Blind shrimps, translucent snails: the 11 mysterious new species we found in potential fracking sites



An ostracod, a small crustacean with more than 70,000 identified species.
Anna33/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Jenny Davis, Charles Darwin University; Daryl Nielsen, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO, and Stefanie Oberprieler, Charles Darwin University

There aren’t many parts of the world where you can discover a completely new assemblage of living creatures. But after sampling underground water in a remote, arid region of northern Australia, we discovered at least 11, and probably more, new species of stygofauna.

Stygofauna are invertebrates that have evolved exclusively in underground water. A life in complete darkness means these animals are often blind, beautifully translucent and often extremely localised – rarely living anywhere else but the patch they’re found in.

The species we discovered live in a region earmarked for fracking by the Northern Territory and federal government. As with any mining activity, it’s important future gas extraction doesn’t harm groundwater habitats or the water that sustains them.

Our findings, published today, show the importance of conducting comprehensive environmental assessments before extraction projects begin. These assessments are especially critical in Australia’s north, where many plants and animals living in surface and groundwater have not yet been documented.

When the going gets tough, go underground

Stygofauna were first discovered in Western Australia in 1991. Since then, these underground, aquatic organisms have been recorded across the continent. Today, more than 400 Australian species have been formally recognised by scientists.

The subterranean fauna we collected from NT aquifers, including a range of species unknown to science. A–C: Atyid shrimps, including Parisia unguis; D-F: Amphipods in Melitidae family; G: The syncarid species Brevisomabathynella sp.; H-J: members of the Candonidae family of ostracods; K: the harpacticoid species Nitokra lacustris; L: a new species of snail in the Caenogastropoda: M-N: Members of the Cyclopidae family of copepods; O: The worm species Aeolosoma sp.
GISERA, Author provided

Stygofauna are the ultimate climate change refugees. They would have inhabited surface water when inland Australia was much wetter. But as the continent started drying around 14 million years ago, they moved underground to the relatively stable environmental conditions of subterranean aquifers.




Read more:
Hidden depths: why groundwater is our most important water source


Today, stygofauna help maintain the integrity of groundwater food webs. They mostly graze on fungal and microbial films created by organic material leaching from the surface.

In 2018, the final report of an independent inquiry called for a critical knowledge gap regarding groundwater to be filled, to ensure fracking could be done safely in the Northern Territory. We wanted to determine where stygofauna and microbial assemblages occurred, and in what numbers.

Our project started in 2019, when we carried out a pilot survey of groundwater wells (bores) in the Beetaloo Sub-basin and Roper River region. The Beetaloo Sub-basin is potentially one of the most important areas for shale gas in Australia.

What we found

The stygofauna we found range in size from centimetres to millimetres and include:

  • two new species of ostracod: small crustaceans enclosed within mussel-like shells

  • a new species of amphipod: this crustacean acts as a natural vacuum cleaner, feeding on decomposing material

  • multiple new species of copepods: tiny crustaceans which form a major component of the zooplankton in marine and freshwater systems

  • a new syncarid: another crustacean entirely restricted to groundwater habitats

  • a new snail and a new worm.

A thriving stygofauna ecosystem lies beneath the surface of northern Australia’s arid outback. We sampled water through bores to measure their presence.
Jenny Davis, Author provided

These species were living in groundwater 400 to 900 kilometres south of Darwin. We found them mostly in limestone karst habitats, which contain many channels and underground caverns.

Perhaps most exciting, we also found a relatively large, colourless, blind shrimp (Parisia unguis) previously known only from the Cutta Cutta caves near Katherine. This shrimp is an “apex” predator, feeding on other stygofauna — a rare find for these kinds of ecosystems.

A microscopic image of Parisia unguis, a freshwater shrimp.
Stefanie Oberprieler, Author provided

Protecting groundwater and the animals that live there

The Beetaloo Sub-basin in located beneath a major freshwater resource, the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer. It supplies water for domestic use, cattle stations and horticulture.

Surface water in this dry region is scarce, and it’s important natural gas development does not harm groundwater.

The stygofauna we found are not the first to potentially be affected by a resource project. Stygofauna have also been found at the Yeelirrie uranium mine in Western Australia, approved by the federal government in 2019. More research will be required to understand risks to the stygofauna we found at the NT site.




Read more:
It’s not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine


The discovery of these new NT species has implications for all extractive industries affecting groundwater. It shows the importance of thorough assessment and monitoring before work begins, to ensure damage to groundwater and associated ecosystems is detected and mitigated.

Gas infrastructure at Beetaloo Basin
The Beetaloo Basin is part of the federal government’s gas expansion strategy.
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources

Where to from here

Groundwater is vital to inland Australia. Underground ecosystems must be protected – and not considered “out of sight, out of mind”.

Our study provides the direction to reduce risks to stygofauna, ensuring their ecosystems and groundwater quality is maintained.

