The Queensland Government has put out for comment a Queensland resources industry development plan, Draft for consultation, November 2021with a consultation deadline of 11 February 2022.
My concern is that the future plans for coal and gas do not sit well the latest science and with what the world must collectively do to prevent the current climate crisis from becoming a tragedy. Within that I have a specific concern about the plans relating to the fracking of gas in the Channel Country. Relevant to these concerns I’ll make four statements with some supporting notes. (Last updated, 27 February 2022)
As a summary, here are the four statements:
- The climate crisis is way more urgent than appreciated
- Methane is worse for the climate than scientists realised, so gas is not a benign transition fuel
- With respect to fossil fuels, before finalising the plan, Queensland should pause and consider, and formally consult with scientists who understand climate from an Earth Systems perspective
- Fracking the Channel Country is absurd
The climate crisis is way more urgent than appreciated
The Queensland plan seems to be based on the notion that as long as we get to net zero by 2050 we can please ourselves, and please anyone who will buy our fossil fuels, without penalty or adverse outcomes.
This graph from Glenn Peters, a climate scientist who worked on the latest IPCCAR6 report, is based on IPCC numbers:
An 83% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C requires net zero emissions for the whole planet by 2040. However 1.5°C is a certainty, which will probably be reached in about 10 years time.
These are not good odds. New research shows global warming of 1.5C will be catastrophic for almost all coral reefs worldwide, even sites scientists once thought of as refuges – none of which are known in Australia. In a decade’s time, there will be no Great Barrier Reef. (Tourism may survive if ‘botanical gardens’ reefs are created with heat tolerant species being bred in labs.)
A recent study showed that by 2050 there would be 254 “climate-sensitive suburbs” at increased risk of a drop in value, rising to 1438 suburbs by 2100. Some of these are vulnerable to fire and flood, for many the threat is sea level rise which is becoming troublesome right now on every continent as well as islands, such as in Torres Strait and the Pacific Islands.
Will Steffen, a world class climate scientist who looks at climate from an ‘Earth systems’ perspective, and is a councillor at the Climate Council, gave a talk in April 2020 Climate Change 2020: Why we are facing an emergency where he said
- “If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization. No amount of economic cost-benefit analysis is going to help us.”
Tipping points are points where a significant earth system moves to a new state, on its own momentum, and cannot be stopped by human intervention. He identified 15:
Science writer David Spratt recently reviewed the scientific literature on tipping points, with this conclusion:
- At just 1.2°C of global average warming, tipping points have been passed for several large Earth systems. These include Arctic sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet, The Amundsen Sea glaciers in West Antarctica, the eastern Amazonian rainforest, and the world’s coral systems. The world will warm to 1.5°C by around 2030, with additional warming well beyond 1.5°C in the system after that. Yet even at the current level of warming, these systems will continue to move to qualitatively different states. In most cases, strong positive feedbacks are driving abrupt change. At higher levels of warming, the rate of change will quicken. The meme that “we have eight years to avoid 1.5°C and tipping points” should be deleted from the climate advocacy vocabulary. It is simply wrong.
He says decarbonisation is not enough. We will need to engage in drawdown, and also look at earth-cooling schemes such as cloud brightening.
Will Steffen points out that CO2 is increasing 100 times faster now than it did coming out of the ice age. Temperature is worse at 170 times.
About 20:25 on the video he looks into what is happening longer term based on this graph:
In geological terms what we are doing is equivalent to what happened 66 million years ago with the asteroid strike that gave us the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event which knocked over the dinosaurs.
Sir David King in Forget 2050, experts say it’s 2030 or bust for net zero emissions told Melbourne’s National Climate Emergency summit in February 2021:
- Humanity has less than a five year window to take decisive action on climate change, the UK’s former chief scientist told the opening session of the National Climate Emergency Summit in Melbourne.
“We have to move rapidly,” said Professor Sir David King, founder and chair of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University and a former advisor to both the Blair and Brown governments.
“What we do over the next three to four years, I believe, is going to determine the future of humanity. We are in a very very desperate situation.”
Methane is worse for the climate than scientists realised, so gas is not a benign transition fuel
According to Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA GISS, the IPCC AR6 report found that methane was responsible for around 40% of human-caused warming, roughly double what had been thought. Methane’s high potency in the short term (after 12 years it converts to CO2) may make that balance worse in the context of the climate battle in the next 10-30 years.
Also, while atmospheric CO2 has increased by 50%, methane has tripled and is on a steeper incremental path.
Apart from methane as industrial feedstock, Climate Council warns:
- Gas has no role to play in building a prosperous, resilient economy for the future. It is volatile, dangerous and unnecessary.
Gas is price volatile, driving energy prices for Australians. Investing further in gas risks locking in huge investment losses, stranded assets and environmental harm.
Queensland draft resources industry development plan sees gas as a positive in mitigating global heating, as on page 11:
- Our gas industry’s role in supporting grid reliability and security is enabling the deployment of renewable energy generation in Australia and internationally.
This clearly needs to change.
With respect to fossil fuels, before finalising the plan, Queensland should pause and consider, and formally consult with scientists who understand climate from an Earth Systems perspective
We need a space to consult good science, to pause and consider before approving new mines which must become stranded assets if the planet is to have a liveable future. New exploration licenses must be seen in the same frame.
All of the IPCC scenarios see 1.5°C breached for a time. At that point, if not before, tipping points may take us to ‘Hothouse Earth’ where we lose control. On current trends 1.5°C is expected in the early to mid-2030s.
Will Steffen thinks 1.5°C will be breached, and we have some chance of limiting heating to 2°C.
The Climate Council where Steffen is a councillor in reading of the IPCC report repeated their recommendation made earlier of 75% reductions by 2030 and net zero by 2035.
