Fracking: bad in USA, worse in Western Australia

June 17, 2016
The oil and gas industry plans to develop huge sections of the mid-west, the south-west, and the Kimberley.

I moved to Perth in June last year from a small, rural town in central Pennsylvania. There I witnessed first-hand the impact of the “fracking” boom — the rapid exploitation of the unconventional gas resources in the Marcellus shale play.

It hit rural Pennsylvania particularly hard because it is economically depressed, struggling to make ends meet by farming and what's left of manufacturing that has not been outsourced to China, Mexico, and other exploitable labour pools.

That might sound odd because the promise of fracking is that it will provide jobs and royalty income. The reality, however, is that the royalties do not last long and do not make up for poisoned land and water that are the by-products of the fracking industry.

Most towns lost money from fracking because the state did not levy enough tax to pay for all the road repairs that were necessary after heavy trucks invaded the formerly quiet, rural landscapes.

It affected the mental and physical health of residents, most of whom chose to live in the country because it was quiet. Overnight, these towns were transformed into industrial landscapes, with endless streams of trucks, construction noise, forests levelled for pipelines, constant noise from compressor stations, and the night sky lit up by weeks of flaring at the well heads.

Intense industry

People in Pennsylvania experienced the transformation of their land from a beautifully forested countryside to intense industrialisation within a couple of years. The tragedy is that in many cases, they welcomed the industry, believing the industry's stories of low impact, carefully managed risk and economic benefits.

Pennsylvania did not know what it was getting into, but it has found out the hard way. Water has been poisoned, air polluted, landscapes utterly transformed. The reason Pennsylvania did not know better was because the US government, lead by two oil and gas men — then-US President George Bush and then-US Vice President Dick Cheney—exempted the industry from environmental regulations. In particular, they allowed the industry to forego baseline testing.

So when communities started to notice symptoms of water and air pollution, the industry could claim that its activities were not responsible because there were no baselines to measure the impact of its activities against. To this day, the industry will claim that its activities do not pollute air and water, but this is pure Orwellian double-speak. People know their illnesses are the result of the industry, but cannot prove it because there are no baseline studies that would have incriminated the industry.

When I moved to Perth I thought I was escaping the tragedy of fracking. No one in their right minds would think of fracking in Western Australia, the driest part of the driest continent on Earth. Fracking is an insanely water-intensive operation, requiring about 90 Olympic-size swimming pools of water — about 30 million litres — per well, per frack.

Because of the spatial intensity of a commercial fracking operation, you need thousands of wells and you need to frack them repeatedly. None of that water can be returned to the water cycle because it is highly toxic, so you are talking about the permanent removal of millions of litres of fresh drinking water from WA's supplies.

Fracking in WA

Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that the oil and gas industry plans to develop huge sections of the mid-west, the south-west, and the Kimberley. Much of this land is highly productive agricultural land or very sensitive natural heritage, home by a factor of ten to a greater diversity of plant species than all of North America — and some of the most beautiful landscape that I have ever seen.

Various gas companies have now been granted exploration permits for all of these areas. As I saw in Pennsylvania, once a company gets its exploration permit, full exploitation is almost inevitable. It is not going to spend millions of its shareholders' dollars to explore and not give them a return on investment. The industry is poised for full mobilisation, even as their spin doctors downplay the inevitable for the public.

By some estimates, there will need to be 100,000 wells to fully extract WA's gas reserves. With those wells come massive increases in roads and traffic, pipelines, compressor stations, and the rest of the infrastructure. This represents the industrialisation of WA's rural and farming areas, as well as the increased drawdown of water from aquifers.

The aquifers are already 25–30% below normal levels. Perth has had to build two desalination plants — an extremely expensive admission that the region faces a severe, long-term water crisis. At least farming and recreational uses of water permit that water to return to the water cycle — fracking requires its permanent extraction.

