The Western Australian government has announced its plan to lift a moratorium on fracking in the state. Any area with an existing petroleum license will now be able to engage in fracking. This is despite the warnings of climate scientists and mounting evidence to suggest that fracking is detrimental to water quality and can cause earthquakes. The produced natural gas is also a carbon producing fuel for power plants.
What is Fracking?
Fracking is, simply put, a process of removing natural gas from pockets in the earth by blasting water, sand and chemicals (sometimes toxic or radioactive) to force the release of the gas to allow for capture. The chemical mixtures are not always needed to be disclosed and are therefore occasionally left confidential. The term fracking comes from the fracturing of the rock. The process was first developed in the 1940’s and has been refined since; but is still not by any means entirely safe.
Some of the chemicals used in the fracking process include various petroleum distillates, hydrochloric acid, methanol, BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) and lead. A more complete list of chemicals can be found here.
A typical fracking operation can use between 80 million and 330 million tons of chemicals. Each well can also require up to 36 million litres of water, placing yet another burden on our already strained water system.
Fracking is undertaken horizontally, as opposed to typical vertical hydraulic mining processes. It also generally is undertaken below the water table, which is why there is such concern for leakages and contamination.
Schlumberger, a company that undertakes fracking operations, has put forth that 5% of modern wells leak immediately, 50 percent leak after 15 years, and 60 percent leak after 30 years. This suggests that the assertion by the fossil fuel industry that the environment can be protected by robust regulation and best practice construction of new wells is either a lie or willful ignorance.
The EPA has released a report on fracking since the outcry of many towns across the USA have had their drinking supplies impacted by fracking operations in and around their townships. In Wyoming, an area heavily fracked, studies have shown that the water supplies were poisoned with methanol (among other things) a simple alcohol that can cause blindness and nerve damage in high enough quantities. Read more about the case of Wyoming here.
Other reported effects of fracking described by those who live near natural gas wells are frightening. They include symptoms of nausea, vomiting, dizziness in addition to cases as extreme as flames issuing from household faucets. The Oscar nominated documentary Gasland is worth looking at for further evidence of the effects of fracking on US citizens.
Fracking has also been noted by geologists and fracking companies alike to cause earthquakes. The companies engaged in the process assert that fracking only produces minor tremors and are a natural result of the interference with the rock. But scientists have recently found that fracking is likely responsible for earthquakes in British Columbia that measured a 4 and a 4.5 on the Richter scale.
The New York Times has previously published a government report on deep shale gas mining that has impacted water quality. The document indicates that the US government has been aware of the dangers of fracking since at least 1987 and has continued to allow for the practice.
Where was it banned and where is it not banned anymore?
The previous moratorium (temporary cessation of activity) was put in place by the Labor government in September of 2017. This was 6 months after taking power in an election that was, at least partially, won based on environmental promises.
The moratorium lasted until an assessment was completed by a board, headed by Tom Hatton.
Mark McGowan announced the ending of the moratorium by lifting the ban on fracking to any area that holds an existing petrol/gas title (subject to any objection by Indigenous groups or farmers). This leaves in place a ban on fracking to areas across Perth, the south-west, the Kimberly, Dampier Peninsula and all national parks.
The Premier has claimed that this is a sensible approach that will grow the WA economy and create jobs. While he may be correct in that new well developments will create tax dollars and a small number of jobs, this is ignoring a few economic facts, as well as the glaring truth regarding climate change & public health.
The major political parties, along with the mainstream media, insist that maintaining a dependence on the fossil fuel industry in essential to the economic and energy future of WA and Australia more widely. This has been noted by many to be the direct result of lobbying from the industry. Recent studies have shown that greater investment (a 50% renewable energy target) in renewable energies like solar will create 50% more jobs than if we were to continue under the slow transition plan to 26-28% renewables by 2030.
In addition to job creation, increasing our share of renewables has been studied and shown to increase GDP growth through taxation and sale of new technologies amongst other avenues. A report by IRENA has estimated that as a global society if we were to double our share of renewable technologies, the global GDP would grow by 1.3 trillion dollars by 2030.
