UNCONVENTIONAL gas developers must be forced to complete baseline studies of land and water sources before projects start, according to Doctors for the Environment secretary David Shearman.
The University of Adelaide Emeritus Professor says a lack of data has made it hard to prove culpability when things go wrong in the environment.
A recent example was the Condamine River, Queensland, where nearby coal seam gas activities are blamed for an increasing amount of gas seep in the river - bubbles of methane seeping up from the river bed and through to the surface.
"In Queensland for example, where contaminates have been found, the companies have never done any baseline studies," he said.
"So they say leaking methane has been seeping out of the seams all along and it has nothing to do with drilling holes."
Gas wells owned by Origin Energy are within 5 kilometres of the gas seeps, although the Queensland government's preliminary studies found that all the nearby wells were capped and not part of a producing field, with the nearest production site about 10km away. There was no evidence of fracking within 40km of the reported 'bubbling'.
"The problem is that the government never asked the companies to do baseline studies, or studies on how pure the water was in aquifers before they started," Dr Shearman said.
The Queensland government recently said that the bubbles posed no risk to the environment or to human or animal health. Despite admitting that the incidence of gas seep seemed to be more "vigorous than previously observed", further studies were required to identify the cause of this beyond "anecdotal accounts".
But another case in point was the wool, beef and wheat town of Tara in the Darling Downs region of Queensland, where children have been reported to be suffering nausea as well as blood noses and ears since nearby coal seam gas projects started.
"We can't draw any conclusions on that, but we know people are ill, and we know there is gas leaking chemicals from the well heads," Dr Shearman said.
Southern Cross University, Queensland, preliminary research found that concentrations of methane in the area were about 3.5 times higher than expected – nearly 7 parts per million in some locations compared with the average of 1.8ppm.
The results were higher than values reported for conventional gas fields in Siberia, one of the world's largest natural gas production areas.
"Any geological area that has gas deposits is going to have natural seeps," Dr Isaac Santos, SCU Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry, said.
"At this stage, we are unable to separate the contribution of CSG activities from natural seeps because no sampling was done in Tara before mining."
This highlighted a need for sampling and baseline studies to be established first.
A Queensland government risk assessment of the situation found that a clear link could not be drawn between health complaints from residents of the Tara region and the impacts of the CSG industry on the air, water or soil.
The Coal Seam Gas in the Tara Region report said the available data was "insufficient to properly characterise any cumulative impacts on air quality in the region, particularly given the anticipated growth of the industry".
But Lock the Gate secretary Sarah Moles, Darling Downs, questioned how the Queensland government could say there was nothing to worry about if a study was inconclusive.
Ms Moles questioned whether it had been deliberate that baseline studies were not completed on a site before mining was allowed to go ahead because it made it hard to draw conclusions of culpability when things to wrong.
"Unconventional gas has snuck up on us in Queensland and it's too late to stop it," she said.
"SA has very little good quality farming land and you can ill afford to allow your water resources to be messed up.
"If you let this get established, you will have an unconventional gas industry (shale, tight or CSG) whether you like it or not."
Department for Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy director Michael Malavazos said baseline studies were a good idea.
The department tried to identify all potential risks from shale gas mining activity to keep them as low as reasonably possible, and required environmental risk assessments and impact statements. Environmental risk assessments and impact statements also had to be approved under a Statement of Environmental Objectives.
"We can guarantee we will follow a process to make that decision whether it's safe or not, and if it's not going to meet our standards, there's always the option to say 'no'," Mr Malavazos said.
Santos Eastern Australia public affairs manager Matthew Doman says he is aware other companies have made mistakes about the way they have explained their activities and conducted relationships with the community in the past.
"In some of those other areas with other companies, land holdings are smaller and land uses may vary a bit," he said.
"But you can't take a cookie-cutter approach to your relations. You need to work with landholders."
In 2011, Santos took over Eastern Star Gas in the Pilliga State Forest – months after its CSG exploratory operations resulted in a 10,000-litre wastewater spill that negatively affected vegetation.
"We did a very quick assessment of their operations and, frankly, found them not to be up to our standards," Mr Doman said.
"They had a small amount of production we essentially put on hold and for the past year we've been focused on lifting the standards, rehabilitating well sites, returning cleared areas back to forests, and improving the water treatment facilities.
"We take our engagement with community landholders, including farmers, very seriously and we know we won't be successful if we can't operate in partnership."
*Full report in Stock Journal, June 13 issue, 2013.