By ERWIN CHLANDA
“No industry is completely without risk. And the development of any onshore shale gas industry in the NT is no exception,” states the conclusion of the “draft Final Report” by the inquiry into fracking, released yesterday.
Its chairperson, Justice Rachel Pepper, makes it clear that “it is not the role of the Inquiry to make a recommendation whether or not the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the NT should be lifted. That is a matter for Government”.
Nevertheless she says “the conclusion of this Inquiry is that the challenges and risks associated with any onshore shale gas industry in the NT are manageable”.
That is, provided a string of things are done first, spelt out in 120 recommendations after receiving evidence contained in over 500 submissions and presented in 105 public hearings and 29 community forums across the Territory.
The Opposition clearly thinks this report is the green light for fracking: Leader Gary Higgins says “developing our onshore gas industry will drive business confidence and job opportunities in the Territory.
“Onshore gas will provide a long term economic future for the Northern Territory.
“It is time for the Chief Minister to show real leadership and get the best practise regulations in place to allow exploration to commence in the upcoming dry season,” says Mr Higgins.
On the other side, fracking opponent Lock the Gate Alliance is welcoming the report because it “identifies a host of risks associated with fracking gasfields, including the potential to harm drinking water and public health and spread contaminants.
“This report confirms what thousands of concerned Territorians have been saying, that fracking gasfields come with a myriad of risks that would put an incredible burden on the Territory,” says national coordinator Naomi Hogan.
“Even with 120 recommendations to attempt to avoid the worst of the fracking pollution risks, the Panel finds that there is significant potential for accidental releases, leaks and spills of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and fluids, flowback and produced water.
“We could be buried under the weight of all the risks and potential negative impacts coming from the fracking industry.
“Recommendations for mining reform will not be enough to protect Territory land, water and livelihoods from fracking gasfield impacts.”
The litany of recommendations, far from being precise instructions of what needs to be done, are headlines of issues for which instructions would need to be formulated.
The recommendations are littered with words such as appropriate, strong, essential, acceptable, comprehensive, independent which require definition and provide opportunity for political manipulation.
• releasing land that is environmentally, socially and culturally appropriate for use for shale gas development;
• the completion of a SREBA (strategic regional environmental and baseline assessment) to gather essential baseline data prior to any onshore shale gas industry being developed;
• implementing an area or regional-based approval system (raising the question who will be appointed to that and by whom?)
• mandating world leading engineering standards for the construction, maintenance and de-commissioning of all onshore shale gas wells and for the extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing;
• implementing new technologies where relevant as soon as they become available;
• requiring the comprehensive monitoring and reporting of all aspects of onshore shale gas operations with real-time public scrutiny of the resulting data;
• ensuring that the regulator is independent insofar as the agency that is responsible for promoting any onshore shale gas resource is not the same agency responsible for its regulation;
• reforming the current regulatory framework governing onshore shale gas development in the NT to strengthen transparency and accountability of all decision-making and to ensure a stringent system of compliance and enforcement; and
• introducing full fee recovery to fund the necessary regulatory reforms and to ensure that strong oversight is maintained.
“Of course, nothing is guaranteed,” says the report, “and with any new industry it is not uncommon for problems to emerge.
“However, it is the Panel’s opinion that, provided that the recommendations made in this Report are adopted and implemented, not only should the risk of any harm be minimised to an acceptable level, in some instances, it can be avoided altogether.”
Further evidence will be obtained in more hearings, plus a fresh consultation of people in the Beetaloo Basin is taking place (the first was botched by the consultants’ “unacceptable conduct”).
The report ends on a poetic and philosophical note, including words from American conservationist Rachel Carson whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement, met with fierce opposition from chemical companies and led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides: “In short, the Panel is of the opinion that with enactment of robust and rigorously enforced safeguards, the waters shall continue to flow ‘clear and cold out of the hills’ and the dawn chorus of Magpie Geese, Brolgas, Budgerigars, Black Kites, Blue-winged Kookaburras and scores of other bird voices shall continue to reverberate across the NT landscape notwithstanding the development of any onshore shale gas industry.”
PHOTOS from the report (from top): Community members at the Inquiry’s Jilkminggan community forum in August 2017. • Amungee NW-1H wellsite in EP98 during drilling operations (30-60 days): Source Origin • High flow in Newcastle Creek. Source: Matt Bolam • Bameranji Waterhole, Hayfield Station 2017 •
UPDATE 7am December 14
Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC): Fracking will never be accepted by the NT community. Most Territorians do not want to see the NT turned into industrial gasfields.
If the McArthur Basin (in north-eastern NT) alone is fracked it could release four to five times as much greenhouse gas emissions as the proposed Adani Carmichael mine.
Fracking the Territory is not in line with the NT Government’s ambition to meet its 50% renewable energy target by 2030 and the NT Government hasn’t even developed a climate policy to reduce emissions yet.
Health Care Professionals Against Fracking: Even if all 120 of its recommendations were to be implemented, there would still be an acknowledged risk to the health of individuals and the communities in which they live. We find this unacceptable.
Onshore shale gas fracking is still a relatively recent industry. As such, despite all the evidence collected throughout the Inquiry, there are still significant gaps in knowledge about long term health, social and environmental impacts this industry could have for Territorians and our unique circumstances.
This draft report points out that, at this stage, there is insufficient evidence to make a reasonable assessment as to the health impacts that fracking might have in areas such as birth defects, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, just to name a few.