Friday, June 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 2Fracking panel for cattlemen: debate or monologues?

Fracking panel for cattlemen: debate or monologues?

p2315-Ron-Kelly-1By ERWIN CHLANDA
A panel session on fracking this week, before 500 NT cattle men and women at their annual meeting in Alice Springs, has put into sharper focus how the controversial oil and gas production method will further evolve in the NT.
The industry will continue to rely on what it calls its record while their assertions seem to be partly untested.
The integrity of ground water protection is claimed to be “not negotiable” while there was no assurance that the fracking process is fail proof.
And the NT Government is relying on the petroleum industry to set the production and safety agenda because to do otherwise would be “to legislate for a minimum standard”. NT Mines Department CEO Ron Kelly (above, right), who made this claim, did not substantiate it.
The session started with Matthew Doman being given the word from the floor. After eight years with Santos he became the SA/NT director for the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) last month.
“We point to 60 years of activity now, not very far from here … 3000 wells have been drilled, 1000 wells have been hydraulically fractured, every one of these wells has gone through the Great Artesian Basin,” he said.
“There has been no impact on the viability, on the environmental viability of that critical ground.”
Clearly he should have said “known impact”: There was no evidence given to the meeting that all wells had been examined, from top to bottom, by independent experts, and that water samples had been analysed by them. On the contrary, according to one expert panel member, to date well inspection has not been happening (see below).
In August 2014, when Mr Doman was still with Santos, he told an Alice Springs audience that Santos does not claim to be perfect. Environmental incidents are listed on documents which are in the public sphere, he said. These are “typically spills of liquids”.
To Friday’s cattle industry audience he said: “The concerns we’re hearing today are very common and very reasonable and very legitimate and the industry has to do better in responding to those concerns. We’ll listen to you guys.”
What effect that listening would have was not made clear by Mr Doman but he claimed the industry is “very safe, very sustainable, very necessary”.
A woman in the audience asked: “What ramifications, if any, do you see for an industry that’s producing clean, green, organic beef if [gas and oil] well integrity is compromised or breached?”
Panel member John Cotter, chairman of the Gasfields Commission in Queensland, replied: “The starting point is, a threat to water is not negotiable. Absolutely not.”
He continued: “The process of drilling a well in Queensland is four times more stringent than drilling an agricultural bore. We have some great discussions going on in Queensland at the moment.”
These discussions possibly circle around the fact that not too many agricultural bores are drilled with the purpose of  injecting poisons into the ground.
That ground water protection is indeed “negotiable” was underscored by Tina Hunter, Reader in Energy Law at the University of Aberdeen, who referred to “response plans, oil spill response plans”.
She said: “The biggest weakness in any framework in Australia is the fact that we don’t inspect wells and I think it is appalling.”
According to Mr Kelly, the Mines Department currently has seven specialist staff  for the entire NT overseeing and inspecting oil and gas production.
Says Dr Hunter: “If a well leaks then you have major issues in the aquifers.
“If I was an organic producer I’d be concerned about chemicals coming on [to the land where drilling takes place] and how they are being regulated. What if they spill on the surface?”
p2315-Dr-Tina-Hunter-1Dr Hunter (at left) said spills would need to be contained. She suggested to talk to NT Work Safe about that “because a lot is about prevention, not response”.
Panel member Kelly made it clear that the NT Government regulator would be playing catch-up and that regulations were very much a work in progress although fracking is already in use and pretty well all land of the NT is under application or approval.
“There is a complete philosophical shift in how we regulate this industry, from sitting down and dreaming up a rule book … to looking at what are the potential dangers and risks and how do we deal with them,” Mr Kelly told the meeting.
“We are implementing a regime here where we do test all of our wells in their construction phases … to ensure cementing is done correctly, they are all pressure tested correctly, so we don’t have potential contamination of process water into the environment through a well failure.
“The onus is on the companies to do the research and the science and present it to us,” he said.
“The government people we have will have the ability and capacity to analyse that and ensure it is safe and correct, or will engage external experts to do that analysis and review.
“As a government regulator we are not telling people what to do because what we would then be doing is to legislate for a minimum standard.
“At the moment we are in an exploration phase.”
Dr Hunter came to the rescue when the enormity of the departmental task – checking thousands of wells under construction or in use – became obvious.
There’s lots of ways you can test, said Dr Hunter: “It’s like when you’re sick.
“There are lots of ways to get a diagnosis. Usually they start mucking around with X-rays. Then they might go to an ultrasound. And then they might do a CAT scan and then say, Oh, we need an MRI. What we should be advocating is best practice.”
Friday’s meeting was given no insight into how the NT Government would be dealing with the critical issues, although Cattlemen’s Association president Tom Stockwell had asked for exactly that four hours earlier.
Said Dr Hunter: “It’s about companies not cutting corners and regulators that are well resourced, well staffed and well funded. It’s about making sure your regulator can do it.”
“I think you need to talk to the Treasurer to give me more money,” quipped Mr Kelly, and then withdrew the remark.
He said: “When a well is in production the companies are monitoring and maintaining that well because it’s in their interest to make sure it’s operating correctly.
“We have immense confidence that we can get that regulatory regime right.”
Meanwhile the NT remains littered with the debris of failed mining ventures and bankrupt companies, waiting for the government to spend millions of dollars fixing up the environment (see also comment by ALEX NELSON).
Mr Kelly said the department will put in place an “environmental bond process” whereby companies will “pay up front, cash or unrestricted bank guarantee so Territorians are not exposed to financial or environmental risk”.


