Independent Review of Underground Coal Gasification - Report

An independent examination of the issues and evidence surrounding Underground Coal Gasification.

6. Health

6.0 Health issues appear to be the least well represented in the available literature in terms of actual health impacts from UGE. Inputs were therefore sought from Health Protection Scotland, the academic community involved in public health as well as industry specialists here, in Australia and worldwide. This helped to clarify the likely needs for assessing health issues in future.

6.1 Details of impacts at this point appear largely anecdotal. Public health requirements and performance data are very weakly covered in the accessible literature about UCG. Tuller (2015) observed that there was a dearth of health risk data (still) despite the rapid progress of fracking activity in North America. There appears to be even less material in relation to UCG.

6.2 Watterson and Dinan (2015) address the issue of Health Impact Assessments ( HIAs) in the context of the unconventional gas industry in the UK. The focus, again, understandably is on method and potential value but there is very little direct content connected to or directly relevant to UCG. The authors do discuss the results of a number of community surveys in the UK context which give particular prominence to the issues of "fear, anxiety and stress" associated with those attending workshops where UGE activity was under consideration in their communities. The paper also communicates very effectively the issues around ensuring robust science is applied to HIAs and a professional process and skilled oversight engaged to ascertain and support communities going through the experience of dealing with a UGE proposal.

6.3 Guidelines produced for UKOOG by Andrew Buroni and colleagues are also especially relevant. UKOOG (2015). The literature review conducted for the report,

"established a list of potential hazards associated with international onshore oil and gas, including:

  • Emissions to air
  • Potential health risk from exposure to combustion emissions: Particulate Matter ( PM10 PM2.5) Nitrogen Dioxide (NO 2) Sulphur Dioxide (SO 2), Volatile Organic Compounds ( VOCs), benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes ( BTEX) and Radon;
  • Potential health risk from exposure to fugitive emissions: methane, VOCs/ BTEX, dust and odour;
  • Noise: potential impact on annoyance, sleep disturbance, impacts on academic performance, stress and anxiety;
  • Traffic: potential risk of community severance, congestion, risk of accident and injury, changes in air quality and noise exposure;
  • Visual impacts: potential risk of reduced amenity value and enjoyment, stress and anxiety;
  • Emissions to surface water: potential risk of contamination (spillage risk of hydraulic fracture fluids, drilling muds and site materials) and potential entry into food chain;
  • Emissions to ground water: potential risk of contamination (fluids, drilling muds and flowback) and potential entry into food chain;
  • Water availability: potential risk of reduced public access to ground water ( i.e. local extraction where a centralised water system doesn't exist);
  • Induced seismicity: potential risk of injury;
  • Waste: risk from exposure to NORM/radon and pollutants of concern;
  • Fire / explosion: potential risk associated with the production, use or storage of any combustible or explosive compounds;
  • Construction and occupational hazards;
  • Socio-economic: potential risk to tourism, farming, house prices, income and employment;
  • Socio-cultural: risk of crime, substance abuse and change in local service and amenity demand;
  • Psychological: risk perceptions, fear, stress and anxiety. "

6.4 The report acknowledges that several of these relate to other industries but the work seeks to assess these issues and consider the "sources, pathways and receptors" model that would make these real health hazards. The material is informative and relevant and seems eminently sensible to apply to UCG. This does not yet appear to have been done.

6.5 In Australia, where again there is a somewhat richer literature, but still a focus on generic health hazard dimensions and process dominating over detailed content, the issues relating to health and energy use are set out by Armstrong and Tait (2014). They address the range of inputs to human health including mental disorders. The authors also state that "Greenhouse gas emissions arising from the energy sector in Australia and globally are among the most powerful drivers of climate change. Climate change has been described…in The Lancet as 'the biggest threat to human health of the 21 st century' (Costello et al., 2009) and is already contributing to increased global morbidity and mortality, with Australia amongst the most vulnerable of all developed countries. (Hughes and McMichael, 2011)

6.6 Although a number of unconventional gas issues are covered there is only a brief mention explicitly on UCG, referring to "proven…risk….to water quality in Australia, with pilot projects shut down in Queensland following the appearance of benzene and toluene in bore water", but it is another useful contextual primer.

