December 28, 2016

Radio National: Coal seam gas report ‘suppressed’ (transcript)

It’s been hailed as the low carbon fuel to help us transition to a clean energy future, but in recent months, some have started to question the climate credentials of the so called ‘unconventional gas’; coal seam gas and shale gas…

TRANSCRIPT – Radio National Breakfast: Coal Seam Gas Report ‘Suppressed’

Fran Kelly- It’s been hailed as the low carbon fuel to help us transition to a clean energy future, but in recent months, some have started to question the climate credentials of the so called ‘unconventional gas’; coal seam gas and shale gas.

Greens leader, Bob Brown says ‘the jury is out’ on whether gas will actually deliver  greenhouse gas emission savings.

So back in June, a renewable energy think tank called Beyond Zero Emissions, tried to get to the bottom of the matter, commissioning a report designed to compare whole of life cycle emissions from coal seam gas and shale gas, with other energy sources – resources including shale, coal, and renewables.

Now Beyond Zero Emissions claims that consultants Worley Parsons are refusing to hand over that report, as our environment editor Gregg Borschmann reports, Worley Parsons rejects that claim.

Gregg Borschmann- In the Australian policy response to climate change, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of gas. Gas is going to helpcut Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

Martin Ferguson- This is a major long-term benefit to Australia. Gas is clean energy, it is about the transition to a lower emissions economy.

Gregg Borschmann – That was Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson speaking on Breakfast two weeks ago. But as the new coal seam gas industry booms, and shale gas looms, what if these unconventional sources of gas, turn out to be little better then digging up and burning coal.

Matthew Wright- The upper management or the board has actually stopped us from  receiving the report and we believe that’s on the basis that the report has some pretty explosive detail.

Gregg Borschmann – That was Matthew Wright, Executive Director of the climate research and advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions. The report he’s talking about was commissioned in June this year. It was contracted to be a major new report on the climate credentials of both conventional gas and unconventional sources like coal seam and shale gas.

These were to be compared with other forms of energy, from coal to renewables. And most significantly it was to carry the brand of Worley Parsons, one of the world’s biggest engineering companies consulting to the resources sector. Curiously, earlier this year, Worley Parsons had completed a similar report for APPEA, The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. So why two reports?

Matthew Wright again:

Matthew Wright- The first one was basically being misrepresented, so we went to Worley and said ‘(you’ll) will you be able to do the same sort of thing for us’, and we even increased the scope beyond that to capture a whole lot of other emissions and other displacement scenarios that APPEA has obviously, deliberately, left out of their scope.

Gregg Borschmann – The full APPEA report was finally released two weeks ago. One newspaper carried the headline ‘ Reports Back Coal Seam Gas As A Cleaner Power Source’. Another saw it differently. “ Coal Seam Gas Clean Claims Under Attack”.

But APPEA, the peak body for the oil and gas sector, is backing its report. Rick Wilkinson is APPEA’s Chief Operating Officer for Eastern Australia.

Rick Wilkinson- The science has come in more then once. Its come in from the CSIRO, from the University of Sydney and now from Worley Parsons. The answers consistent, it’s the same, gas is better then coal when you use it per generation. It’s just proving to be hard for the Greens to accept the science.

Gregg Borschmann – Is there any evidence that large amounts of total life-cycle and fugitive emissions are being caused by the processing and extraction of gas?

Rick Wilkinson- What Worley Parsons did was to look at the full life-cycle use and the international standard for life-cycle analysis.

Gregg Borschmann – And there in lies at least part of the problem. Matthew Wright says his measure comes from the American Petroleum Institute ‘Compendium’, which cautions that it is, quote: “neither a standard nor a recommended practice for the development of emissions inventories,” unquote.

Matthew Wright says updates in the past two years by the US Environmental Protection Agency, reveal significant increases in so called fugitive emissions, as gas is extracted.

Matthew Wright- Wyoming is an example, where individual wells had 30 percent of their entire volume of gas to atmosphere and field wide 15 percent of the gas was hitting the atmosphere.

If you point that to the industry, they’ll say ‘Oh, we’re Australia, we’ve got better practice”. But how can you say that when we don’t have any measurement of Australian practice?

Gregg Borschmann – Unlike the earlier APPEA report, Beyond Zero also asked Worley to examine evidence for so called ‘migratory emissions’, which are currently unaccounted for and largely ignored by the industry.

These are emissions that don’t escape at the well-head drilled by the mining company, but elsewhere.

Matthew Wright- The gas is actually let out because you’re shifting the water, which used to keep it capped underground. And aquifers don’t just cover a square kilometer, they can cover tens of square kilometers. So you’re suddenly opening up a huge amount of surface of the land, which could have abandoned wells and bores, and they can all be releasing methane into the atmosphere.

Gregg Borschmann – So you’re talking about the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of wells that have been drilled by the pastoral industry over the last hundred and fifty years.

Matthew Wright- Absolutely, and farmers in the past haven’t had to have permits to do wells, so there are wells everywhere. There are bore holes everywhere, and we know where some of them are but we don’t know where all of them are.

Gregg Borschmann – Matthew Wright says his team had a good working relationship with the scientists and engineers at Worley. He says he’s confident that the report was finished two months ago; then something went wrong.

Matthew Wright- We were told “Great news, it’s finished. It’s just going to be sent up to the legal team in Queensland.’ We started to hear less and less of the Worley team, and we were basically told it had become too difficult and general comments around ‘its too politically sensitive and you know, we work in this field and we can’t be releasing this kind of report for you’. And one would assume it’s related to Worley Parsons having a huge vested interest in the industry’s development.

Gregg Borschmann – Worley Parsons refused to provide specific answers to a series of questions put by Breakfast and no company spokesperson was made available for interview. Instead the company issued a six-paragraph statement. It said in part:

‘Worley Parsons rejects out of hand the baseless claims allegedly made by Mathew Wright of Beyond Zero Emissions. Beyond Zero Emissions engaged Worley Parsons to prepare a report to analyse the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of Australian gas compared to other energy sources. BZE and Worley Parsons subsequently agreed, NOT to proceed with this report.’

Gregg Borschmann – the statement doesn’t explain WHY this occurred. Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero disputes that there was any agreement not to proceed.

Worley Parsons said that instead of the report for Beyond Zero, the company decided to issue ‘a report’ via a leading international open access scientific journal. It’s not clear from the company’s statement, how much of the original report will be published in this way. Worley says its report has been finalised, the peer review process is underway and it’s expected to be published within weeks.

Matthew Wright says he won’t be satisfied until he sees the original report, prepared under contract, for his organization. But he says, even that won’t be enough.

Matthew Wright- We need something more then the report that we’ve commissioned, much more then the report APPEA have done, that actually goes out on the ground, in the field, involves dozens of people with testing instruments, collects field data, collates that data, does proper analysis on it and gets the results.

Fran Kelly- That’s Matthew Wright, executive Director of Beyond Zero Emissions, ending that report from our environment editor Gregg Borschmann.

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