THE release of a major national assessment of the chemicals used in coal seam gas drilling has been delayed for more than two years despite a key independent scientific committee twice urging the government to make it public.
The Federal Government's independent expert scientific committee on coal seam gas and large coal mines (IESC) ordered the $4.2 million project in 2012 in the wake of an environmental controversy.
A report by environment group the National Toxics Network had revealed the nation's industrial chemicals regulator (NICNAS) had not assessed at least 23 chemicals used in CSG drilling operations in Australia.
Critics say the still unreleased chemical assessment ignores crucial issues, including the effects on groundwater, fugitive emissions and the use of similar chemical mixtures in the wider shale oil and gas industry.
Regulators have told Senate Estimates the assessment aimed to assess the risk, but not actual effects of, the potentially toxic chemical cocktails used in CSG drilling and hydraulic fracturing on surface water, public and worker health.
While the chemicals used in CSG drilling vary, they can include what the industry calls "household chemicals" such as citric acid and guar gum.
But a study of the chemicals used in drilling in North Dakota in the United States published last year shows some of the most common ingredients included crystalline silica which has been linked to lung cancer, as well as methanol and naphthalene.
The study was relevant to Australia because much of the fluids used here were manufactured overseas and imported by the same suppliers of the US industry - although exact fluid mixtures vary from well to well.
Documents about the assessment say it was designed to "develop an understanding" of the risks the chemicals posed - to help manage the industry, as well as "improve public access to information" about the risks.
But four years after it was commissioned for release in December 2013, and extended twice to December 2015, it has not been completed and no draft or final reports have been released.
IESC minutes show it has twice expressed its "concern" about the delays, in April and October 2014.
Those documents also show the research was internationally peer-reviewed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and by Health Canada and draft reports were completed by as early as March last year.
Those reports, as well as a series of draft detailed technical papers and risk assessments are understood to have been completed, but none has been publicly released.
The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme first led the project, but it has since been taken over by the Environment Department - questions about the transfer of responsibility were not answered.
NICNAS director Dr Brian Richards told a Senate estimates hearing in October 2015 the report was still undergoing further reviews, particularly on the "predicted environmental concentrations" of the chemicals used - examining how much may end up in the environment and the risks that poses.
The IESC reviewed two reports on those technical issues as early as June 2014.
The Environment Department has since been consulting with the coal seam gas industry and an "independent environmental contractor".
Dr Richards and the IESC referred all questions to the Environment Department, which provided a statement. The CSIRO did not respond to questions.
Despite the international peer reviews and contributions from at least three government agencies over more than three years, the department still needed "additional expert review and copy-editing" of the documents, including consulting the gas industry on crucial aspects of the technical assessment.
A department spokeswoman said the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association's involvement was "in the context of provision of data to inform the assessment".
APPEA chief executive officer Dr Malcolm Roberts said the lobby group had helped by 'facilitating the exchange of information' between the gas companies and the department.
He said APPEA helped to ensure the department had the most comprehensive information available, but did not detail what specific information that was.
CSG chemicals assessment
- Aims to identify the chemicals used in CSG drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
- Examines risks of the effects of fracking fluids on surface water, shallow groundwater and public and worker health.
- Aims to create new methods to predict the effects of CSG chemicals on soil, surface water and shallow groundwater.
- Does not examine chemical mixtures or effects on deep groundwater and aquifers.