Water doesn’t tend to be flammable. A river in Queensland, however, has dramatically eschewed this stereotype. As demonstrated by an adventurous boat-dwelling occupant, this particular body of water bursts into flames when you introduce it to the business end of a barbecue lighter.
As reported by the Washington Post, the Condamine River is full of methane, which explains the unexpected pyrotechnics. There are only two ways a river like this could be filled with enough of methane to cause such a remarkable display: either it’s a natural process, or it’s been artificially deposited there.
The man who is seen igniting the water is named Jeremy Buckingham; he belongs to the New South Wales parliament’s upper house, and is a member of the Greens, a political party that aims to create an ecologically sustainable society rooted in environmentalism.
Jeremy Buckingham ignites a section of the Condamine River
The lighting of the river was an attempt to link it to the Australian government’s profligate use of fracking, a controversial natural gas extraction process that some say is causing huge environmental damage. In particular, the process – which involves using explosions at depth to force the gas up to the surface – has been said to cause dangerous methane gases to filter into the water table.
Videos taken in the United States, where fracking is also taking place, have previously shown tap water being shockingly flammable. This new video, coming out of the northeastern Australian province, is another attempt to link the potentially risky fossil fuel retrieval method to environmental damage.
However, several studies have come out in the last few years concluding that fracking is not causing methane to filter into various water sources; the links between the two are currently tenuous at best. Methane can also naturally escape to the surface via preexisting fissures, and bacterial processes known to produce methane may suddenly lead to pockets of the gas rushing up through a river or lake environment.
In the case of the Condamine River, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia, has said that this case is also driven by natural processes. Although the river is within a few kilometers of several gas fields that are being explored and mined by extraction companies, the CSIRO notes that four major fissures have long been present underneath the river, and methane gas escape is a common occurrence there.
Fracking is becoming a common practice in many Western nations, including the U.K., Australia and the U.S. Calin Tatu/Shutterstock
“The presence of the industry there has not caused that crack to occur or that fault to occur, it’s been there for aeons,” Professor Damian Barrett, the research director of CSIRO’s onshore gas program, told the Guardian. “We don’t see a direct connection, a direct relationship, between what’s happening on the gas fields up to this point in time and what’s happening in the river.”
The recent increase in methane escape, captured so strikingly on camera by Buckingham, could be due to a localized shift in sediment or increase in water flow, which would allow the gas to escape more easily. Either way, Barrett points out that igniting the river is “not necessarily an advisable thing to do.”
In any case, Buckingham’s convictions remain steadfast. “It is a remarkable correlation that within 12 months [of] the marked expansion of that gas field, the river closest to that gas field starts bubbling,” he said. The jury, as they say, is still out.