Farmers at Bellata lock their gates to coal seam gas. Image: Jimmy Malecki/Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Coal seam gas has been widely promoted as a game changer that will drive a gas boom. It’s not. It’s a desperate attempt to prop up the fossil-fuel era. It is also a conflict between the established energy industry (backed by governments) and just about everyone else, including state governments desperate to win votes.

However, the predictable failure of CSG will shift the balance in favour of sustainable energy: efficient, smart, renewable, distributed energy-service solutions.

The gas industry and the federal government are throwing everything at supporting CSG. Even the east coast “gas crisis”, caused by companies building natural gas plants in Queensland without locking in their gas supplies, has been used to try to justify more CSG development.

The reality of CSG

The CSG reality is that very large numbers of gas wells must be drilled and networks of pipelines built, conflicting with tourism and agriculture, placing underground water resources at risk, exposing people, animals and plants to toxic chemicals, and potentially leaking methane, a very active greenhouse gas.

In addition, the wells don’t produce gas for very long, and they must then be managed for an unknown period to limit impacts on the local environment and underground water resources. And it’s not cheap gas: in fact, high international prices are needed for it to be profitable.

The gas industry has blamed “cowboy” operators for problems. But how do they respond when a responsible operator like AGL is found to have methane leaks from nearly a tenth of its CSG wells in NSW?

The NSW Chief Scientist has published a thorough report on CSG. While she finds it is possible to manage CSG responsibly, she spends quite a bit of her 24-page report outlining the difficulties in ensuring strong regulation and enforcement, funding to deal with problems during and after production from wells, and strong governance mechanisms.

It seems obvious that these requirements cannot be met by any Australian government. Voters know that no present government can lock in comprehensive environmental regulation and enforcement to ensure future governments manage derelict wells for decades or longer. We simply do not have the governance capacity to properly manage the long-term impacts of CSG.

CSG is more trouble than it’s worth. We have wasted too much time failing to address climate change to be able to enjoy the luxury of using fossil gas, especially leaky CSG, as a transition energy source. The global carbon budget is just too tight.

Moving on

At the same time, technology development, economies of scale and emerging creative financing solutions mean that efficient, smart renewable energy solutions can deliver practical, lowest cost solutions.

While Australian governments and the energy industry wallow in denial, the International Energy Agency, World Bank and numerous leading economists have joined climate scientists and the sustainable energy industry to support this transformation and proclaim that it is practical.

As former Saudi oil sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani said in the 1970s, “the stone age didn’t end for lack of stone”.

We have now moved beyond fossil fuels, although we can acknowledge that they have provided a useful technological base on which we are building our sustainable energy future. The shift away from fossil fuels is reflected in the industry’s increasing difficulty in accessing capital.

This article was first published in ReNew Magazine.

2 replies on “Alan Pears: On the end, not the beginning, of an era for coal seam gas”

  1. Brook Hill. You failed to read that this article is ostensibly about CSG. Can just see you now, popping up to a Waukivory well and filling up your CSG powered vehicle before you head on to Chinchilla to fill up again!

  2. Great story – but hate to pop the bubble. Reality is that most of our vehicles consume, and will continue to consume, fossil fuels – simply because we need to transport the fuel with the vehicle, else we will be constrained to plugging in at every possible energy storage venue on our route. If you contemplate that for a few seconds you will see why we will continue to carry our fuel with us. So essentially we are locked into them until a replacement emerges – possibly a biofuel but that’s at least 10 years away. Follow the money, if you take away artificial Government subsidies, which simply distort reality, the future is biofuels that pack the same punch as our current fuels – probably biodiesels built on kerogen algae such as Bottrycoccis braunii albeit genetically modified to tolerate higher salinity growing environments!

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