WA Labor opens the gate to fracking

Anti-fracking protest at Hill River in September.

The Western Australian Labor government announced it is opening up 5.2 million hectares — an area roughly the size of 75% of Tasmania — to potential fracking operations on November 27.

The decision follows advice from an inquiry carried out by the WA Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said fracking in the Kimberley, Mid-West and Gascoyne regions would not pose a serious threat to people, agriculture or the environment.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a dangerous process that involves fracturing rock with pressurised liquid to mine unconventional gas. 

Prior to last year’s state election, Labor promised to conduct a public inquiry “to examine environment, health, agriculture, heritage and community impacts (including full analysis of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions) prior to any fracking activity (including future exploration).”

Labor also said it would place a moratorium on fracking until the inquiry could “demonstrate that fracking will not compromise the environment, groundwater, public health or contribute adversely to climate change.”

More than 50 of Australia's top climate scientists and experts have written to the WA government seeking to detail the inherent environmental harm of fracking.

According to the Conservation Council of WA, the EPA inquiry may have understated the environmental impact of fracking by up to 90% as it only took into account “direct emissions”.

Independent mining analyst Tim Treadgold has refuted Labor’s claims regarding the urgent need for fracking to meet rising energy demand. Treadgold told the ABC: "We have a huge gas surplus [in WA], so the last thing we actually need is more gas."

He also dismissed the state government's assertion that fracking would create a significant number of jobs.

The EPA has approved a number of environmentally disastrous projects in recent years. 

In 2015, 4 out of 5 board members were forced to stand aside due to direct financial links to the gas industry amid the controversial approval of the James Price Point gas hub in the Kimberley. The project was later defeated by community action.

The EPA’s approval of the proposed Roe 8 freight highway led to a huge community fight back and the electoral wipe out of the Colin Barnett Liberal government last year.

Labor's decision has been warmly welcomed by the corporate sector. Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox has called on the governments of New South Wales and Victoria, where fracking is banned, to follow WA's lead.

The West Australian has suggested that fracking operations could further expand into new areas, demonstrating that Labor’s announcement is just the thin end of the wedge. 

The decision is set to pit Labor against a coalition of environmental groups, Indigenous and farming communities, and trade unions. 

Premier Mark McGowan has sought to reassure Aboriginal communities and farmers they will have veto rights over any prospective mining projects.

However, Labor is simultaneously seeking to extinguish Noongar Native Title across the state's south-western region — a move opposed by many Noongar elders and activists who claim their voices and sovereign rights are being ignored.

Noongar activist Marianne McKay told Green Left Weekly: “Why should we as Aboriginal people have any confidence in what the government says.

“They say they respect us, while at the same time they do their best to silence us and take our land rights away.”

Maritime Union of Australia WA branch secretary Christy Cain condemned the decision as a “betrayal” and demanded the sacking of state environment minister Stephen Dawson.

Cain said: “The Western Australian government have proven once again that they are more supportive of big mining, oil and gas companies than they are about the environment and the future generations of Western Australians.”

Community opposition has been on the rise amid growing fears McGowan would side with fracking companies.

Twenty-three towns and councils across the state have so far declared themselves “Frack Free”.

The largest anti-fracking rally in WA history was held at Parliament House on October 11, coinciding with the submission of a petition with 14,000 signatures.

Frack Free Future grassroots campaigner Victor Hoisington told GLW: “With the recent announcement by the McGowan government, community opposition and organising is only going to ramp up.

“We all learnt a lot during the campaign to stop Roe 8, and we will build on that experience to educate and mobilise our community to ensure this destructive mining practice doesn't go ahead.

“Politicians that ignore us would do well to remember what happened to the Barnett government when they ignored the community.”