Studies release today from the CSIRO and the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) confirm that the use of chemicals in the coal seam gas (CSG) industry pose little risk to industry workers, the community or the environment.
To increase the knowledge and understanding about chemicals used in the natural gas industry and in recognition of the scientific and community interest in the risks of chemical use, in June 2012 the Australian Government commissioned the National assessment of chemicals associated with coal seam gas extraction in Australia .
The Assessment examined 113 chemicals used by companies in Australia for drilling and hydraulic fracturing for CSG between 2010 and 2012, to develop an in-depth understanding of the risks these chemicals could pose to the health of workers, the public and the environment.
Spanning five technical papers – CSIRO found that residual chemicals remaining underground after hydraulic fracturing are unlikely to reach people or ecosystems in concentrations that would cause concern and therefore risks are very low.
Chief Executive Director of APPEA Malcolm Roberts said: “The CSIRO studies are just the latest independent research which should reassure people that, properly regulated, hydraulic fracturing is safe.
“The chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing in the CSG industry accounts for less than one hundredth of one per cent of chemicals transported by road in Australia. Extensive regulation of heavy vehicle movements and chemical storage already minimises the risks identified.
“Australia’s natural gas industry provided data to the NICNAS assessment and will consider its findings. However, it should be noted that some 80 per cent of the 40,000 chemicals approved for use across all Australian industries are yet to be assessed by NICNAS in the same way.”
Complementary work undertaken by NICNAS as part of the National assessment of chemicals associated with coal seam gas extraction in Australia examined the risks to health and the environment from surface (above ground) chemical spills.
The NICNAS assessment focuses on what it describes as “worst-case” scenarios that are highly improbable, assuming that none of the safety and handling precautions required by law were used.
The NICNAS assessment notes that: “In practice, safety and handling precautions are required, which means the likelihood of a risk occurring would actually be reduced for those chemicals that were identified as a potential risk to humans or the environment.”
Industrial chemical use and coal seam gas operations are closely regulated by state, territory and Commonwealth governments, which legally require protective measures to be in place to safeguard human health and the environment.
With respect to public health the assessment found that “the majority of chemicals were found to be unlikely to cause harm to public health when used in coal seam gas extraction, even if they were to spill or leak in large volumes without the leak or spill being detected or cleaned up.”
And for the two scenarios which may pose a risk to public health would “require the person to drink, wash with or swim in water containing the chemical on a regular basis over an extended period for harm to occur”.
And we certainly hope that scenario is as unlikely as it sounds.
When it comes to the environmental risk – the risks are again low with the majority of chemicals found to be unlikely to cause harm to the environment when used in coal seam gas extraction, even if they were to spill or leak in high volumes.
And thankfully in Australia, we have some of the most robust and onerous regulation in the world when it comes to developing our natural resources.
Legislation, regulations, standards and codes of practice cover the coal seam gas industry including workplace and public health and safety, environmental and water protection, managing and reusing waste water, and the transport, handling, storage and disposal of chemicals.
It is evident from the joint CSIRO and NINAS assessment that a diligent industry supported by robust regulation has – and will continue to – operate safely and in a manner that protects the safety of those operating within it, living near it and the surrounding environment.
And while this is good news for industry – confirming an outcome it expected – with several scientific reports now confirming that with proper regulation, the natural gas industry can operate safely (see our write-ups here, here and here) we are only too happy to watch the evidence and facts pile high.