Comprehensive environmental surveys are needed to properly document the distribution of these underground assemblages. The new stygofauna we found must also be formally recognised as a new species in science, and their DNA sequence established to support monitoring programs.

Different species of copepods from various parts of the world.
Andrei Savitsky/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Many new tools and approaches are available to support environmental assessment, monitoring and management of resource extraction projects. These include remote sensing and molecular analyses.

Deploying the necessary tools and methods will help ensure development in northern Australia is sustainable. It will also inform efforts to protect groundwater habitats and stygofauna across the continent.




Read more:
Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


The Conversation


Jenny Davis, Professor, Research Institute for Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Charles Darwin University; Daryl Nielsen, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Stefanie Oberprieler, Research associate, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Amid coronavirus chaos, the Victorian government announced its decision earlier this week to lift the ban on onshore gas exploration, but also to make the temporary state-wide ban on fracking permanent.

This decision was made three years after an investigation found gas reserves in the state could be extracted without any environmental impacts, and new laws will be introduced to parliament for drilling to start in July next year.




Read more:
Fracking policies are wildly inconsistent across Australia, from gung-ho development to total bans


The state government first introduced the moratorium (temporary ban) on onshore conventional and unconventional gas production in 2017, enshrined in the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990. It effectively made it an offence to either conduct coal seam gas exploration or hydraulic fracturing (fracking) until June 2020.

The ban was originally imposed amid strong concerns about the environmental, climate and social impacts of onshore gas expansion. But lifting the ban to allow conventional gas exploration while banning fracking and unconventional gas (coal seam gas), doesn’t remove these concerns.

The fracking ban isn’t so permanent

The new laws seek to do two things: lift the ban on conventional onshore gas production, and to entrench a ban on fracking and coal seam gas exploration into the state constitution.

The government has stated it wants to make it difficult for future governments to remove the fracking ban. But this is highly unlikely to be legally effective. Unlike the federal constitution, the Victorian constitution is an ordinary act, and so it can be amended by another legal act.

The only way entrenching an amendment in the state constitution so that it is permanent and unchangeable is if it relates to the operation and procedure of parliament. And fracking does not do this.

This raises the spectre of a future government removing the fracking ban in line with an accelerating onshore gas framework.

Conventional vs unconventional gas

The main difference between conventional gas and unconventional gas (coal seam gas) lies in their geology.

Conventional gas can generally be extracted without the need to frack, as gas can move to the surface through gas wells. To release unconventional gas, particularly shale gas, fracking is always required.




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Fracking technologies risk water quality from ground disturbances, spills, the release of chemicals and other fluids, and the underground migration of gases and chemicals.

So lifting the conventional onshore gas ban while keeping the fracking ban will mean less risk to the environment. But extracting conventional gas is still risky.

Greenhouse gas leaks

Extracting conventional gas risks fugitive emissions. This refers to greenhouse gases, such as methane, that can escape into the atmosphere during mining fossil fuels, such as from equipment leaks, deliberate or accidental venting, or from gas flaring.

Precise measurements of the fugitive emissions from onshore conventional gas production are difficult to predict, but their effect on climate change is alarming.

The latest estimates indicate fugitive emissions account for approximately 6% of Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions. Fugitive emissions also have about 27 times the greenhouse harming potential of carbon dioxide.

In 2017, the Australian Gas Industry argued well managed sites produce little fugitive emissions, and poorly managed sites were responsible for 75% of fugitive emissions.

This means any expansion of onshore conventional gas must be accompanied by strict management and regulation. But there’s no industry-wide code of practice in Victoria focused on reducing this emissions risk.

Increasing annual emissions

Even in the unlikely scenario of zero or limited fugitive emissions, expanding conventional gas exploration will still add to Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed laws follow the conclusions of a three-year study that reviewed the climate, environmental, economic and social impacts of gas exploration in Victoria.

The report suggested a slight increase in absolute annualised greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions would be proportionately increased by lifting the ban.

It also suggested expanding gas development would contribute between only 0.1% and 0.2% of Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and that this wouldn’t affect Victoria’s 2050 net-zero target.

But 0.1% to 0.2% still amounts to releasing an additional 122,000 to 329,000 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent into the atmosphere.

What’s more, this assessment completely ignores emissions released through increased gas usage within the community. Globally, CO₂ emissions from natural gas use rose almost 200 million metric tons in 2019 and were responsible for two-thirds of the global emissions increase.

What it means for the community

The report predicts 242 jobs, A$312 million in gross regional product and A$43 million in royalties for Victoria. But overall, gas prices in the east coast market won’t change.




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The additional 128-830 petajoules (a joule is a measure of thermal energy and a petajoule is a million billion joules) that is potentially capable of being produced by lifting the moratorium will not be enough to address the forecast shortfall.

For the communities around the gas exploration sites, the report indicates the social impact of lifting the moratorium would be manageable.