6.7 Whilst a search of CSIRO and NHMRC records revealed a number of health studies and framework assessments for CSG and HF technologies (see references for this chapter), there was no record found of UCG studies. Some of the studies were interesting and potentially make points of relevance, for example, ERM (2013).

6.8 This apparent lack of UCG health data is unfortunate in that the claims by industry and advocates that the technology can be operated safely, protecting the environment and public and worker health, would be much more credible were these data to be freely and widely available. Their absence, given the number of trials, demonstrations and operational sites worldwide is at best unfortunate.

6.9 Virtually all UCG sites considered appear to have histories involving environmental and/or health and safety incidents, as indicated in earlier chapters. The detail of these histories is very challenging to assess objectively as the literature and media coverage appear to be based on anecdote rather than objective study. Daily Telegraph (2016) for example. Neither companies nor regulators appear to have provided detailed reports of performance against licence or best practice considerations or to have set the local community context. It is of course reasonable to take the view that responsibility here could lie with national and local government to have constructed health baselines appropriate for subsequent consideration of the performance and impact of an industry in that area. In any event, such data baselines and longitudinal data sets seem either not to exist or to be very rare.

6.10 Information provided by the Chief Scientist in New South Wales ( NSW) is also of interest. Although it focusses primarily on CSG in NSW, it also includes UCG information. ( NTN 2013). The observations on impacts are of some concern and highlight some of the challenges in identifying and monitoring impacts in complex contexts.

6.11 The most recently reported and, albeit to a limited extent, documented, impacts also come from Australian operations, in Queensland. Linc Energy's Chinchilla operations on the Darling Downs, see Annex 3, are initially addressed through the terms published by the Queensland government for Linc's EIS. See Linc (2007).

6.12 On the basis of this limited available evidence, performance is not easily seen as transparently positive, confidently understood or openly shared and considered. Equally there is little to allow us to see UCG as being different from oil and gas exploration and production generally or other related industrial fields especially in their early stages of development, and e.g. relatively high hazard with a great deal of experience of mitigating actions to reduce the residual risk but with unexpected pressure build-ups, losses of containment, gas releases, explosions, tank and bund failures, surface and groundwater pollution, liquid and solid waste management issues, transport failures, etc. known to occur. Some near-surface operations have had subsidence as well as gas and liquid release issues. There have also been clear cases of worker and neighbour complaints and presentations of breathing difficulties and both eye and skin irritations.

6.13 No rigorous HIA appears to exist in any active UCG location and no longitudinal data were found, nor, beyond the scoping of environmental statements and EIAs, has an ex ante HIA been undertaken to ensure all relevant health issues had been taken into account. Therefore ex post or interim assessments that could be interpreted for suitable learning around mitigation and management, also, do not exist. Confirmation of this situation was sought and received from Professor Andrew Watterson, Dr Martin Birley, Dr Martin Buroni and confirmed by a number of other researchers and public health doctors in the field.

6.14 Ultimately, were the technology to be deployed in Scotland, it would be desirable to move from a position of absence of evidence of impacts (either way) to one of robust evidence of absence.

6.15 Observations on information gaps and needs.

Bridging the gap between evidence and policy is perfectly feasible and there is abundant expertise available, including an active and helpful HIA network and guidance on approach and methods in the literature. As indicated above, air, water and waste related impacts as well as transport, noise, light effects and the psychological impacts from stress, etc. would be in scope for consideration in an HIA.

6.16 At this point a baseline assessment is needed and a full understanding of the nature, range and extent of issues to be considered would be beneficial.


Armstrong, F and Tait, P (2014) Health and Energy Choices. Published by Climate and Health Alliance, Public Health Association of Australia, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, National Toxics Network, Australian Medical Students Association, Women's Health East, and Services for Rural and Remote Allied Health.