  1. Gas leaks, fact. Best practice would be to ban this industry before it starts.
    There are only seven unconventional gas wells sunk in the NT thus far. It is misleading and dishonest to construe the information that suggests that thousands of wells have been sunk by the process of fracking. Blurring the line in what should be a transparent process is criminal.
    Capitalising on the innocence of hard working farmers who are on the land trying to make an honest living is a disgrace!

  2. I trust that Ron Kelly’s proposed “environmental bond process” is going to be open and transparent.
    It would simply not be good enough for the government to refuse to reveal the size of environmental bonds on the grounds of them being “commercial in confidence” matters.
    It must also be made clear as to how long the bonds will be held for. Contamination of aquifers may not occur until many years after gas mining operations have ceased.
    By this time the mining companies responsible may no longer be operating in Australia.

  3. @ Marli Banks: I agree with you, one wonders what mess the Ranger mine will leave behind. The real problem there is no such thing as freedom of speech.

  4. Watch what happens to NT cattle and land prices when overseas buyers test our beef and find fracking chemicals?
    A 2012 study by Bamberger and Oswald, “Impacts of gas drilling on human and animal health” presents 24 case studies.
    An 29/11/12 NBC News report quoted the author: “Exposed livestock are making their way into the food system, and it’s very worrisome to us,” Bamberger said.
    “They live in areas that have tested positive for air, water and soil contamination. Some of these chemicals could appear in milk and meat products made from these animals.”
    The study points out that transparency is key: “Complete evidence regarding health impacts of gas drilling cannot be obtained due to incomplete testing and disclosure of chemicals, and nondisclosure agreements.”
    Alberta, Canada, perhaps has the best regulations because they have an expert panel that keeps up with the latest technology, methods and risks.
    I was a scientist for the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences when the (4th-largest) Columbia River was found to be contaminated with 90 toxins.
    It was unspeakably tragic, particularly for developing children. My heart goes out to the NT cattlemen and their industry who are under such pressure.

  5. This is very disturbing. This industry is not wanted in the NT.
    It is too late once the damage has been done. We have a pristine, beautiful environment that needs to be protected at all costs. Our cattle industry needs to be protected at all costs.
    The mining companies have a shocking record of destroying everything in their path. Rehabilitation is not going to happen. Once the damage is done it is irreversible. The millions of liters of water used for the fracking is totally contaminated forever.
    We live in the middle of the desert we need to value our water above all else. It is a no-brainer! We need to all stand up and stop this from happening. Too late after the damage is done!
    We cannot eat money, drink money or breathe money. We are privileged to live in this beautiful place. Ban this industry before it starts! No water, no life.

  6. I read all the comments below after reading Erwin’s somewhat skewed article and come to the conclusion that most of the anti fracking movement is based on what–ifs and anecdotes they have gathered from well organised environmental / neo-marxist activist groups.
    So where is the science against this fracking? Out of the 1000 hydraulically fractured wells the company said had been produced over this basin, where are the overwhelming negative results?
    Where are the hundreds or thousands of cattle that should be full of fracking chemicals? Where are the people that should be full of fracking chemicals?
    Surely if the fears of these activists are so well founded they would be out organising testing themselves and not sitting back blaming the companies for not providing enough information. Surely these issues would harness the influence to gather a war chest for independent scientific research!
    I wouldn’t suggest that for one moment there is no danger to fracking but the debate is now at a point that evidence does not matter, only emotion!
    The anti fracking movement has placed their faith in another end of world theorem. Just like that loony Tim Flannery and the climate change debate with his predictions that we would now be experiencing never seen before droughts, catastrophic sea level rises, collapsing river systems and the end of the Great Barrier Reef.
    The hypocrisy reached new levels when I saw firsthand at a local environmental fair an anti fracking knitting nannies stand who were using signs saying, “no to gas” while at the same time using a gas (yes gas) stove top to make tea. Tim Flannery in 1996 warned that global warming would drown beachfront houses eight storeys high. The very next year he bought a house just a couple of metres from the edge of the tidal waters around the Hawkesbury estuary.
    I just hope the cattle industry uses a little more sense in their judgments when weighing up the pros and cons of gas fields on their properties and I also hope our Indigenous land owners also make sound judgments.

