Fossil fuel extraction and the environment

Hydraulic fracking is surrounded by controversy around the world, with exploration being highly restricted and regulated in Australia. Picture courtesy of Lock the Gate Alliance.

Rachael Oxborrow

The processes of hydraulic fracking for coal seam gas and shale oil drilling are surrounded by controversy worldwide. It is the eternal battle to balance the need to access fossil fuels for energy and the environmental impacts of doing so.

Fracking for coal seam gas is highly controlled and a relatively young industry in Australia, while shale oil drilling is yet to be exploited, but the controversy surrounding these industries is no less divisive.

Dr Ian Palmer’s background as a scientist and petroleum engineer has led to his book explaining both sides of the argument around shale oil and coal seam gas extraction.

Scientist and former petroleum engineer Dr Ian Palmer lives in the mountains of New Mexico, a drought-stricken state where the main industries are oil drilling, mineral extraction and various types of agriculture.

The largest point of contention surrounding these fossil fuel sourcing options relates to their contribution to global warming and the commitment of many countries to the United Nations Climate Change Paris Agreement to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.

Dr Palmer has worked for groups on both sides of the argument and is not sure he can take a side in the debate around whether shale oil and gas drilling are a good or bad thing. In fact, his book The Shale Controversy details the rival aspects of the concept as he examines global warming, the commercial interests, the emotional issues and potential solutions.

Dr Palmer hails from South Australia and labels Australia as a ‘poster child for global warming’ due to its droughts, coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and bushfires.

‘Australia emits 1.1 per cent of the whole world’s greenhouse gases but has only 0.3 per cent of the population,’ he writes.

‘This imbalance simply means the country has one of the highest emissions of carbon dioxide in the world, per person.’

This figure exists in a scenario where fracking is limited in operation by each state and territory and in some regions, banned completely. At the same time, almost 28 per cent of Australia’s total energy generation was coming from renewable resources in 2020.

Dr Palmer said for the US and the rest of the world to start meeting long-term low greenhouse gas emission goals, the reliance on fossil fuels would need to change.

“An important consequence of the COVID-19 recession and falling oil demand is that peak global oil production may already have passed,” he said.

Dr Palmer said the recovery phase was a potential opening to reset.

“The world has an opportunity to continue to lower carbon emissions permanently by not resuming carbon-based energy production in the same old way,” he said.

“Instead, the world could build new renewable supplies and cut back on using fossil fuels.”

He lists four suggestions for consideration as the world begins to pick back up where it left off. These include:

  • Switching to green power to provide all oil and gas operations.
  • Reducing flaring of gas and leaking of methane from wells, pipelines and facilities.
  • Directing some investments from new oil and gas drilling ventures into renewable energy development.
  • Developing a ‘social contract’ for oil and gas companies to demonstrate and address environmental concerns.

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