Colborn T, Kwiatkowski C, Schultz K, et al. (2012) Natural gas operations from a public health perspective. Hum Ecol Risk Assess; 17: 1039-1056.

Costello, A. et al. (2009) The Lancet, Volume 373, Issue 9676, p.1659, 16 May.

Daily Telegraph (2016) Workers suffered ill effects from coal gas site, court told.

Davies RJ, Almond S, Ward RS, et al. (2014) Oil and gas wells and their integrity: implications for shale and unconventional resource exploitation. Marine and Petroleum Geology,

Doctors for the Environment Australia. (2013) The health factor: ignored by industry, over- looked by government. Doctors for the Environment Australia,

ERM (2013) Environmental Health Assessment Report; Tara Complaint Investigation Report. Queensland Gas Company. 0181432R01. Unconventional Gas Mining Submission 121/att:25.

Goldstein B.D. (2001) The precautionary principle also applies to public health actions. Am J Public Health; 91: 1358-1361.

Goldstein B.D. (2001) Potential health effects of Marcellus shale activities: the need for public health surveillance. Pittsburgh: Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, University of Pittsburgh.

Green L. (2015) The importance of health impact assessments. In: Finkel ML (ed.) The human and environmental impact of fracking; how fracturing shale for gas effects us and our world. Santa Barbara: Praeger, pp.49-60.

Guest, C Ricciardi, W, Kawachi, I and Lang, I. (Eds) (2013) Oxford handbook of Public Health Practice Oxford Medical Publications, OUP …. 3 rd Edition (See Regulation section too….end of Part 4 pp267-337

Harris, P and Spickett, J (2011) Health Impact Assessment in Australia: A review and directions for progress. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, V 31, Issue 4, pp 425-432. Elsevier.

Hill M. (2014) Shale gas regulation in the UK and the implications of fracking. Lancet 2014; 383: 2211-2212.

Hughes, L. & McMichael, T. (2011) The Critical Decade: Climate Change and Health, Climate Commission Secretariat, Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

Kassotis C.D, Tillitt D.E., Wade Davis J., et al. (2014) Estrogen and androgen receptor activities of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and surface and ground water in a drilling-dense region. Endocrinology; 155: 897-907

Linc Energy (2007) Terms of Reference for an Environmental Impact Statement. Underground Coal Gasification Gas to Liquids and Power Generation Project.

McKenzie LM, Ruixin G, Witter RZ, et al. Birth outcomes and maternal residential proximity to natural gas development in rural Colorado. Environ Health Perspect 2014; 122: 412-417.
( )

NTN (2013) Toxic Chemicals in the Exploration and Production of Gas from Unconventional Sources. National Toxics Network, April 2013.

Task Force on Shale Gas. (2015) Second interim report: assessing the impact of shale gas on the local environment and health. London: Task Force on Shale Gas,

Tuller, D (2015) As fracking booms, dearth of health risk data remains. Health Affairs 34: 903-6

UKOOG (2015) Guidelines for Assessing Public Health in Environmental Impact Assessment for Onshore Oil and Gas. Issue 1 November 2015.

Watterson, A and Dinan, W (2016) Health Impact Assessments, Regulation, and the Unconventional Gas Industry in the UK: Exploiting Resources, Ideology, and Expertise? New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy February 2016 25: 480-512 DOI:10.1177/1048291115615074

Watterson A and O'Neill R. (2012) Regulating Scotland. What works and what does not in occupational and environmental health and what the future holds. Stirling: University of Stirling,.

Werner AK, Vink S, Watt K, et al. (2015) Environmental health impacts of unconventional natural gas development: a review of the current strength of evidence. Sci Total Environ; 505: 1127-1141.

Witter R, Stinson K, Sackett H, et al. (2008) Potential exposure-related human health effects of oil and gas development: a White Paper. Denver: University of Colorado,

Witter, RZ, McKenzie, L, Stinson, KE, Scott, K, Newman LS and Adgate, J (2013) The Use of Health Impact Assessment for a Community Undergoing Natural Gas Development. American Journal of Public Health. June 2013, Vol 103, No 6, 1002-10.


Back to top