Climate

The fracking industry is targeting an estimated 280 trillion cubic feet of unconventional onshore gas in Western Australia.

This is one of the largest fossil fuel resources in the world.

Fracking and other types of unconventional gas are highly polluting forms of energy. Gas fracking releases very high emissions of methane - a highly potent greenhouse gas. When these methane emissions are combined with the carbon pollution created when the gas is burned for energy, the overall pollution impact is just as high or higher than burning coal for energy. 

Developing Western Australia's onshore gas deposits by fracking would represent a massive increase in Western Australia’s contribution to global warming and a terrible legacy for future generations.

Western Australia has abundant renewable energy resources which could provide a clean energy advantage for our state. WA's renewable energy industries already provide many more jobs than the gas fracking industry. This should be the energy future that we choose for our state, not a dangerous and polluting gas fracking industry that damages our climate, our water and our communities.

Climate change and fracking

If you care about climate change, you should oppose fracking.

Climate change is already having an impact in Western Australia - with changes in rainfall patterns and ocean acidification threatening some of our most beloved icons, such as the Ningaloo Reef, the Red Tingle forests of the South West, and the Carnaby’s Cockatoo.[i]

The gas industry encourages debate about the relative climate impact of gas versus coal - tens of millions of dollars are being spent trying to convince us that natural gas is a 'bridging fuel' which should displace coal. Despite all appearances, we are asked to believe that gas miners are the good guys.

The problem with this view is the mounting evidence that fracked gas is on par with, if not worse than, coal in producing the emissions that drive climate change.[ii]

The real argument is that gas is a much worse climate warmant than renewable sources such as wind, solar or concentrated solar thermal, each of which emits 3-4% of the greenhouse gases of coal or gas. There’s no contest:  we shouldn’t be burning either gas or coal. Instead, we should leave them in the ground, and move towards renewable sources of energy.

Source: Paul Hardisty, 2012, available: www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/5/4/872/pdf

Western Australia has abundant potential for expanding renewable energy generation, with some of the best wind and solar resources in Australia.

So rather than argue over small differences in emissions intensity between gas and coal, we should concentrate on the extremely large differences between all fossil fuel types and renewable energy sources.

Fugitive Emissions

Another consideration is the fugitive emissions (methane that escapes during the extraction, transportation and processing of natural gas) of shale gas fracking. A 2011 Cornell University paper estimates that fugitive emissions from shale and tight gasare at least 2.5%, but probably much higher (c.4%)[iii].

Even relatively low fugitive emissions of methane are a major cause for concern, and can cancel any perceived benefits of natural gas over coal, because methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. 

A losing battle

Air pollution and fracking in West Australia

An inevitable by-product of fracking is a high level of atmospheric pollution.[i]. Levels of ozone in remote locations near gasfields have been found to exceed levels found in highly polluted urban locations.

Air pollution as a consequence of unconventional gas production has been shown to increase the risk of: [ii] [iii]

  • Cancers, in particular leukaemia
  • Neurological diseases
  • Impacts to the nervous system
  • Aggravation of existing heart disease
  • Asthma and other lung diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Headaches
  • Nosebleeds
  • Irritation of the throat and eyes

The gas fracking industry wants to develop on farmland and close to regional towns - placing families at risk of toxic, harmful chemicals and health impacts.
 

Frack Free WA Shale Gas Onshore Gas Unconventional Gas Fracking Fraccing Burning like this is common at well sites

 A gas flare at a shale gas well site

What are the pollutants?

The fracking process releases a variety of air pollutants into the atmosphere.

The three main sources of air pollution are toxic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Ground Level Ozone and Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORMs).

Toxic Volatile Organic Compounds

VOCs are organic compounds that are released into the atmosphere[iv], some of which are extremely toxic. There are three VOCs of particular concern associated with the fracking process: BTEX chemical compounds, hydrocarbons, and methane.

  • BTEX chemical compounds
    This compound is composed of a set of four pollutants - benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. Each of these chemicals is extremely toxic. Benzene is the BTEX chemical that is most commonly linked with fracking; there is no safe level of benzene exposure and ambient benzene presence is correlated with increases in cancer (leukaemia), blood diseases, and serious impacts on the nervous system. 
  • Hydrocarbons
    Exposure to these chemicals, related to fracking activity, has been shown to increase rates of headaches and throat and eye irritation[v].
  • Methane
    Methane is found in high levels around fracked well sites – primarily because of fugitive emissions from the well. 

Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORMs)

Radioactive material comes to the surface in flow-back fluid; this is particularly the case in shale gas fracking, which will be the type of fracking most common in Western Australia. These substances – including radium and uranium – are naturally present in shale, and are freed during the fracking process.

Ground Level Ozone

Ground Level Ozone is created when VOCs combine with nitrogen monoxide, heat and sunlight. Chronic exposure to heightened level of ozone is correlated with higher rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease[vi]. Combined with Particulate Matter, ozone creates smog[vii].
 

There are high stakes here. Air pollution can have dire consequences on public health. The European Commission report found there is a cumulatively high risk of air pollution[viii], and as such, the gas fracking industry should have to prove to the community that what they are doing is safe. Until they have done so, they should not be allowed to gamble with the public’s health.

For more information on public health risks, see the Risks section of our website.

References

Climate Change

[ii] R. W. Howarth et al. Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations’

Clim. Change Lett106, 679–690; 2011; available at:www.sustainablefuture.cornell.edu/news/attachments/Howarth-EtAl-2011.pdf

[iii] Ibid.

Air Pollution

[i] Broomfield Mark, Support to the identification of potential risks for the environment and human health arising from hydrocarbons operations involving hydraulic fracturing in Europe. AEA Technology, 2012, available onhttp://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/energy/pdf/fracking%20study.pdf

[ii] Colborn Theo, Kwiatkowski Carol, Schultz Kim, Bachran Mary, Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective, in the International Journal of Human and Ecological Rosk Assessment, 2010. Available on : http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/files/Oct2011HERA10-48forweb3-3-11.pdf

[iii] LechtenBöhmer Stephan, Altmann Mathias, Capito Sofia, Motra Zsoltz, Weindrofr Werner, Zitell Werner, Impacts of Shale gas and shale oil extraction on the environment and on human health. European Oarliament, directoret general for internal policies, policy department, A : Economic and Scientific policy. 2011, available on :http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201107/20110715ATT24183/20110715ATT24183EN.pdf

[v] Mc Kenzie M. Liza, Witter Z. Roxana, Newman S. Lee, Adgate L. John, Human health risk assessment of air emissions from development of unconvetional natural gas ressources. In the Science of Total Environment, 2012. 

[vi] Colborn Theo, Kwiatkowski Carol, Schultz Kim, Bachran Mary, Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective, in the International Journal of Human and Ecological Rosk Assessment, 2010. Available on : http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/files/Oct2011HERA10-48forweb3-3-11.pdf

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Broomfield Mark, Support to the identification of potential risks for the environment and human health arising from hydrocarbons operations involving hydraulic fracturing in Europe. AEA Technology, 2012, available onhttp://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/energy/pdf/fracking%20study.pdf