Western Australian premier Mark McGowan has lifted a statewide moratorium on fracking amid intense opposition from large parts of the community.
The controversial drilling practice, which fractures the ground to release trapped gas, will now be allowed on existing titles and subject to veto by Aboriginal groups and farmers.
McGowan said fracking will be prohibited across Perth, the south-west, the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley and all existing and proposed national parks.
“No fracking will be permitted without the consent of traditional owners and farmers,” McGowan says.
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“This is a balanced responsible, science-based policy that supports economic opportunities, new jobs, environmental protection and landowner right.”
Matt Canavan, the federal minister for resources and Northern Australia, called it a “sensible decision that will potentially earn billions of dollars for the WA and national economies”.
Fracking will now be allowed in areas with existing petroleum licenses including Canning Basin near Broome, near Carnarvon and areas around Geraldton. McGowan said that 98% of the state would remain untouched by fracking.
The announcement comes almost three months after the government was handed the findings of an independent scientific panel into fracking, which is properly called hydraulic fracture stimulation.
The inquiry report, led by environmental protection authority chair Tom Hatton, was handed to government on 12 September, after a year of consultation. It was the second inquiry into hydraulic fracking in three years but was not asked to advise on whether or not to lift the ban. .
Fracking is a politically explosive issue that pits the oil and gas industry against MPs, farmers and environmentalists. For the fourth time in recent months, hundreds of protesters took to the steps of parliament in Perth on Monday while last weekend, farmers and Swan Valley residents lobbied the premier outside a community cabinet meeting in Ellenbrook.
Government MPs have been divided on the issue, with the member for Swan Hills Jessica Shaw breaking ranks on 6 September and declaring at a public meeting that she had “grave concerns” about fracking.
She has since been joined by Kimberly MP Josie Farrer, mining and pastoral region MP Kyle McGinn and Labor agricultural region MLC Darren West in publicly opposing hydraulic fracturing.
This month, 26 well-known Australians, including Jimmy Barnes, Paul Kelly, Matthew Pavlich and Prof Fiona Stanley, took out a full-page advertisement in The West Australian newspaper pleading with the premier to protect the Kimberley and Mid-West.
Some of Labor’s most powerful unions upped the pressure , voting for fracking to be outlawed as more than 50 climate scientists – worried about emissions – penned a letter calling for the same. CSIRO’s former head of atmospheric research, Graeme Pearman, WA scientist of the year Professor Peter Newman and former premier Carmen Lawrence were among those named in the letter.
On the other side are industry, some Aboriginal groups and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA (PGA), all of whom say they see opportunity in opening up the biggest sedimentary basin in WA for exploration.
Audrey Mulligan, director of the Warlangurru Aboriginal Corporation, said in her inquiry submission that she hoped Mitsubishi’s Kimberley gas project would get the green light for the sake of the future of the Noonkanbah’s young people.
Noonkanbah local Judy Mulligan says gas projects offer the next generation opportunity. “Young people are really bored here and they make bad choices,” Mulligan says. “We need to get them up training and working.”
PGA policy officer Doug Hall says an onshore gas boom could spell new wealth for farming businesses who, he says, should have the right to negotiate with industry about what’s in the land. “The PGA strongly believes that hydraulic stimulation fracking projects, which meet all legislative and regulatory requirements, will bring significant economic and associated social benefits to the Western Australian economy from local through to state level,” Hall said.
Increasing climate pollution
At the core of the stoush is the question of how much fracking pollutes the environment. The technique blasts sand, chemicals and water at high pressure into the earth to fracture rock and release gas deposits trapped in shale and tight sand formations.
Opponents say the chemicals will poison waterways, that escaped gas will contaminate groundwater, and that large amounts of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – will be released into the atmosphere.
The Conservation Council of WA, the state’s leading environmental advocacy group, says carbon pollution from shale fracking will blow Australia’s Paris climate target to reduce emissions by between 26 and 28% relative to 2005 levels by 2030.
“We are talking about the potential for industrial water use and increasing climate pollution at a scale never seen before in WA,” CCWA director Piers Verstegen said.
Yet the gas industry claims multiple studies show the practice has “negligible risks”, and that planned gas projects will create jobs in regional areas. A spokesman for the oil and gas body the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) said any risks from fracking can be managed or eliminated by “robust” regulation.
Fracking rules are controlled by the department of mines and its acting executive director of petroleum Denis Wills says a comprehensive framework regulates oil and gas to protect the environment, community and workers.
In September 2017, the Labor government fulfilled an election promise to outlaw fracking in Perth’s favourite holiday playground, the wine region in the state’s south-west. Petroleum title holders in heavily populated Perth and Peel were told hydraulic fracturing was off limits for them too.
Business rumbles on
While WA’s fracking future has hung in the balance, big players in the unconventional gas game, such as ASX-listed Buru Energy, AWE and Mitsubishi Corporation, have their eye on a huge bounty in the Kimberley’s Canning Basin.
Located 1,500km northeast of Perth, the basin holds an estimated 34,000bn cubic metres of shale gas – big numbers that promise even bigger royalties for the government.
But the gas won’t be easy to access.
Unlike in states such as Queensland, where plentiful unconventional gas sits in coal seams between 300m and 1000m underground, WA’s shale and tight gas resources are up to 5km beneath the surface.
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Jane Hammond, spokeswoman for Lock the Gate WA, said extracting gas from shale is risky and experimental. “We already know from test fracking in the Kimberly that high levels of radioactive material have been brought up with the flow-back fluid,” Hammond said.
So far, just 12 wells have been fracked for unconventional gas and no onshore projects have been approved in WA, according to the state department of mines, industry regulation and safety.
“The exploration permits are granted for all petroleum resources, including oil, conventional gas and unconventional gas,” deputy director general of environmental regulation Phil Gorey said
“There are currently 46 live exploration permits granted under the Petroleum and Geothermal Energy Resources Act.”
Verstegen says this means that the state government doesn’t have any liability to pay compensation if it implements a statewide ban.
WA is not the only state grappling with the issue of fracking. Tasmania and Victoria have moratoriums banning fracking, and New South Wales has placed restrictions on the use of some chemicals for fracking. A bill has just passed outlawing fracking in the south-east of South Australia for the next decade.
But in Queensland and the Northern Territory, it is a very different story. On 17 April, the NT government gave a green light to fracking after a two-year inquiry concluded that the practice could be done safely. Queensland has become the most heavily developed state for unconventional gas, with nearly all of it extracted from coal seams.