A scientific study is raising serious doubts about the green credentials of the expanding coal seam gas (CSG) industry, suggesting it is far less environmentally clean than it claims.
Coal seam gas is booming across southern Queensland and is now expanding into NSW, and the industry is pushing its economic benefits as well as its green credentials.
Rick Wilkinson from the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) says compared to coal, CSG can provide energy with up to 70 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions.
But there is one critical element in this equation: how much greenhouse gas emissions leak into the atmosphere during the extraction process, what the industry calls fugitive emissions.
Peter Rayner from the University of Melbourne says fugitive emissions are "emissions that escape from the intended process of production".
"They're emissions that escape, maybe through pipelines or from wellheads or through the soil, that aren't an intended part of the process of generating the natural gas," he said.
Leaking methane In an attempt to measure these elusive emissions, researchers from the Southern Cross University took part of their laboratory into the field, around northern NSW and the Tara gas fields in southern Queensland.
Their results so far are striking.
Researcher Isaac Santos says the amount of leaking methane is about 3.5 times higher than had been expected.
"This is new technology so our specific approach of driving a car and taking readings on the go is new," he told the ABC's 7.30 program.
This method allowed them to take many more samples than was previously available.
As expected, their spectrometer recorded low atmospheric levels of methane outside the gas fields.
But once they got near the gas wells, the picture changed quite dramatically.
"They're extremely high," Dr Santos said.
"They're some of the highest ever found anywhere.
Those concentrations are higher than found in Siberia in some of the largest gas fields from Russia." Professor Rayner, a carbon cycle scientist, has studied the Southern Cross University data and agrees it raises some significant questions.
"It could be a one-off.
That's the problem with doing one study, we don't know," he said.
"What we now need to do is to check firstly the same field as it evolves through its stages of production, and secondly, to see whether this is happening elsewhere." He says the data suggests the methane came from under the ground, which could have serious consequences.
"The problem is that methane is a much more serious greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide," he said.
"So every little bit of methane that you leak as you try and mine this stuff, process it or burn it, contributes much more than the carbon dioxide." That is bad news for any industry operating under a carbon tax.
'More work needed' But the industry's peak body, APPEA, says this is all highly speculative.
"I think the study's incomplete," Mr Wilkinson told 7.30.
"I think there's much more work that needs to be done before they can reach conclusions.
"Do I think that this would fundamentally change the industry? No.
These are very small amounts that we're working with here and even within the range that are being talked about, it would not fundamentally change the equation that says gas is better for the environment than coal." But those farmers and environmentalists who've been campaigning against CSG are asking why these sort of studies were not done before the industry was given the green light.
Drew Hutton from anti-CSG group the Lock the Gate Alliance says the study shows that CSG is a dirty, polluting industry.
"Governments give them a big push, off they go, no preliminary research, no baseline studies, no precautionary principle applied, just let 'em loose on the environment and then do your studies a decade or so later," he said.
But with no baseline study, the researchers admit it is difficult to assess the true significance of their findings.
"I think the take-out message is that we've got to make sure we take samples before we change the way the environment is working," he said.
"We found very high concentrations and we are now in a position (to ask) what the hell that means." Mr Wilkinson says the studies should have been done 10 or 15 years ago.
"The issue is now should we support ongoing development research? Yes, we should and that's what our position is," he said.
Editor's note (15/11/12): The story previously introduced Drew Hutton as from the Queensland Greens.
He is from anti-CSG group the Lock the Gate Alliance.