See also their Aim High, Go Fast: Why Emissions Need to Plummet this Decade.
Since the Labor lost the Federal treasury benches in 2013 the Climate Change Authority has been nobbled, starved of funds, and ignored, so Australia has no official source of advice on climate matters. The move in Queensland to set up an independent EPA has merit, but meanwhile I would suggest the Queensland Cabinet consult the Climate Council to brief themselves on the climate emergency. I appreciate that there is momentum in the system and attempted to sketch the dimensions in a long-read post Methane worse than we thought, will wreck the planet. The situation is complex.
However, it’s time for a reset, not a plan based on yesterday’s dreams.
Fracking the Channel Country is absurd
Action 21 (page 42) Continue Kati-Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin Consultation states that the Government has committed to establishing a stakeholder advisory group to consult on how an appropriate balance of environmental and economic considerations can be achieved in the basin, including what activities can occur. Yet the ABC reports that Santos was given extended gas exploration rights over Queensland’s Channel Country in March 2020.
Then late last year we were told:
- In October, 11 applications for petroleum leases across more than 250,000 hectares of land in the Channel Country bioregion of the Lake Eyre Basin were granted to gas company Origin Energy.
This is a photo of the Channel Country:
This is what it looks like when it floods:
I understand the gas in the area is shale gas, or ‘tight’ gas, which must be fracked (or hydraulically fractured) with water and chemicals. There is conflicting information about how much water is required, varying from 1-2 ML (million litres) to up to 30ML. Lock the Gate assembles various quotes by authoritative bodies in Unconventional Gas: Shale and Tight Gas & Fracking Risks and Risks of Unconventional Gas Extraction in the Lake Eyre Basin.
Taking a lower end of average 1-2 ML, we need to realise that 1000 litres of water weighs a tonne, so 1 megalitre (1ML) weighs 1000 tonnes. Fracking water contains some 2% of chemicals, many of them toxic. Water is typically delivered in trucks, so a single average frack of 1.5 ML would require 300 x 5 tonne trucks, or 150 x 10 tonnes. Each well will need to be fracked up to 30-40 times during its life.
This is an image of tight gas extraction in Wyoming:
No doubt with directional or horizontal drilling there will be fewer wells, but we still would need a landscape with a web of wells, with all-weather roads capable of bearing considerable loads. By definition, the roads would need to be above the flood level, meaning that there would no longer be a flood plain with water able to spread freely. So the flood plain would be destroyed.
Shale gas requires larger pads than coal seam gas in order to accommodate fracking. North American studies indicate that each well-pad destroys about 10 acres (4 hectares) of vegetation.
Gas extraction involves drawing out the water (around 30% of what is inserted) yielding wastewater that can contain a range of naturally occurring contaminants from the deep shale layers, heavy metals, naturally occurring radioactive materials, volatile and semi volatile organic compounds and a high concentrations of salts which need to be dealt with. In the Wyoming photo at the bottom towards the right there is a larger hub pad, which may look something like this one in Kimberley, WA:
Clearly the industrialisation of the landscape through fracking for tight gas is incompatible with the current balance of nature, wildlife and the largest organic beef region on the planet.
The choice is to keep the flood plain, or destroy it, there is no middle way.
Update (13 March 2022):
In February 2022 The Environmental Defenders Office Ltd (EDO) has released a report Implementing an effective independent Environmental Protection Agency in Queensland. It seems an EPA was established in Queensland in 1998, but “without sufficient independence mechanisms, resources or strong governance” . It was abolished in 2009 by the Campbell Newman LNP government, whereby the Department of Environment and Science (DES) became:
- responsible for environmental impact assessment and decision making for specified environmentally relevant activities (ERAs), but not all environmentally impactful activities.
It’s not clear to me what happened between 2009 and 2016 when the Planning Act 2016 (Qld) became law. Certainly now the Co-ordinator General and the State Assessment and Referral Agency (SARA) can ignore DES rulings:
- Currently, the Coordinator-General has the power to mandate environmental conditions that no other decision-maker, including the Court, can be inconsistent with. Further, agencies such as SARA and Economic Development Queensland both have the power to disregard the expert advice of DES in the assessment of proposed development activities.
In the case of the Olive Downs Coal Mine:
- DES reportedly advised the Coordinator-General that the draft environmental impact statement provided insufficient detail to properly assess the impacts to the environment of leaving final voids in the floodplain, and that the proposal was considered to pose a significant and inappropriate impact to the Isaac River floodplain and associated ecology. Yet, the Coordinator-General reportedly did not request the further information DES stated was necessary to properly assess the environmental risks of the project, and instead mandated conditions which provided for the final voids to be left in the floodplain.
Apparently no reason was given, and the information as to what happened was only made public via a Right to Information application by ABC News.
The report cites a September 2021 EDO article Falling through the cracks: Issues with integrity in environmental assessment of gas activities in Queensland where they say that unlike other states there has been little transparent public debate and scrutiny over the industry’s regulation and impacts:
- In contrast to the significant public interest in gas activities, in Queensland there is very limited transparency or accountability to the public around the assessment process for gas related environmental authorities, the key environmental permit regulating the impacts of petroleum and gas exploration and production activities.
Gas activities have the largest footprint of any industry projects applied for in Australia, yet in Queensland gas proponents are generally not required to state where specifically on the landscape they will be undertaking their activity in their assessment materials, nor is this generally provided for in conditions. This lack of specificity greatly reduces the ability of communities to understand what the impact will be on their communities, livelihoods, cultural activities, land and water, and reduces the ability to hold proponents to account on their approved activities, let alone reducing the ability for meaningful environmental and social impact assessment to be undertaken.
This is clearly problematic. At present the Queensland Government is undertaking an Independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) consultation, so we expect better days to come.