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Harms unknown: health uncertainties cast doubt on the role of unconventional gas in Australia’s energy future

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Australia has significant reserves of unconventional gas, with combined estimated reserves of coal seam, shale and tight gas amounting to over three and a half times those of conventional gas.1 The industry is undergoing rapid growth as a result of advances in gas extraction techniques — most notably the widespread adoption of hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting large quantities of water, chemicals and proppants (materials like sand intended to keep fractures open) into gas reservoirs to open fractures and allow the gas to flow more readily. While coal seam gas (CSG) has been the focus of much public debate in Australia, it is the nascent shale gas industry that is likely to be responsible for the biggest expansion of hydraulic fracturing in the coming decades.

The promise of reliable and affordable energy, the potential windfall from exports, and claims that it is less damaging to the climate than coal have become major selling points of unconventional gas for its proponents. However, the industry has been beset by controversy over its potential negative health, social and environmental impacts.

Fears over the potential health implications of hydraulic fracturing led over 100 medical practitioners to request the Obama administration to halt the construction of new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals on the basis that “[t]here is a growing body of evidence that unconventional…