Elevated Greenhouse Gases Found Near Australian Fracking Sites

Environmental researchers say they have discovered greenhouse gases at excessive levels near Australia’s largest coal seam gas field, which is associated with hydraulic fracturing—fracking.

The discovery has prompted calls to stop expansion of fracking there until researchers can understand if the practice is contributing to climate change, said the LA Times. The report revealed methane, carbon dioxide, and other compounds at an excess of three times normal background levels. Fracking is a process in which silica sand, hundreds of chemicals, and water, are blasted deep into the earth’s underground wells to release natural gas.

Researchers from Southern Cross University brought mobile air testing equipment to the Tara gas field near Condamine in Queensland, Australia and measured the ambient gas levels there, said the LA Times. The team found more than three times the acceptable levels of toxic gases there; surprising, given that industry claims leakage from the wellheads is “negligible,” the LA Times noted. Damien Maher, a biochemist, who helped conduct the testing told the Sydney Morning Herald that, “The concentrations here are higher than any measured in gas fields anywhere else that I can think of, including in Russia.” Some sites near the Tara field wellheads, measured with methane levels as high as 6.89 parts per million (ppm); two ppm is considered normal.

The findings are pending peer review prior to publication and are expected to have some impact on how much and how quickly planned expansion of coal seam gas fracking will occur in Australia, according to environmentalists, said the LA Times. Meanwhile, plans to drill 66 new wells in western Sydney are being considered.

Some scientists say that the increased levels are a result of gas seepage through soil that has moved during fracking and that aquifers are carrying so-called ‘fugitive” emissions, the LA Times explained. Carbon cycle expert Peter Rayner of the University of Melbourne told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the increased gas levels were likely the result of “emissions that escape from the intended process of production.”

Isaac Santos, a geochemist who worked with Maher on the study told journalists last week that, “There are many things we don’t know here, but we do know that the results show widespread elevated levels, and it really highlights the need for baseline studies so we can determine whether this is due to the coal seam gas operations or not,” according to the LA Times. Santos said the greenhouse gas levels seen were even higher than those seen in Russia’s huge Siberian gas fields, where there has been little environmental protection.

Helen Redmond, a physician with the New South Wales chapter of Doctors for the Environment, talked about increased cases of rashes, nausea, headaches, and nose bleeds in Tara gas field area residents, said the LA Times. ”Hydrocarbon exposure cannot be ruled out as a cause without much more comprehensive investigation,” she said.

Meanwhile, of all the health and environmental threats posed by fracking, one of the more dangerous may be that from silica sand, which is used in the millions of pounds at fracking sites in the United States, In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) believes silica sand becoming airborne is putting thousands of well workers and those living downwind of an active well at serious risk of health problems. At least 4 million pounds of silica sand are used at an active fracking well.

Ingesting too much silica sand can lead to silicosis, a dangerous and irreversible health complication that is marked by breathing trouble. The disease gets progressively worse and only preventative measures can be taken to avoid it altogether.

On a windy day at a fracking site, white plumes of dust can be seen rising from a fracking well. These plumes are easily moved by the wind and spread toxic silica sand dust over a widespread area.

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