In America, The Union of Concerned Scientists has conducted studies into the economic effects of setting a target of 25% renewable energy by 2025 and found that “$263.4 billion in new capital investment for RE technologies, $13.5 billion in new landowner income from biomass production and/or wind land lease payments, and $11.5 billion in new property tax revenue for local communities” would be the result.
But what about Climate Change?
I have left climate change to the last as it is the most dangerous issue facing the world, now or ever, and should be the simplest reason to avoid lifting the ban.
Burning fossil fuels is a contributor to climate change. Natural gas, while being a less carbon intense form of fuel than oil or coal, is a carbon based fuel source.
Human driven climate change is accepted by an overwhelming majority of scientists. Increased carbon emissions from burning coal, oil and gas as a result of industry and agriculture in addition to the burning and logging of terrestrial carbon sinks (forests and rainforests) have poisoned the atmosphere and are in turn damaging the oceans. The oceans are another enormous carbon sink, and as the carbon content and acidity increases, coral reefs (the lungs of the ocean) will continue to deteriorate and release more and more carbon to the ocean.
The carbon in our atmosphere and ocean is causing for intensified extreme weather conditions but is also causing much of the natural world to be disturbed, as many habitats only exist within narrow parameters. These parameters may include the types of trees, shrubs, other animals, water/air temperatures and many other variables. These are all likely to be affected and affect each other due to the disturbance of humans.
This disturbance is causing what has been termed The Sixth Extinction (I would recommend reading the book by Elizabeth Kolbert by the same title). It is called this due to the rate at which species are going extinct being so dramatically different from the geological record that our impact on it is compared to the ice ages and the massive asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and most other life on Earth some 65 million years ago.
This is separate to the argument that further release of carbon to the atmosphere will have a direct effect of warming the planet. This will affect global living condition; forcing humanity to either make significant behavioural, cultural and lifestyle changes to accommodate the harsh new conditions or to die out.
To pull further carbon polluting fossil fuels out of the ground, even though they are ‘cleaner’ than the coal alternative, exacerbating the above extinction process and likely pushing humanity to the same fate should be considered criminal.
In every considered analysis on the issue of fracking I can see no positive argument to this policy. It is damaging to the state’s public health, economy, job growth, environment and global reputation.
These are the decisions that will make or break human history.
By Nathan Booth
The office of Mark McGowan (the premier of Western Australia) has been contacted to express concern at the horror of these plans. Any responses of consequence will be updated below.
Generic Reply Received from the WA Gov.
Dear Mr Booth
Thank you for your email regarding fracking in Western Australia.
The McGowan Government will prohibit fracking across 98% of the state. It s a decision that preserves the iconic Dampier Peninsular, national parks and public drinking water source areas. Fracking is already banned in Perth, the South West and Peel regions as a result of an election commitment made by the McGowan Labor Government.
Findings from the State Government s independent scientific inquiry show that the risk to people and the environment from fracking is low.
Even so, fracking will only be allowed underworld class protections and regulations, and only on land covered by existing exploration and production licenses, covering just two percent of the State.
The State Government respects the rights of farmers and Traditional Owners. That’s why for the first time, farmers and Traditional Owners will have the right to say yes or no to oil and gas production from fracking on their land.
Royalties from any unconventional onshore oil and gas projects will increase to 10 per cent and will be used to support new renewable energy projects via a new Clean Energy Future Fund, which will be seeded by a one-off contribution of $9 million.
The 12-month independent scientific inquiry by Environmental Protection Authority Chair Tom Hatton made 44 recommendations, all of which will be implemented before any fracking approvals are granted. Major changes to the existing regulatory regime include:
• No fracking to be allowed within two kilometres of gazetted public drinking water source areas;
• All fracking projects, including exploration and production wells, to require EPA assessment;
• The development of an enforceable Code of Practice to ensure high standards of health, safety and environmental protection; and
• No fracking allowed within two kilometres of towns, settlements or dwellings.
I believe this is a balanced and responsible policy that supports economic development, new jobs, environmental protection and land-owner rights.
Thank you once again for taking the time to write to me on this important issue.