The report indicates that 80% of the south-west and Gippsland communities – from more than 800 engagements with industry, farmers, local school students, and environmental community groups – either supported or tolerated onshore conventional gas development if noise or disturbances were appropriately addressed through regulation. But industry wide codes of behaviour are yet to be implemented.




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At what cost?

Lifting the ban on onshore conventional gas in Victoria comes at a time when the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is profoundly important.

Climate change is accelerating. While gas may be an important resource as we transition to renewable energy, accelerating its production, particularly in the absence of stringent regulatory controls, comes at a very high price.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fracking policies are wildly inconsistent across Australia, from gung-ho development to total bans


Hanabeth Luke, Southern Cross University; Martin Brueckner, Murdoch University, and Nia Emmanouil, Southern Cross University

Last week, the Western Australian Government lifted its state-wide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Unconventional gas industries were given the green light to develop on existing petroleum leases, especially in WA’s vast Kimberley region.

Following the Northern Territory government’s April decision to lift its temporary fracking ban, this decision paves the way for future growth of the industry across much of northern Australia.




Read more:
Australian gas: between a fracked rock and a socially hard place


Fracking policies vary widely across Australia’s states and territories, and so do community attitudes. Our review of the literature on unconventional gas development in Australia reveals an inconsistent approach in how governments have responded to the industry. While coal seam gas extraction has proceeded almost unimpeded in Queensland, the industry was halted in its tracks in Victoria, with a permanent ban on fracking legislated in March this year.

In the NT, despite an inquiry that acknowledged clear and widespread public opposition to fracking, the territory’s moratorium was lifted. In Tasmania, a moratorium is in place until 2025.

Unconventional gas development in New South Wales – despite pressing energy needs – has been protracted owing to growing community opposition towards fracking, with exclusion zones created near residential areas and industries such as wine-making and horse breeding.

The WA government’s decision to leave in place localised bans in the state’s most populated areas, while allowing fracking in existing petroleum tenements elsewhere, echoes the position taken by the South Australian government in September. The latter’s policy imposes a ten-year fracking ban in SA’s agriculturally rich southeast, while allowing the practice to continue in the northeast.

Balancing policy?

Labelled as a “clean” alternative to coal by industry, unconventional gas is presented as a key “transition” fuel, capable of delivering reliable, lower-emission electricity – a stepping stone along the path to zero-carbon energy. Our research suggests that this clean image is pivotal to public support for the industry.

The unconventional gas industry has been hailed as an economic lifeline for regional Australia. Justification for its growth into new regions is tied closely to the purported domestic “gas crisis”. Others predict that fracking for unconventional gas could have negative economic consequences.

Many affected communities continue to question the capacity of the industry to operate with low risk to health and the environment. In the Kimberley and across Australia, opposition to fracking simmers.

WA and SA exemplify efforts to strike a balance between the unconventional gas industry and concerned community members. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the effectiveness of attempts to secure fracking bans could relate to the political and economic muscle of affected communities. Our ongoing research seeks to analyse this development pattern.




Read more:
Fracking can cause social stress in nearby areas: new research


What are the real emissions?

The industry has argued that “fugitive emissions” of methane from Australian unconventional gas wells are relatively low. However, more recent studies warn that we may be underestimating the true climate risks of unconventional gas.

Indeed, Australia’s spike in greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to the expansion of unconventional gas production and exports. They underpinned a 13.7% increase in national fugitive greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to Australia recording its 15th consecutive quarter of greenhouse gas emission increases this year. These figures call into question Australia’s trajectory to meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

The impacts of rising greenhouse emissions are becoming increasingly visible and costly, in the form of more frequent violent storms, intense rainfall, drought and bushfires. Last week, the Victorian Labor Government was re-elected on the back of
strong climate policy. With 15,000 children walking out of school on Friday, the youth “climate strike” rallies attest to the strength of community feelings on climate action and the role of fracking in this context.

Future of fracking?

For state and territory leaders, the job of balancing gas industry interests with those of increasingly vocal communities is becoming more of a juggling act than ever before. With climate concerns intensifying, renewable energy supported by battery power appears a promising option for meeting regional development and energy needs. This has potential to gain widespread public support and create “green-collar” jobs while helping to reduce Australia’s emissions.

In contrast, a reliance on unconventional gas as an interim energy solution may “frack” more than just deep rock formations – but potentially communities, politics … and not least the climate.The Conversation

Hanabeth Luke, Lecturer, School of Environment, Science and Engineering, Southern Cross University; Martin Brueckner, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability, Murdoch University, and Nia Emmanouil, Research associate, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Man-Made Earthquakes Becoming Common


Random Thoughts

I guess it was only a matter if time before our meddling with the earth via fracking became a major problem, or perhaps better put, a bigger problem. Man-made earthquakes are now a reality, but this article suggests they have been around a lot longer than fracking.

For more visit:
http://www.geek.com/science/man-made-earthquakes-are-becoming-a-real-problem-1576464/

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