Queensland gas development could increase national emissions by 60 per cent, report says

A new report by a leading climate change expert has found that proposed gas development in the Lake Eyre Basin could increase Australia’s total annual emissions by 60 per cent. 

Last month the ABC revealed that, without consulting traditional owner groups, the Queensland government had progressed plans for gas development in the environmentally fragile Channel Country, a vast system of flood plains in the state’s south west.

A report, commissioned by environmental group Lock the Gate by leading climate change scientist Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe from Griffith University, modelled the potential carbon emissions if the gas projects in Queensland went ahead.

The Queensland component of the gas is in the Cooper-Eromanga Basin, and Professor Lowe found that if just 25 per cent of the resource was recovered, the emissions it would produce would be “incompatible” with Queensland’s emission reduction targets.

“The high level of production would be about 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, and Australia’s current total emissions from all causes is about 500 million tonnes a year.”

An aerial shot of cattle grazing in a green paddockAn aerial shot of cattle grazing in a green paddock
The Channel Country’s flood plains are home to a large sustainable grazing industry.(Supplied: OBE Organic)

The Queensland government has pledged to reduce emissions by 30 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, but Professor Lowe’s report found that even “the low export scenario would result in Scope 1 emissions alone that are more than 50 per cent of Queensland’s proposed reduction of 31 million tonnes a year from all sources by 2030.”

“Even a modest level of production would be incompatible with Queensland stated emission reduction targets,” he said.

A map of locations in the Channel Country have production licences from Origin EnergyA map of locations in the Channel Country have production licences from Origin Energy
More than 250,000 hectares of land in the Channel Country is subject to Origin Energy’s applications.(Supplied: Queensland Government)

Targets ‘achievable’

But the Queensland government said its emissions targets were “achievable”.

The Lake Eyre Basin contains an estimated 334 trillion cubic feet of “unconventional gas”, meaning to release the gas from the predominantly shale rock formation, gas wells would need to be depressurised by extracting groundwater or hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. 

There is concern among traditional owners and graziers in the area, but the Queensland government spokesperson said that additional approvals were still required before gas development could occur in the region, and they would be “subject to stringent assessment criteria”.

Fugitive emissions

Professor Lowe said the Lake Eyre Basin contained high levels of additional CO2, which would be released directly into the atmosphere during gas extraction.

“The gas there contains significant amounts of carbon dioxide, so just producing the gas to be burned somewhere else would result in the release of significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the Australian atmosphere,” he said.

A map of the Lake Eyre BasinA map of the Lake Eyre Basin
The Lake Eyre Basin covers large parts of four Australian states and territories.(ABC News: Alex Palmer)

The other factor was the “fugitive emissions” from gas production, the methane gas that either escapes or has to be vented from production pipelines for safety.

Queensland has the highest fugitive emissions from coal and gas mining in the nation, and they continue to rise.

A 2018 Queensland government report found fugitive emissions represented “11 per cent of Queensland’s total emissions and the long-term trend is increasing emissions”.

“Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and so the leakage, if gas were produced in the Channel Country, would add significantly to our greenhouse gas production locally,” Professor Lowe said.

A coal seam gas well and all of the piping and water extraction infrastructure.A coal seam gas well and all of the piping and water extraction infrastructure.
Coal seam gas mining is widespread further east of the Channel Country, and criss-crosses farm land.(ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)

A spokesperson for the Queensland government said it had a plan to reduce fugitive emissions.

“The Palaszczuk government has committed in its draft 30-year-plan for the resources industry to work with industry to investigate ways to reduce fugitive emissions from resource activities, particularly in the Bowen Basin,” they said.

‘Making enormous money’

After gas prices fell during 2020, international demand for the resource has rebounded, and the International Energy Agency forecasts more growth in the coming years.

“All these gas companies at the moment are trying to produce as much gas and ship as much gas as they possibly can,” Bruce Robertson said, an Energy Finance Analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

“Even if it’s not contracted gas, they’re making enormous money on it.”

Coal seam gas wells near ChinchillaCoal seam gas wells near Chinchilla
Coal seam gas wells in an area south of Chinchilla in southern Qld, near the Tara residential estate.(AAP: Supplied)

However, last year another report from the International Energy Agency said:

“Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway [to net-zero], and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.”

Mr Robertson said this was at odds with the continued enthusiasm for fossil fuel projects in Australia.

“In every state and territory, we’re seeing new areas opened up for exploration by the current governments,” he said.

“We’re seeing this massive expansion of the gas industry, which is entirely inconsistent with any climate commitments.”

While demand for gas remained strong now, Mr Robertson thought that would change.

“In New South Wales, for example, the state where I live, there are 17 battery projects, grid-scale battery projects in the planning system right now.” 

Resources a major economic driver

A report in December 2021 by the Federal Department of Resources found oil and gas projects “accounted for the largest share of committed projects by value”.

The Queensland government also reports that the resources industry directly employs around 80,000 people in the state.

And according to Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oil projects generated $13.20 billion in royalties and contributed $55 billion to national GDP. 

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