As Territory Labor last Saturday voted against the fracking policies of the Chief Minister it had endorsed, the scathing critique by a scientist from the Australian National University is casting doubt upon the recommendations from the inquiry Mr Gunner had ordered.
Matthew Colloff, Honorary Senior Lecturer at the ANU’s Fenner School for Environment and Society, had made a submission to the Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory, and following the release of its Draft Final Report, was asked to assess whether it had appropriately addressed the level of risk outlined.
Dr Colloff says he understands that with respect to the issues he is dealing with – risks to ecosystems and biodiversity – there is no substantial difference between the inquiry’s Draft Final Report and its Final Report released in March.
Dr Colloff found that the inquiry coped poorly with the huge variations in the expected extent of development. For example, the industry estimate for the Beetaloo sub-basin was 1000 to 1200 wells on 150 well pads, “at odds” with the Department of Planning, Infrastructure and Logistics forecast of 6260 wells.
Based on estimates for development of the Beetaloo Sub-basin the extent of land clearing required ranges from about 3,300 ha to 33,000 ha.
“The Draft Final Report does not adequately identify and account for complex risks,” writes Dr Colloff.
“These result from the combined and cumulative effects of different, sometimes seemingly unrelated risk factors or driver variables that interact in ways that increase exponentially the likelihood of a risk eventuating.
“In other words, the risks of multiple interacting factors are considerably greater than the risks from just one or two factors. Such interactions are typically unpredictable.
“An example … is the combined effects of increased human activity and vehicle traffic, the development and production of flammable gas and its associated infrastructure, the high prospect of weed invasions (particularly high biomass grasses) and, finally, projections of a greater frequency and severity of extreme weather events driven by climate change on increases in fuel load, flammability, sources of ignition and hence frequency and intensity of wildfires.
“The concept of complex risk has been widely adopted within healthcare and epidemiology, the insurance sector and in disaster risk management.”
Dr Colloff says the report deals extensively with the risks associated with the contribution of shale gas production to greenhouse gas emissions, but does not consider the threat of climate change in its interaction with shale gas production as an environmental risk.
“The likely effect of climate change, particularly of predicted increases in mean surface temperature, … extreme rainfall and drought events and their subsequent effects on rapid vegetation growth, fuel accumulation and drying, have not been adequately addressed in the [fracking inquiry’s] recommendations.
“The Draft Final Report contains only one mention of climate change impacts: ‘The implications of climate change for groundwater processes and recharge rates are also unclear at this stage.’”
And yet protection of water is the major concern of the large number of people opposed to fracking.
Dr Colloff says: “Statements about climate change are not predictions, projections or expressions of uncertainty, but realities for which there is overwhelming empirical scientific evidence.
“Failure to address the realities of current climate change and its implication for the future is a serious risk to the integrity and credibility of the Draft Final Report, and stands in contradiction to the claim that the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development ‘are at the core of the [fracking inquiry] panel’s analysis’.”
Dr Colloff says the duration for shale gas production is estimated as 20 to 40 years, with a lag time of five to 10 years, giving a production period of about 2043 to 2068: “By 2050, climate change is likely to have intensified considerably.
“For the monsoonal north, there is very high confidence of increased warming, increased frequency and duration of extreme heat events, and high confidence of increased intensity of heavy rainfall events, evapotranspiration rates and that wildfires will be more extreme.
“In the Northern Territory, extreme heat events already pose a serious health risk to people required to work outdoors, and is likely to increase in coming decades, risking a safe operating environment for the production of shale gas.
“The risk of accidents related to heat stress is an important factor in the assessment of synergistic risk to the environment.
“The Draft Final Report states that assessment of risk was only undertaken if there was sufficient information or evidence to do so.
“Despite the existence of such information, the risks from climate change were not assessed. This omission calls into question the credibility of all assessments of environmental risk contained within the Draft Final Report.”
The way the report deals with monitoring of fracking and gas production is a further shortcoming, says Dr Colloff.
These monitoring activities include “the occurrence and spread of weeds, population changes in threatened species, fuel loads and fire mapping and the identification of areas of high ecological value.
“Much of the monitoring required is ongoing and long-term. These activities are proposed for a region in which the biota is ‘vastly under-described’ and where ecosystems and vegetation communities have barely been studied or surveyed.
“Large areas required to be surveyed pose major impediments to the practical implementation of such monitoring.
“The capacity of Northern Territory Government agencies and gas companies to recruit, train and retain sufficient numbers of qualified staff able to carry out the monitoring and assessment activities to the standards required to implement the recommendations represents a formidable logistical challenge.
“The task requires engagement of research officers with broad experience in the reliable identification of native biota and exotic species of the region … as well as research-level skills in data handling and interpretation.
“Such skills are rare, unlikely to be met fully from within the Northern Territory, and thus have potential draw-down impacts on the environmental monitoring capabilities of other states and territories.
“Long-term environmental monitoring has a poor track record in Australia, especially in terms of quality of data, accessibility and interpretation.
“A significant increase in environmental monitoring capability and knowledge in the Northern Territory is unlikely to be achieved without a sustained and well-resourced programme of change in governance and culture regarding the monitoring, regulation and compliance rules within and between Government agencies and departments and the gas companies.
“The [fracking inquiry] Panel acknowledges the lack of trust by the community in the ability of Government and the gas companies to adequately regulate industry. Lack of trust is based on a history of Government and industry not doing the right thing and, in the process, breaching the faith the community may have had in regulatory governance arrangements intended to hold industry to account.
“The Panel does not address how in its proposed new regulatory model, improved governance, independence, transparency and accountability will be implemented and ensured; only that these are desirable attributes for regulatory reform.
“The risk assessment used in the Draft Final Report has not accounted for the prospect that the recommendations of the Panel on regulatory reform will either not be accepted or fully implemented by the NT Government.
“Indeed, the Draft Final Report states ‘in making an assessment, the Panel has assumed the application of the current regulatory regime’.
“However, failure to ensure the governance and culture of a new regulatory system is resourced, maintained and is adaptable to change poses a systemic risk to its continuation.”
Dr Colloff also says current legislative frameworks that are subject to political pressure and change offer little or no protection to ecosystems and biodiversity over the long term.
The Panel identified a medium overall risk that roads and pipelines will contribute to ecological fragmentation, acting as ecological barriers to faunal movement and as corridors, including as conduits for weed invasion.
“The Draft Final Report gives no indication that the Panel sought information on compliance issues from the relevant agencies or took these matters into consideration in the design of its recommendations,” says Dr Colloff.
“The recommendations deal only with amenity, aesthetics and scenic value. Landscape transformation is conceptualised narrowly in terms of visibility of infrastructure. The overall risk is assessed as ‘high’.
“The Panel does not consider changes in ecosystem character, structure and function and therefore do not effectively address the issue of unacceptable landscape transformation in the broad sense.
“What is considered ‘unacceptable’, and to whom, is not defined in the Draft Final Report. The recommendations deal only with spacing of well pads and that infrastructure is not visible from major roads.
“High volumes of heavy vehicle traffic are an inevitable consequence of shale gas development, but the risks are considered only in terms of landscape amenity. This approach is inadequate.
“The Panel does not make an assessment of the risks because it lacked information on ‘increase in volume at various times of year, types of vehicles… and the cumulative effects of multiple developments.
“This lack of information could have been addressed though modelling of scenarios for increase in heavy vehicle traffic.”