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The First Four Wells: Unconventional Gas in Australia

journal contribution
posted on 2022-08-24, 23:27 authored by Luke KeoghLuke Keogh
Unconventional energy sources have become increasingly important to the global energy mix. These include coal seam gas, shale gas and shale oil. The unconventional gas industry was pioneered in the United States and embraced following the first oil shock in 1973 (Rogers). As has been the case with many global resources (Hiscock), many of the same companies that worked in the USA carried their experience in this industry to early Australian explorations. Recently the USA has secured significant energy security with the development of unconventional energy deposits such as the Marcellus shale gas and the Bakken shale oil (Dobb; McGraw). But this has not come without environmental impact, including contamination to underground water supply (Osborn, Vengosh, Warner, Jackson) and potential greenhouse gas contributions (Howarth, Santoro, Ingraffea; McKenna). The environmental impact of unconventional gas extraction has raised serious public concern about the introduction and growth of the industry in Australia. In coal rich Australia coal seam gas is currently the major source of unconventional gas. Large gas deposits have been found in prime agricultural land along eastern Australia, such as the Liverpool Plains in New South Wales and the Darling Downs in Queensland. Competing land-uses and a series of environmental incidents from the coal seam gas industry have warranted major protest from a coalition of environmentalists and farmers (Berry; McLeish). Conflict between energy companies wanting development and environmentalists warning precaution is an easy script to cast for frontline media coverage. But historical perspectives are often missing in these contemporary debates. While coal mining and natural gas have often received “boosting” historical coverage (Diamond; Wilkinson), and although historical themes of “development” and “rushes” remain predominant when observing the span of the industry (AGA; Blainey), the history of unconventional gas, particularly the history of its environmental impact, has been little studied. Few people are aware, for example, that the first shale gas exploratory well was completed in late 2010 in the Cooper Basin in Central Australia (Molan) and is considered as a “new” frontier in Australian unconventional gas. Moreover many people are unaware that the first coal seam gas wells were completed in 1976 in Queensland. The first four wells offer an important moment for reflection in light of the industry’s recent move into Central Australia. By locating and analysing the first four coal seam gas wells, this essay identifies the roots of the unconventional gas industry in Australia and explores the early environmental impact of these wells. By analysing exploration reports that have been placed online by the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines through the lens of environmental history, the dominant developmental narrative of this industry can also be scrutinised. These narratives often place more significance on economic and national benefits while displacing the environmental and social impacts of the industry (Connor, Higginbotham, Freeman, Albrecht; Duus; McEachern; Trigger). This essay therefore seeks to bring an environmental insight into early unconventional gas mining in Australia. As the author, I am concerned that nearly four decades on and it seems that no one has heeded the warning gleaned from these early wells and early exploration reports, as gas exploration in Australia continues under little scrutiny.



M/C Journal




Kelvin Grove, Qld.





Publication classification

C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal




Queensland University of Technology

Place of publication

Kelvin Grove, Qld.

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