Gathering independent evidence on the risks and opportunities from onshore gas extraction
Australia’s extraction of coal seam gas in the past five years has resulted in significant change to our agricultural regions, especially in Queensland.
Understanding the social, environmental and economic implications of such development for rural towns and regions is critical for managing risks and making the most of opportunities.
CSIRO seeks to generate independent scientific evidence. Communities, industry and governments can then assess this evidence when making their decisions.
Extensive rather than intensive impacts from onshore gas extraction
Extracting coal seam gas (CSG) and exploring for other onshore gases such as from shale or tight rock reservoirs is different to extracting gas from offshore sources. It is also fundamentally different in its impacts to other types of resource extraction, such as coal mining.
Unlike offshore natural gas, which is under pressure and will flow freely to a well, onshore gas extraction and exploration usually requires some sort of hydraulic fracturing or fraccing. Rural communities and farmers are concerned about the impacts of fraccing on water quality and availability, among other things.
Extracting economic quantities of onshore gas requires a large number of small wells compared to something like coal mining, which involves a smaller number of larger sites. This means the footprint of CSG wells is much more extensive than a single coalmine.
CSG development affects farms ranging from broad acre cattle grazing to intensive horticulture. It affects small towns and larger regional centres.
The community has concerns about the effects of this on the productivity of the land for farmers and on its ecosystem function, including its biodiversity.
GISERA supports CSIRO’s independent research into core areas of concern
CSIRO, through the Gas Industry Social & Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) carries out much of its research on environmental, social and economic impacts of onshore gas.
While industry and governments are partners in the research, CSIRO maintains strict autonomy through a carefully thought out governance structure that is designed for independence, transparency and integrity.
Research is directed by Regional Research Advisory Committees where a majority of members are external and independent of industry or government. GISERA’s communication protocols mean that all aspects of its research and operations, including budgets, are publically available on its website.
Such research independence is critical for addressing regional and public good questions and concerns. CSIRO’s research focuses on five areas:
- Surface and groundwater – How will CSG affect quality and quantity of water?
- Agricultural land management – What are the impacts on farm production, productivity and amenity?
- Terrestrial biodiversity – What are the impacts on regional flora and fauna?
- Marine environment – What are the impacts on water quality, reefs and vulnerable species like turtles and dugongs?
- Social and economic – What are the costs and benefits for communities?
CSIRO is assessing biological, chemical and social impacts of developments.
Looking to maximise benefits and minimise risks
Our research looks at the implications of our findings for maximising the benefits from any developments while mitigating costs and negative impacts.
We do not advocate any particular course of action. Instead, we provide the information that can be used in discussions, and for making decisions at community, government and industry levels.
For example, unsealed roads leading to CSG sites can lead to increased runoff of sediments into waterways. Research has shown that over 40% of the sediment washed into a waterway can be from unpaved rural roads, even if such roads only take up 1% of the catchment area.
CSIRO research has shown that aerial photography can be combined with computerised water flow models to provide information and maps on the location and catchment area of water flows.
CSG staff can use such information to plan where to put roads and minimise runoff of sediments. Farmers can use a water flow map to better communicate with CSG companies about their concerns and needs.
Social issues just as important as environmental and economic
CSIRO held workshops with farmers in the Queensland Western Downs towns of Roma, Chinchilla and Dalby. Our research found that many farmers were concerned that CSG company staff did not understand or appreciate their needs and concerns.
Farmers have a very close connection with their farm and a strong sense of ‘place’, which is not readily understood by CSG workers from non-rural backgrounds. For example, farmers may see CSG infrastructure as being unsightly on their ‘place’.
We found that one way to bridge this communication gap is for the CSG companies to employ at least some people who have a rural and farm background.
CSIRO also measured the sense of wellbeing of Western Downs’ communities during 2014 and then again this year. We found that the communities’ sense of wellbeing was related to the level of services and facilities, the social aspects of community life, feelings of personal safety and opportunities for employment and business.
We found that people in 2016 had less satisfaction with regard to employment opportunities but were less concerned about roads, dust and noise than they were in 2014.
We also found that people were more likely to be positive about CSG development when they were listened to and could have a say. This was connected to having high trust in how the environment was being managed, feeling there were employment opportunities and having good access to information.
Given CSG development covers extensive areas and affects many people, our research findings suggest CSG companies need to proactively understand and engage with communities. But they can’t assume that people’s values are similar from one place to the next.
Such knowledge is important for decision makers given the predicted expansion of the CSG industry, with thousands of wells planned for the Surat Basin and anticipated developments in New South Wales.