  7. Roger Clifton

    @Chris Key, Lockie Histo. Rocks normally contain at least some traces of carbon that expresses as a partial pressure of either CO2 or methane. Oxidised rock such as in subduction zones tends to release CO2, most evidently in volcanoes around the Pacific rim. Reduced rock such as that emerging at the mid-ocean ridges releases small quantities of methane, in that case, mainly to the (oxidised) ocean floor. Most of the great extinctions in the fossil record are associated with extremely large flows of basalt, but it is arguable how much their (massive) emissions of CO2 and CH4 contributed. Contribution of methane from modern volcanoes is minor.

    It is the biosphere that dominates modern carbon fluxes.
    Biomass is the source of the carbon that we are dumping into the greenhouse today.

  8. tonyfunnywalker

    Funny but Renewables have no CO2 or Methane emissions at all Paddy but Abbott is the process of closing that down. The potential source of uncontrollable methane is the melting permafrost in the Arctic and where gas emission craters are already being formed.
    The retreating ice fields will add to the problem as the Artic becomes increasingly ice free as warming continues unabated.