IF COAL seam gas companies pay the appropriate carbon tax on their emissions, it could price them out of business, according to climate and renewable energy think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE).
Two Southern Cross University (SCU) scientists - biogeochemists Dr Damien Maher and Dr Isaac Santos - reported last week they had measured fugitive emissions (leaking gases) of more than three times the normal background levels of methane and carbon dioxide around coal seam gas mining sites near Tara in Queensland. The readings are similar to US Department of Energy figures from CSG fields in Wyoming.
At Tara, Maher and Santos found readings of 6.8 parts per million (ppm), while near
Lismore the highest reading was 1.82ppm, and at Casino airport it was 2.20ppm.
Dr Maher said the Tara readings were "extremely high".
"They are some of the highest ever found anywhere," he said. "Higher than those found in Siberia, in some of the largest gas fields in Russia."
Matthew Wright, executive director of BZE, said if a CSG well leaked a low 1% of fugitive emissions (nearly 10 times what gas companies are claiming would be the case), it would be liable for $31,700 a year at the current carbon price of $23 a tonne.
"But based on US and the preliminary SCU data, emissions are likely to exceed 4%, bringing a carbon price liability of $126,800 - an annual overall carbon price liability of around $3.8 billion for the projected 30,000 wells in Australia," Mr Wright said.
"When the real rate of fugitive emissions is established and the current carbon price liability calculated, CSG projects may no longer be profitable."
Meanwhile a stoush has developed between the pro-CSG lobby and the towers of academia.
Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson told an energy conference in Sydney that the SCU study was "a cynical attempt to grab headlines" that "abandoned usual scientific practice", adding that the findings should not have been released until they had been peer-reviewed.
The normal process for peer review is for work to be submitted to a scientific journal, which the SCU scientists have done. It can take several months after publication for a peer review process to be completed. Dr Santos has reported that he has already received messages of support from scientists working in the field.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association wrote to SCU vice-chancellor Peter Lee complaining that the Santos and Maher research "had not met basic standards of a genuinely scientific rigorous approach."
Mr Lee replied: "We reject your assertions and believe your media release is misleading to your members and to the general public.
"Southern Cross University will continue to conduct research without agenda."