Outspoken ... Martin Ferguson. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has accused researchers who identified a massive coal-seam gas leak in Queensland of a cynical attempt to grab headlines.
Speaking at an energy conference in Sydney, Mr Ferguson said he believed the study by Southern Cross University researchers Isaac Santos and Damien Maher, which found that masses of methane and carbon dioxide were leaking undetected from Australia's biggest coal-seam gas field, abandoned usual scientific practice.
He criticised the study's public release, before it had been peer-reviewed, saying that in "the scientific community that is not regarded favourably".
"Let's have a factual, scientific debate, not an emotional debate, because there is too much at risk and the community expects that approach to life," Mr Ferguson said.
"Conduct yourself in a professional way and focus on the outcome, not short-lived media opportunities."
The research was outlined in a submission to a federal climate change department investigation into the greenhouse gas emissions from coal-seam gas drilling. The department had called for public submissions.
Dr Santos and Dr Maher have also submitted their work for peer review with a scientific journal, a process that typically takes several months.
They found large-scale gas leaks in a gasfield operated by BG Group at Tara gasfield on Queensland's Western Downs. The findings suggested the industry may not have properly accounted for gas leaks, which could pose health risks and have implications for national emissions accounting.
"I'm not pro- or anti-coal seam gas," Dr Santos told Fairfax Media. "I just like science, I just believe in science, and I believe in communicating good science to the public. Our first job as scientists is to do good science that matters. Our second job as scientists is to share good science with the public.
"There are many ways of sharing that information with the public," he said. "Peer-review and journal publications are by far the best way, but the peer-review process takes several months and sometimes a couple of years.
"The government requested submissions on fugitive emissions and set a deadline for those submissions. It was our responsibility to share what information we had. It's preliminary data that we've got so far, but it's very high-quality data."
Dr Santos said that, far from abandoning normal scientific practice, he had many letters and emails of support from scientists working in the field.
"Our research was suggested to be premature," he said. "It took us one day driving a car to obtain more in methane in Australian coal-seam gas field than has been made available in over 10 years."
The study has also been criticised by the coal-seam gas industry body, the Australian Petroleum Production and Association Association [APPEA], which wrote to the vice-chancellor of Southern Cross University to complain.
"Without evidence to the contrary, it appears that the research undertaken by Dr Santos and Dr Maher has not met the basic standards required of a genuinely scientifically rigorous approach," said the letter from David Byers, the chief executive of APPEA.
In a letter written on Tuesday, Southern Cross University's vice-chancellor Peter Lee replied: "We reject your assertions and believe your media release is misleading to your members and to the general public."
Professor Lee defended the decision to send preliminary research to the government before it was peer reviewed.
"This activity was consistent with our usual academic procedures and we saw no reason to deviate from them on the basis of the subject matter," he wrote.
He said Dr Santos and Dr Maher had presented their work in a neutral manner and had examined other possible explanations for the spikes in leaking gas in the vicinity of gas wells.
"Southern Cross University will continue to conduct research in this field without agenda."
Mr Ferguson, who conceded he had not read the Southern Cross University study, said the government had "put money into a proper scientific process".
"I'm focused on working with the states to ensure that best practice applies in terms of the development of our resource sector," he said. "These issues will be discussed at a ministerial council in December."
The minister said the development of coal-seam and shale gas offered significant job and economic opportunities for Australia.
"In terms of this debate, let's ensure that it is of scientific nature, rather than [listen to] people who are trying to score political points without proper consideration of the best interests of the broader community," he said.