Predicting long-term impacts of coal seam gas (CSG) production can be difficult due to potential cumulative and region-specific impacts of multiple developments. CSIRO is conducting regional-scale research into cumulative impacts through the Australian Government’s Bioregional Assessment Programme. CSIRO’s research on regional specific impacts are being conducted through the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA).

Estimating social and environmental impacts for a given time and place is challenging because of variation in the:

  • nature of land use in surrounding areas;
  • amount, density and location of surface infrastructure required;
  • geology;
  • hydrodynamics;
  • economics and logistics of producing and transporting the gas; and
  • the range of management and monitoring practices in place.

Social issues

In Australia, a number of significant CSG fields underlie agricultural land and will draw upon existing infrastructure and social services.

Social impacts from CSG developments are likely to flow from:

  • the access and use of land and water resources
  • competing demands placed on human capital and social infrastructure
  • challenges to existing rural community identities and ways of life

The rapid influx of relatively high-income residents can result in a sharp increase in competition among residents for social and natural resources. This can create tensions at local and regional scales.

The set of potentially negative and positive impacts are not uniformly distributed across space and time. Spatially, most negative impacts are accrued locally, and may not be off-set by substantial positive impacts that accrue at larger regional scales.

CSG operations will upscale and downscale over time, altering the distribution of wealth to different stakeholders and regions and influencing the local availability of natural and social resources such as water or housing.

Individuals and communities have motivations beyond economic concerns. Identities and affinities associated with activities and lifestyles such as ‘farming’, ‘rural life’ and ‘life on the land’ are powerful dimensions of the way in which communities perceive and understand CSG development and their potential impacts. They are therefore a component of concerns and protests about CSG.

CSG development is capital and labour intensive and creates significant demands for human and physical resources and can, as a consequence, test the capacity of local and regional governance to manage social and economic transformation, during both the upscaling and downscaling of development.

Environmental impacts

The potential environmental impacts of CSG developments depends on the volume and quality of produced water, its treatment, and the extent of built infrastructure associated with CSG operations.

Groundwater contamination

A source of concern is groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing fluids leaving the coal seam and entering fresh water aquifers. In Australia, hydraulic fracturing occurs only in the least permeable coal seams, which is about 30% of all coal seam gas wells. Most of the injected water and chemicals return to the surface as flowback/produced water, leaving most of the proppant and small amounts of the chemicals underground. The produced water is treated and re-used or disposed of according to state regulations. The effects of chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing on surface water and shallow groundwater, through surface spills and leaks from ponds for example, are being considered*. The contamination of deeper groundwater is not currently being examined.

*The National Chemicals Assessment project assesses the risks posed by chemicals associated with CSG extraction. The project is funded by The Australian Government and is a collaboration between the federal Department of the Environment and Energy (DoEE), the Department of Health’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), and CSIRO.

 Methane seeps

A fact sheet has been developed by CSIRO researchers with expertise in hydrogeology, geology, ecology and biogeochemistrys to summarise what we currently know about these methane seeps in the Condamine River (Queensland) including natural and human causes, and the human and environmental health and safety impacts of methane escaping from underground. This fact sheet is available here.

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