Some people want to watch the world burn. Others — like Jeremy Buckingham, a member of the Australian Parliament — will settle for rivers.
In an act of protest against coal seam fracking, the Australian Greens party member recently took an aluminium boat down the Condamine River in Queensland, Australia. This was no lazy afternoon cruise. The surface of the river fizzed with bubbles of methane gas. Methane is colorless and odorless — but it’s also quite flammable. Buckingham leaned over the side of the boat, and, as though lighting a barbecue, set the methane ablaze.
Presto: Instant river flambé. “We did not expect it to explode like it it did,” Buckingham told The Washington Post early Monday in a phone interview. He’s calling for the gas industry to halt fracking in Australia until the source of the methane can be determined.
“This is the future of Australia if we do not stop the frackers, who want to spread across all states and territories,” Buckingham said in a video of the river fire, which he posted to Facebook. The flames lasted for an hour as the methane continued to churn out of the river bed and feed the fire, he said. As of early Monday morning, more than 3.3 million people had viewed the video.
The Condamine River isn’t the first flaming body of water to spark environmental health concerns. When a layer of oil and trash on top of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, the resulting furor led to the passage of the Clean Water Act. In 2014, a discarded cigarette set a polluted river on fire in Wenzhou, China; a year later, flaming waste floating on a lake in India oozed sulfuric fumes so pungent they ruptured a bystander’s cornea.
Fracking, too, has its share of heated discussion centered on fiery water. Homeowners living near hydraulic fracturing wells in Texas and Pennsylvania were able to light methane in the water coming out of their faucets. In 2014, American researchers hunting for this so-called fugitive methane were able to trace it by following specific inert elements that had hitchhiked along with the natural gas. In the cases of flaming spigots, the researchers believe that faulty casings and other chinks in the wells’ integrity allowed the methane to escape, not the fracking itself.
Buckingham’s evidence isn’t as concrete — his experimentation begins and ends with setting rivers ablaze. “I acknowledge we don’t have the proof,” he told The Post. But Buckingham points to reports of increasingly bubbly water after fracking began in the Queensland area to buttress his view.
Not everyone shares this conviction. “At this stage we don’t know fully the reason why the methane is coming to the surface,” said Damian Barrett, a natural gas researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia’s national science agency. Barrett told The Washington Post early Monday that because the gas wells are more than three miles away from the Condamine, fracking’s connection with the river methane is dubious. The fracking wells would have to connect chambers of gas improbably far apart. “It’s highly unlikely,” he said — though “not impossible.”
In an interview with the Guardian Australia, Buckingham accused the Australian research agency of being in bed with the coal gas industry. (Barrett, in addition to his post at the CSIRO, directs the Gas Industry Social & Environmental Research Alliance, a partnership between the coal gas industry and the Australian government.)
Barrett denied any impropriety. “The work that we do is entirely independent,” he told The Post. “We don’t hold back any information that’s coming out of our research. We’re just stating the science.”
Though it’s “quite possibly true” that the river’s methane has begun to bubble more dramatically — CSIRO has been studying the area for the past three years — Barrett points out that the coal seams near Condamine are close to the surface, tucked under just a few hundred feet of earth. Typically, he said, the sediment on the bottom of the river bed prevents the rising methane from producing such bubbles. It’s possible that the river, scoured clean of sediment, is simply releasing gas that has been there all along.
Made flammable by fracking or not, Barrett hopes no one else will try to light the river on fire. “It’s not really advisable.”