By KIERAN FINNANE
The Town Council last night turned its back on a recommendation from its own Environment Advisory Committee (EAC) that council support a fracking no-go zone for the drinking water aquifer in Alice Springs.
At right: Jop van Hattum from the Department of Mines & Energy addressing council last night on the NT’s regulation of fracking.
Without blushing, Mayor Damien Ryan proposed this alternative: that council ask the NT Government to protect the Alice Springs water supply now and into the future.
This proposal is so general and vague as to be almost meaningless, yet straight-faced and in front of a public gallery of Frack Free Alliance supporters (as well as Clarke Street residents concerned about vicious dogs), one by one the conservative block on council spoke in support.
It covers all eventualities, said Deputy Mayor Jamie de Brenni.
We don’t know what the future holds or where our water will come from, said Councillor Brendan Heenan, referring to the original motion’s specification of the Amadeus Basin as the source of Alice’s drinking water.
Cr Jacinta Price, attending the meeting by phone, reliably supported the Mayor, as did Crs Dave Douglas and Steve Brown.
Cr Brown countered Cr Jade Kudrenko’s suggestion that council take the advice of its advisory committee by saying that advisory committees are there only to provide advice: “We are not in any way compelled to listen to them.”
Mayor Ryan said the most important issue was to protect the water supply, and not limit that to one method of extraction.
Protect it from what? asked Cr Eli Melky, who chairs the EAC, urging that the particular risk be identified.
We already have the Water Act, said Cr Kudrenko, but many residents believe that it does not provide sufficient protection and are specifically concerned by the fracking threat.
Both Crs Melky and Kudrenko said they would support the Mayor’s motion as well as the original motion so that the message would be absolutely clear.
Cr Melky urged his fellow elected members to not be afraid of saying the words “shale gas fracturing”.
However, they were. Mayor Ryan, Deputy Mayor de Brenni, and Crs Brown, Douglas, Heenan and Price all voted against the motion.
Cr Chansey Paech was absent, with work commitments. However he had seconded the original motion in the EAC, so it can be expected he would have voted for it.
The Mayor’s platitude was passed unanimously.
Above: Locals joining a highway demonstration for water protection against fracking, part of a national action last Saturday. This group was at Larapinta. About 70 locals participated around Alice. Photo supplied by the Central Australian Frack Free Alliance.
This came after council had heard from Department of Mines and Energy spokesperson Jop van Hattum (Senior Director Petroluem Technology and Operations) on the NT Government’s regulatory reforms for the onshore oil and gas industry.
Mayor Ryan’s first question to Mr van Hattum was about the protection of the Alice Springs water supply, on which no precision had been offered.
Cr Melky was more pointed, saying that he was not satisfied that the department’s approach of reducing risks to a level “as low as reasonably possible” – it’s even got an acronym, ALARP – was acceptable when it comes to water.
Cr Kudrenko wanted to know who determines whether a risk is acceptable. Ultimately it’s the Minister for Mines, said Mr van Hattum. What about the Minister for the Environment? asked Cr Kudrenko.
The Minister for Mines is obliged to consider the report that comes to him or her from the NT’s Environment Protection Agency, said Mr van Hattum. He suggested that the ALARP principle, combined with transparency of reporting to which the government is committed, provides a “continuously improving system” for environmental protection.
Cr Kudrenko said she could not accept “risk minimisation” when it comes to protecting water supplies – “water is our life”. She wanted to see the onus put on mining companies to prove that any contamination of water was not due to their practices.
Mr van Hattum said he would be happy to come back to council to talk specifically about the risks to water posed by drilling and / or hydraulic fracturing.
He had earlier shown a map of the NT, which identified areas in green where agreements have been reached with landholders, including native-title holders and traditional owners, allowing petroleum exploration to go ahead. These were concentrated around the Beetaloo Sub-basin south of Katherine, the only known prospective basin for hydrocarbon development, said Mr van Hattum.
Others areas on the map shown in orange are exclusion zones – urban and rural residential areas. These included Darwin and Coomalie. Closer to home, Watarrka National Park has been excluded. However, the map did not show Alice Springs as an orange zone. It certainly will be excluded, said Mr Van Hattum, to sceptical murmurings from the public gallery.