  7. @1 Melissa: What a load of cods. There us a plethora of science available on the topic which shows fracking is in no way a neutral or benign process. Most of this science is produced by the companies themselves.
    Re Fracking: The very idea one can pump megalites of toxins into different strata, brecciate that strata right across the target basib and NOT have an impact, is as stupid as it is illogical.
    Re cattle – NO ONE IS TESTING THE LATTER. So no-one would be yet aware of issues. As a former meat inspector I can assure you I shop assiduously to avoid eating meat derived from gas fields. Not only is water quality an issue but also the toxins from gas processing plants, compressors, flares and venting which are falling out onto grasses. These are all contamination sources. The absence of data does not equate to absence of impact or harm. I’ve been waiting for gas companies and government to prove the claimed “no harm” via routine testing at slaughter, but no one has taken up the baton. This I find curious.
    Re Testing: There is ample ad hoc testing being undertaken by impacted groups in Queensland and all results are revealing areas of major concern. So you can put that silly comment to bed.
    I too hope the cattle industry uses good judgement and rejects this damaging industry completely. “Co-existence” is a public relation term coined by the gas industry.

  8. Ron Kelly is the regulator of the gas industry, can he be their salesman at the same time? I wonder if he can he get paid for being a salesman, as well as paid to be the regulator as the CEO of Mines and Energy? Does anyone know the answer? Is this even possible to do?
    Braedon Earley
    1 Territory Party

  9. @ Michele: Almost laughable response and I guess I couldn’t expect much better: “As a former meat inspector I can assure you I shop assiduously to avoid eating meat derived from gas fields.”
    So where is this contaminated meat, are we exposed to it here? If so catastrophic why haven’t we been warned by Health Authorities? Are you blaming them also, if so whom in particular?
    A lack of common sense wreaks more of a scare campaign, good for you as you know you may/can wedge cattlemen into a fear induced reaction. It’s a common technique, something your fellow activists use every day.

  10. @ Melissa: An intelligent response would have been to ask my why I am concerned, surely? Rather than make a spurious attack and follow it with a non-sequitur re “fellow activists”.
    But then, the word “intelligent” is operative. I would suggest you look closely at gas infrastructure emissions and how they behave in the atmosphere and fallout over grasslands.
    Many are reported on the NPI website:
    Another issue to consider is frack and drilling flowback disposal within the environment – used for dust suppression and land-spraying while drilling.
    What is the fate of the largely undisclosed product and natural elements, such as heavy metals, after they are sprayed into the environment? They become dust / particulate matter / aerosols. These are inhaled and ingested. The MLA did a study many years ago, but then suppressed the findings. This is common knowledge.
    The focus then became selling the “co-existence” myth. The gas companies don’t disclose proprietary product. So what does one test for and who pays?
    There are multiple sources of contaminants, multiple chemicals, different exposures and different impacts. Each time a producer signs a stock declaration he will be taking responsibility for the gas industry operating on his property.
    At the same time he will have no idea what is really being used, produced as a gas industry by-product, or what his cattle are being exposed to. Good luck with your gas industry astro-turfing. I’d prefer producers are correctly informed.

  11. @ Melissa: To address this comment:
    “As a former meat inspector I can assure you I shop assiduously to avoid eating meat derived from gas fields.”
    Both happen to be statements of fact and not intended to “wedge”. Educated and intelligent people can take what they want from my concerns.

  12. Can anyone extend on Ron Kelly’s “3000 wells and 1000 fracked” statement … because there isn’t that many wells listed on any Department Mines and Energy documents.
    I find it quite alarming that department heads and ministers have no idea of the differences between conventional and unconventional gas deposits and the differences in extraction methods between the two.
    Our regulator cannot regulate the existing extractive industry … hence the billion dollar clean up bill for Red Bank … plus ongoing legacy from mining activities right the way across the NT.
    If they have no idea what they are in for, how can we trust them to regulate a high risk industry?


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