The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association claims WA is different from Pennsylvania, so the gas can be extracted without the problems experienced in the US. If WA were so different, then industry engineers would obviously use a different extraction process. WA has the same kind of rock — shale — and will use the same process — fracking. If anything, the differences in WA's geology should be cause for more concern — the fragility of its landscapes, the vulnerability of its aquifers, and its complex seismic fault-lines are reasons to be more cautious.

I have heard various politicians claim that WA has world class regulations that will make fracking safe. I have read WA's regulations—they are publicly available on the Department of Mines and Petroleum's (DMP) website.

They are just as bad as Pennsylvania's. They allow industry to regulate itself and they give the DMP the responsibility for regulatory oversight. This is the same department that recruits the industry to develop the gas and increases its revenue by granting licences. There will be no reason to deny a license anyway because the industry will be writing the environmental impact report that will give department regulators the cover they need to take any risks necessary.

These regulations are just window dressing to make the industry look good. If the WA government was really serious about protecting its citizens and land, it would create an independent regulatory agency and mandate independent environmental assessment for every well.

WA would also institute transparency, prohibit known toxins from the fracking fluid, and implement significant fines for violations. This is what WA's own 2015 Parliamentary Inquiry into Fracking recommended, but which the Department has refused to adopt.

Neither the inquiry nor the CSIRO give unqualified support for fracking; nor do they claim that it is safe. The reports actually say that fracking can be done safely with extensive regulatory reform and rigorous adherence to best practices. But the industry, with government blessing, has been allowed to use cheaper alternatives. Government regulations allow economics to determine what the industry does, not the safety of citizens or the protection of land and water.

Many reputable studies show that fracking can never be done safely no matter what practices are used. Up to 50% of wells leak after 15 years, and about 5% leak immediately. The technological challenge of fracking means that very slight deviations from perfection cause leaks.

That technological challenge ripples through the whole industry, from well head to end-user. The Porter Ranch pipeline leak in California caused the worst natural gas disaster in history. There is no way to guarantee that wells and pipelines will not leak; it is a risk that governments and industry assure us can be mitigated. Evidence proves that this faith in industry perfection is a mistake.

If WA goes ahead with its plans to frack huge sections of its farm land and natural heritage, it will have a similar outcome to Pennsylvania's: industrialisation of the rural landscape, poisoned water, polluted air, temporary jobs that disappear after the first phase, and the collapse of the whole industry after less than a decade.

Short-lived industry

Where will this gas go? Will it give WA residents lower energy bills? Absolutely not: all the gas will go to offshore Liquid Natural Gas plants, like the one Chevron is building near Port Headland, where it will be shipped to fuel China's and India's economies.

WA's irreplaceable natural heritage and its locally sustainable agriculture and tourism industries will be destroyed so that multinationals like Chevron can make a quick profit. And then, like all resource-dependent economies, WA's unconventional gas will go bust, leaving WA holding the bag.

I see this as an imminent threat to everything I have come to love about WA, so I joined No Fracking WAy, a grassroots organisation dedicated to educating Perth about fracking. It is a group that has been in existence for about four years and has made a lot of progress in raising awareness.

We have partnered with Lock the Gate, Frack Free Future, The Wilderness Society and to make fracking an election issue. Where a politician stands on fracking is a good indication of where he or she stands generally: pro-fracking is a clear indication that the politician puts industry first; anti-fracking means that the politician probably has a conscience and will put citizens first.

Politicians interested in helping WA develop its energy economy would support development of its extraordinary solar and wind resources instead of gas.

It would be good to develop some international exchange between activists in Pennsylvania and WA. Pennsylvania could use some of the Australian pragmatism and direct, no-nonsense approach to injustice and obvious facts. WA could use some of the knowledge that Pennsylvanian activists have collected to help debunk industry and government claims.

The parallels between what industry said to Pennsylvania and what it is saying to WA are striking. The difference is that the people of WA have an opportunity to learn from what happened in Pennsylvania and lock the industry out before it can get a foothold.

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