It’s becoming increasingly clear that Australia needs to change the way it uses energy and many of those changes will be taking place over the next decade. 

Our current reliance on coal is unsustainable, while Australia’s considerable reserves of unconventional gas – tight, shale and coal seam gas (CSG) – are raising controversy after being flagged as part of a major expansion of the gas industry.

This report assesses existing research to address the question of whether unconventional gas should be endorsed as a major future energy source, based on its impacts on human health and the climate.

There is considerable lack of information and uncertainty around the health impacts of unconventional gas extraction. However, the potential health impacts associated with fracking chemicals used for extracting unconventional gas are serious. They include cancer, skin and eye irritation, respiratory problems, damage to the nervous system, cells and blood, endocrine disruption and reproductive problems.

The effects of climate change are likely to exacerbate certain health risks and the vulnerability of certain groups including the elderly, rural and indigenous communities, as well as future generations.

This report also considers the risks associated with water contamination caused by the fracking process and wastewater. It ranks the risks associated with wastewater as ‘high’, with the chemicals it contains found to be toxic. It sights cases in the US where wastewater accidents have affected livestock and soil tests showed high levels of materials which can be toxic to humans.

Australia has just been advised by the Climate Change Authority to boost efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, yet this paper finds that an expanded unconventional gas industry would be responsible for substantial levels of emissions. It is even possible that unconventional gas offers no climate benefits over coal. Gas also compares poorly to alternatives such as wind and solar. 

Australia’s role as a major exporter of gas also raises serious questions regarding our accountability for emissions in export countries and the effect of exports on markets for renewable energy.  Given that the World Health Organisation has estimated that climate change is already responsible for over 150,000 deaths per year, this arguably creates a heavy moral burden for Australia. There are also serious doubts about the financial benefits gas exports will deliver everyday Australians.

This report finds that unconventional gas should not be endorsed from an environmental and human health perspective and states that the current case against further expansion of the industry is overwhelming.

Taking into account the evidence that exists for the health and climate impacts of unconventional gas, this does not represent the best option for Australia’s energy future, either as a stepping-stone or a final destination.  

Full report