By ERWIN CHLANDA
An impromptu question by anti-fracking activist Jimmy Cocking provided the answer everyone wanted to know: Alice Springs, judged by the attendance of last night’s public meeting, is overwhelmingly against fracking.
This is how it unfolded.
The independent Scientific Inquiry Into Hydraulic Fracturing ordered by the NT Government was having its first scheduled public hearing.
About 120 people had registered and were seated at eight tables, each of which had an inquiry panel member as the chairman.
Each participant had a 21 page questionnaire before her or him listing 66 “risks” first published in a brochure launched by the inquiry on February 20.
The participants were invited to nominate further risks, and some did so during the evening.
These risks were grouped under headings including water, land, air, public health and so on.
For each heading, participants were invited to answer questions such as this: “Do you think that the risks and issues identified in Table 7.4 are appropriate for the Panel to consider during the course of the Inquiry?”
All very neat.
Enter Jimmy Cocking and his fellow campaigners. Some – identified by a yellow Frack Free Alliance triangle stuck to their shirts – had registered and were seated at the tables.
Some were not and were standing at the back of the room, or sitting on the floor leaning against the side walls. The crowd was now close to 200 people.
Inquiry chairperson, Judge Rachel Pepper, was gracious in not making a fuss about people who had not booked entering the room.
Mr Cocking, CEO of the Arid Lands Environment Centre, who had a place at one of the tables, stood up.
It was during the rather extended preamble to the meeting which was ostensibly held for members of the public to state their views, with merely two hours scheduled.
Judge Pepper’s introduction of panel members and explanation of the inquiry’s purpose was relatively brief (eight minutes).
But Professor Peter Flood, promising to be brief, managed to draw out to 27 minutes his explanation of the differences between coal seam and shale oil gas. These matters were raised incessantly during the Adam Giles pro-fracking campaign last year and anyone could have downloaded those details from the web.
Anyway, Mr Cocking was on his feet. He attracted the gathering’s attention and invited a vote: How many people want a permanent ban on fracking?
The response was impressive (see video above): From where I was sitting, near the front right-hand side of the room, with an unimpeded view of all the people, my estimate was that 80% of them put up their hands.
That included many people sitting at the tables and not wearing a frack free triangle.
The action was clearly carefully planned by the Frack-Free Territory Alliance whose members, 40 or so people, had staged a friendly protest outside the Convention Centre, with kids dressed as bilbies and real camels with slogans painted on their sides.
The business part of the meeting was productive: At the end of the evening each panel member provided a concise report about the issues raised by the locals, with protecting our water sources by far the major concern.
The risks and issues brought up were:-
• The boom and bust cycles.
• Impact on employment and housing.
• Obtaining social licence.
• Who shares the consequences of mishaps.
• What economic benefits will the people get and are these benefits real? Who gets the money? Gas is being moved off-shore.
• Cost benefits analysis produced by the inquiry, not relying on industry claims.
• The debate on renewables is being distorted by the focus on gas. Lost opportunities?
• How well will the inquiry balance the risks and benefits?
• Is the industry sustainable?
• Impact on the economy: People may not wish to come here, people may move away.
• Job figures are inflated and will not eventuate.
• Opportunity costs: Gas may attract money that could be better spent, for example, on renewable industries.
• Upward pressure on cost of living.
• Climate change.
• Lack of knowledge about aquifers and their relationship to surface water.
• What happens when the natural gas runs out?
• Raising expectations that are not fulfilled.
• Involvement of Aboriginal population.
• Social impact such as domestic violence, sex industry and crime.
• Infrastructure and the relationship to other industries.
• Damage to infrastructure by, for example, heavy trucks breaking up roads.
• Earthquakes and other seismic events, caused by fracking.
• Fire management and the involvement of volunteers.
• No faith in government regulatory functions. Judge Pepper summarised the opinion of people on her table: “There is just simply no adequate regulatory system currently in place to govern this industry in the Northern Territory.”
• The landscape will permanently change, affecting businesses that rely on it.
• Capability of established industries to benefit from the gas industry.
• Cultural amenity value to the local population.
• Built infrastructure, mainly roads.
• How to communicate the issues to the Aboriginal constituency. Need for interpreters through the entire process.
• Under the Land Rights Act, consent to explore also means consent to mine.
• Short-term decision making driven by “want it now” instead of more sustainable ways to manage the landscape.
• Where would the fracking water come from and where would the waste water be put?
• Distribution of water products, risk of dust.
• Difficulty of regulating anything in an area so vast.
• Accountability: What happens if a company goes bust? Risks many years after operations finish?
• Transparency about what chemicals are used. Public disclosure of chemicals at each well prior to each fracking.
• Fugitive emissions – how do we detect and measure them?
• Overflow of produced water in heavy rains.
• Spills from transport vehicles. Dust from vehicles. Cumulating effects from many wells.
• Management of ramp-up and ramp-down, sustained benefits.
• Land access approvals by landholders.
• Site rehabilitation – need for adequate bonds.
• Affect on health from chemicals.
• Effect of methane on climate change, a more damaging substance than CO2.
• Impact on flora and fauna, and amenity of people.
• Lack of knowledge about the industry.
• Consultation rushed, not covering enough of the Territory.
• The risk that we will destroy what is otherwise a virgin landscape.
VIDEO courtesy Frack-Free Territory Alliance.
UPDATE March 10, 2:20pm
We asked Judge Pepper: Given that this is an evidenced based inquiry, what did you take out of tonight’s meeting and the table discussions? She gave us the following statement in reply:
The Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory has a strong mandate to engage and consult with the community. Along with its program of gathering scientific evidence, the Inquiry will seek feedback from the community and stakeholders at different stages of the Inquiry, which, along with the science, will be included in its analysis and reporting.
The purpose of the first series of community meetings in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin in March was threefold.
First, the community meetings shared information on the Inquiry’s work to date and outlined the timing of its work program for the remainder of the year, which, at this stage, includes the release of an Interim Report mid year, release of a draft Final Report and a Final Report by the end of the year.
Second, the meeting also provided an opportunity for a presentation to the community on Hydraulic Fracturing of unconventional shale gas reservoirs by Emeritus Professor Peter Flood, which covered a range of technical elements such as drilling, water usage, types of well casing used, fracturing of rock, fracking fluids and gas extraction.
Third and most importantly, the community meeting provided an opportunity for members of the Inquiry to host round table engagement sessions with the public to explore the themes, risks and issues identified by the Inquiry that was part of the Background and Issues Paper released on 20 February 2017.
These round table sessions provided a useful forum for the Inquiry to obtain feedback directly from the community about the issues identified in the Background and Issues Paper, which will form the basis for the Inquiry’s work going forward. During the discussion, additional issues and concerns were identified with hydraulic fracturing, which were discussed and explored.
The community opinions and feedback on the risks and issues outlined in the Inquiry’s Background and Issues Paper will be utilised as social evidence by the Inquiry and will be considered along with the scientific evidence it is gathering and analysing.