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Issue #1549      30 May 2012

“What the Frack!”

A public forum on Fracking in Western Australia by Greens MLC Alison Xamon

In resource rich Western Australia the development of non-renewable energy is fuelling the state’s booming economy from natural gas from the north west shelf to uranium mining in the Murchison and northern goldfields and unconventional gas reserves in the Midwest and southern Kimberleys.

However, all but one of these forms of energy must undertake or at least go through the motions of an environmental impact assessment overseen by the state’s environmental watchdog the Environmental Protection Authority.

With this lack of regulation and transparency in mind, state Greens Upper House MP Alison Xamon has proposed the implementation of a moratorium until these issues have been resolved. To bring these issues to the attention of the public so that they can bring pressure to bear on their elected representatives Ms Xamon spoke at a public meeting at the Woodvale Community Centre in the northern suburbs of Perth attended by over 30 people.

Ms Xamon gave a brief overview of fracking and how it can be a hazard to people’s health and the environment before providing details of the moratorium which she proposed to introduce into the parliament.

In this era of high energy demand the easier sources of energy such as coal, oil and natural gas are rapidly coming to an end and this is putting pressure on companies to explore and bring to market more “extreme” and often more costly forms of non renewable energy which includes coal seam, shale and tight gas. The latter two forms which have been opened up to prospecting for the various forms of unconventional gas for an area covering over 10 percent of Western Australia.

The most lucrative reserves of unconventional gas lie in the Canning Basin and are believed to contain more than two thirds of the shale gas in Western Australia. However, the exploitation of these reserves also poses considerable risks to the environment, human health and the vitality of rural communities and agriculture.

The reasons for this involve the nature of fracking as a mining process and the lax regimes for its environmental assessment and regulation.

Fracking involves drilling a well horizontally into the shale where gas can be found. In the case of WA, most of these wells must be drilled to over 4,000 metres to depths where ancient rock formations exist dating back to the Permian and Cretaceous periods. It is known that the end of both of these periods was marked by the biggest mass extinctions of life on this planet (95 percent of all life forms), especially the Permian period which saw large quantities of highly toxic gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and methane gases released into the atmosphere; the latter of these gases methane being 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas inducing agent.

When the companies that drill down to these levels where the shale rock contains deposits of these gases (and occasionally oil) they then turn the drill horizontally for some distance before detonating charges in the pipe to fracture the shale or tight rock formations containing the gas.

A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped at very high pressure into the fissures caused by these detonations. The type of chemicals which are pumped into the fissures depends on the type of rock formations which are down there and contain the gas. Some of these chemicals can be quite toxic (and at times carcinogenic) on their own but they can also mix with whatever else is down there from the Permian and Cretaceous Periods and when this comes to the surface with the waste water from this process it must be stored somewhere safely for a long period of time. It has also been observed in the United States that toxic gas clouds have formed over operational wells which have caused a number of illnesses to populations living in the vicinity, quite apart from the poisoning of ground water and aquifers from gas passing up through porous rock and sand located at these operations.

The latter has been the cause of many of the protests and general uproar which has occurred in Queensland and New South Wales leading to the NSW Legislative Council releasing a report on the Coal Seam (or unconventional gas) Gas industry stating there were serious deficiencies in the land use policy of the of the current government especially as it relates to agricultural land use and how it affects populations living in urban and coastal areas. Though raising doubts about the environmental and public health risks of the CSG industry, the pro business Liberal government has not yet seen fit to impose a moratorium on the industry until all future costs which will arise from the operation of this industry are factored into the real cost of this energy resource.

In Western Australia, meanwhile, Ms Xamon raised the spectre of the large amounts of water required for the fracking process especially in regions of WA where mean average rainfall was declining i.e the Midwest around Badgingarra, Coorow, Eneabba and Gingin where a number of exploratory wells have been drilled. Exploratory wells had also been drilled over a 40 year period in a gas field area north east of the Margaret River region where a proposal for a coal mine was recently killed off as a result of public pressure. But all these wells were a failure commercially (e.g. the Whicher Range Gasfield) despite a number of different methods and locations being tried. These failures are well documented on the Department of Mining and Petroleum’s website (www.dmp.wa.gov.au) and should make all citizens very concerned about what the mining companies shoved into the earth to bring the gas up and what toxic chemicals in all likelihood came back up from these ancient depths.

The farmers and local government authorities in these marginal agricultural areas have recently fallen on hard times due to a drying climate and the way the regulations of the Department operate in regards to fracking exploration have sidelined and disempowered them.

This has provoked the farmers in these Midwest municipalities where fracking is taking place to form an alliance to take action and have attracted an unlikely ally in the Western Australian Farmers Federation…a development not dissimilar to that which has occurred in the Eastern States. With a state election to take place in early 2013, this will potentially split the National Party which normally does quite well electorally in these locations according to Ms Xamon.

Like all citizens who have dug deep into the detail of what unconventional gas or fracking is all about Alison Xamon is appalled by the lack of transparency and environmental regulation of this industry including the total lack of material safety data sheets on the chemicals mixed in with water and pumped down the wells as part of the fracking process. Ms Xamon said this was because a US corporation, Halliburton owns the patent for most of the chemicals used in the fracking process and the free access of this information would break commercial confidentiality.

An article on fracking in the April 11, 2011, issue of Time Magazine noted that, “it was not for nothing that … in the 2005 energy bill there is a provision which prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating hydraulic fracturing that has been nicknamed the Halliburton loophole.” Notwithstanding these limitations at a federal level in the USA, on a state level Environmental Protection Authority’s (EPA) do regulate fracking and in one state Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection in 2010, issued 1,218 violations, out of 1,944 wells it had inspected ranging in offences from littering to spills on drill sites – not counting explosions from methane contamination and wells that have blown out.

Australia has signed up to an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2020, and to climb on board unconventional gas exploitation as well as the conventional coal and gas extraction which is continuing at an alarming rate, will make that target even more difficult if not impossible to achieve.

It is for this reason and for the proven and unproven hazards of the extraction of this resource and its current lack of transparency and regulation that Alison Xamon, MLC for the East Metropolitan Region of Perth, is calling for a “moratorium on all unconventional gas exploration and mining in WA”. This is until such time as it can be assured that such activities will: (1) Have no impact on local land users and (2) Be governed by government regulations that ensure absolute transparency, rigorous independent testing and liability for contamination to be born by the companies which conduct the operations-rather than the government”. For full details see www.alisonxamon.org.au.

It is anticipated that this motion will be debated in the parliament’s Upper House in the second half of May 2012.

In WA fracking is regulated by the Department of Mining and Petroleum which has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the EPA over when it will assess any fracking proposals. Concerns have been raised by Ms Xamon that DMP have not been doing any environmental assessments and that the EPA claims it does not have the authority to conduct them.  

Next article – Culture & Life – The empire in trouble

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