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Fire on the Condamine River

Burning river highlights need to follow the precautionary principle

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) says that increased methane release in the Condamine River in Queensland is “unlikely” to be due to fracking.  In an interview in the Guardian, CSIRO responded to a video posted to Facebook by Green MP Jeremy Buckingham.  The video shows Buckingham setting light to methane flows, which then continue to burn for several minutes.

According to CSIRO there are several reasons why methane release may have increased in recent years, including changes in underground pressure related to the 2011 Queensland floods.  However, this sounds like special pleading according to Buckingham; who points out that since fracking began in the area in 2011, methane release has got noticeably worse:

“It would be the most remarkable coincidence that the very thing that we warned would happen has happened in the middle of a gas field and it’s totally unrelated.”

Buckingham also raises concerns about the impartiality of CSIRO, whose monitoring of the methane release is funded by the fracking industry:

“That particular arm of the CSIRO is funded by the industry and I believe that they are making excuses for the industry that they have let off the leash.”

In practice, CSIRO are correct to say that a link with fracking is unproven.  However, Buckingham is also correct to point out that other explanations are implausible.  What both point to is the need to follow the precautionary principle – the burden of proof is upon any new industry, process or substance to demonstrate that it is safe before it is unleashed.  The very fact that there is genuine uncertainty about the cause of increased methane (a highly potent greenhouse gas) release immediately after fracking commenced in the area should be sufficient for planners elsewhere in the world to call a halt to similar schemes until the matter is resolved.

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