Why the latest study by GISERA fails to prove that fracking is safe

By Shay Dougall, Principal of Molliwell

The latest reports from the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) are a collaboration between CSIRO, Commonwealth, state governments and industry established to undertake publicly-reported independent research.

After the release of the convoluted 3 part report, APPEA predictably barks a bold claim CSIRO study finds hydraulic fracturing fears unfounded” leading to the spurious and misleading headlines being picked up, run by media and championed by pro-industry politicians like Curtis Pitt MP and ex Queensland Premier Campbell Newman and the Queensland Gasfields Commission.

The trouble with these three GISERA reports is the deceptive slicing and dicing of data and the broad-brush interpretations that have led to the sensational and misleading headlines. 

The media release from GISERA states: A comprehensive three-year scientific study into the air, water and soil impacts of hydraulic fracturing in Queensland has found little to no impacts on air quality, soils, groundwater and waterways.

A frack rig looms above soundproofing at a frack site near the town of Gloucester in NSW. Image by Johanna Evans.

Let’s do a quick cross sectional analysis into this statement and the reports that supposedly back it up, like a 10% field confirmation process, in order to see just how misleading these headlines really are.

AN ANALYSIS INTO GISERA CLAIMS

GISERA: “Comprehensive” study (from linked media release)

OUR RESPONSE: 6 – 10 hand picked wells from one company in one location out of approximately 6,000 in the State of Queensland is not exactly comprehensive.

GISERA: “Into air, water and soil impacts of hydraulic fracturing” (from linked media release)

OUR RESPONSE: The reports are actually about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing – important clarification, NOT the entire process of fracking. In fact, fracking is not the only part of the CSG process that impacts air quality, soils, groundwater and waterways. Fracking is a small and not always present part of the CSG industry footprint and impact. Therefore, the indiscriminate use of the term in the headline is misleading.

GISERA: “Little to no impact of hydraulic fracturing” (from intro in linked media release)

OUR RESPONSE: Two of the 3 reports focused on water and soil and only investigated the effects of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, NOT the entire process of hydraulic fracturing, therefore the statement should be further qualified so as to not be misleading.
Specific impacts WERE found, eg:
  • Chemicals were found in the flow back water for up to 40 days
  • Microbial activity was reduced by simulated spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water.
These impacts alone have very specific concerns for those living with these impacts, both for agriculture and for those living next to the massive treatment facilities, produced water storages and spraying of the flowback waste, a perspective that is not addressed at all.

GISERA: The report lists how many CSG wells exist and “Sampling of nearby groundwater bores for an extensive range of potential contaminants did not indicate any impacts of CSG operations on water quality”.

OUR RESPONSE: The report fails to specify how many CSG wells have been fracked, nor what the experience to date has been with those fracks, ie any reported incidents, spills, impacts or other issues with those incidents. Where is the data that is available regarding these incidents and impacts?
Importantly, the Water Act regarding farmer’s water bores, says that the increase in methane in the water or the head space of the bore as a result of CSG activities is a trigger for make good. One of the causes of many farmer’s stock and domestic water bores being decommissioned is methane in the bore (gassy bore). This can and does happen without fracking, just the normal CSG extraction process, but this is not acknowledged in this headline, or the reports.
Many Environmental Authorities for CSG activities do not refer to fracking specifically. This report is not about the CSG industry, but only one small aspect of the whole process. Again making the headline misleading.

GISERA: The introduction to the “soil impact” GISERA report refers to a study in US stating “spills of hydraulic fracturing (HF) fluids and produced water are among the most polluting and plausible pathways affecting unconventional gas operations”. However, the authors of the GISERA report state that since spills are unpredictable and are very site and event‐specific, they chose to “mimic” spills in the lab instead of a field based investigation. 

OUR RESPONSE: This referenced US report investigated and assessed actual spills and reported incidents. The GISERA report assiduously provides no data on whether there are any reports available in Australia relating to actual spills and incidents in the field. That would be important conceptualising data for a report such as this.
Incorporating real and actual data in the GISERA report would be important to gauge:
  • How many wells are fracked
  • How many have had spills/incidents relating the HF fluid and produced water
  • What other infrastructure, such as high point vents, include spills of produced water and how do they fit in to this study
  • How the data on such incidents is obtained and what improvements in this data gathering is required to ensure that such info is accessible and actionable in the future
Especially if, as they claim, that the report is attempting to allay community concerns.

GISERA: In describing the method used for the “soil impact”report, it states: A hydraulic fracturing fluid for use in the study was prepared by a company that regularly conducts hydraulic fracturing activities in Central Queensland.

OUR RESPONSE: This does not explain how this fluid compares to what is used usually, elsewhere, or even by other companies.

GISERA: The third report “Measurements of Air Quality at a Hydraulic Fracturing Site in the Surat Basin, Queensland” reported on the air quality data measured during well pad development operations (including hydraulic fracturing) at a 600ha field containing 10 CSG wells that underwent hydraulic fracturing in August‐October 2017.

OUR RESPONSE: This report was very complex and difficult to interpret, however, the following are notes taken from the report that represent, within the report itself, reasons why the broad headline is still not possible to be backed up.
This study did not determine the impacts of HF on human health. Instead the data collected in this study was compared with federal, state and other air quality objectives. The study presented here is specific to hydraulic fracturing activity being carried out at the site identified. The representativeness of this study, and the scalability of data to other well sites in the Surat Basin or other locations will depend on a number of factors including the representativeness of the hydraulic fracturing processes employed, underlying geology, structure of the coal seams, well depths as well as meteorology etc
The locations of two of the testing units was limited to two sites adjacent to electricity sub‐stations which provided the only available access to mains power necessary for the air conditioning and monitoring equipment contained within each of these enclosures. As such, there was little flexibility in the choice of location for the testing units meaning for example, both units were downwind of the activity being tested for  approximately only 16% of the time.

Please note: (This report also states that these results will, alarmingly, be used in another GISERA study being developed into the health impacts of CSG development in Australia.)
Armour Energy drill a well at Myall Creek, Queensland, in preparation for fracking. Image by Leanne Brummell

As expected community groups are up in arms about this research that has sadly been backed by the CSIRO. When issues with the reports and the sensational headlines, such as those listed above are identified, it is understandable, a repeated recipe every time GISERA publishes. Dr Damien Barret is the director of GISERA and has indicated that he is willing to conduct face-to-face sessions with communities should they request it citing Northern NSW as a possible destination. The NSW EPA has categorically stated that studies done in Queensland have no relevance in NSW.

In short the provision of multiple separate reports that create the “whole” makes the process of understanding exactly what has been studied and reported on very confusing and diffuse. The way in which these reports are then delivered to the “concerned public” reinforces again that GISERA are tone deaf to the concerns they are supposedly attempting to allay. The process is predictable and repetitive.

Given the quick analysis offered in this article, it appears that the sensational headline and claims that “fracking fears are unfounded and fracking has little to no impact” is inaccurate to say the least. Although there is no doubt that the individuals involved in these studies have been conscientious and serious, they are let down by the industry spin doctors. The problem with the continual tone deaf studies by GISERA followed by the exuberant response by pro-industry is that as more time passes, more gasfields are produced, more of the average host farmers and families expected to live with the industry lose opportunities to have real, reliable and meaningful studies undertaken. These are the people whose actual lived experience is dismissed and who are left out of the perceived group of legitimate participants with the results of sensational headlines and tone deaf industry-funded study groups failing to consider them again.

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