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Fracking in the Northern Territory: What’s the rush? Let’s wait and see

Many thanks to Dr Rosalie Schultz, member of Doctors for the Environment, for this piece regarding the latest developments regarding “fracking” in the Northern Territory.

Dr Schultz writes:

I recently spoke on behalf of Doctors for the Environment Australia to the Commissioner on the Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in NT, Mr Allan Hawke. This Inquiry was established in April 2014 to provide information to the NT government on a range of issues related to hydraulic fracturing “fracking”. It will report by the end of 2014.

Meanwhile, fracking is already underway in NT and continues as the Commissioner conducts the Inquiry.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) is an independent, self-funded, non-government, health advocacy organisation of medical doctors in all Australian States and Territories. Our members work across all specialties in community, hospital and private practices. We work to minimise public health impacts and address the diseases – local, national and global – caused by damage to our natural environment.

Northern Territory is quite different from the states of Australia. The population is 200,000  – less than one per cent of Australia. Aboriginal people make up one third of Northern Territorians.

Most Aboriginal Territorians live in remote communities, where they have lived since before time was measured. The land and landscape are the attractions of the NT. They attract the Aboriginal people, tourists and travellers whose visits outnumber locals, and non-indigenous Australians who make NT their home.

Because the NT is unique, the issues around fracking are unique.

Fracking allows exploitation of fossil fuels that are difficult to access. High pressure water, sand and chemicals are pumped into rock to open up fissures and allow gas or oil to be released through the fractures.

There is strong opposition to fracking in NT. Due to NT’s remoteness and small population, we are unlikely to be able to attract the large numbers of opponents who have actively protested against fracking elsewhere. In NT 1.21 million km2  of land is under application for oil and gas extraction. This area is bigger than France and Spain combined, and makes up 90% of NT’s total land area of 1.35 million km2.

The Minister for Mines, Mr Willem Westre van Holthe instituted the Inquiry into fracking. He has stated that the purpose of the Inquiry was “to better inform the community and hopefully provide some confidence that the industry in the Northern Territory can go ahead without any environmental issues occurring.”

However, community meetings held by the Inquiry’s Commissioner have not demonstrated support, but a distinct outcry against fracking. Meetings have heard a range of legitimate concerns and outrage at the government’s plans. Written submissions are available on the Inquiry’s website, but they do not capture the passion that is heard at public meetings.

Terms of reference for the Inquiry into fracking in NT were narrowly defined around fracking operations. The Inquiry missed the opportunity to consider the broader economic and energy environment in which companies seek to frack to extract gas resources.

The Inquiry’s Terms of Reference also failed to consider opportunities for renewable energy development. NT’s high levels of solar intensity mean that the region presents exciting opportunities for solar energy, including both small and large scale generation. Likewise, the huge subsidies that NT government provides to facilitate gas export through Darwin were also outside the scope of the Inquiry. These subsidies offset almost 80% of the industry royalties.

Fracking is an issue around the globe. Regional or national governments in Argentina, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Romania, Spain, South Africa, Australia’s state of Victoria and some states of USA have instituted bans on fracking. A moratorium was in place in NSW for six months in 2011. Moratoriums focus on concerns about water and land contamination, issues that have yet to be resolved.

There has been massive scale fracking in USA for over a decade. We have the opportunity to learn from their experience.

If fracking in USA leads to employment opportunities, an easy transition to renewable energy, and an improved economic situation, the wait for NT will be worthwhile. However, if we see a legacy of damaged land, water and people, we should focus investments elsewhere.

To assist in building public support for fracking, NT Government has launched an advertising campaign “Oil and Gas: It’s for all of us“. Ironically, NT oil and gas are mainly exported, and recruitment is seeking interstate and international labour.  Why this industry is “for all of us” is uncertain. It will certainly not be for all of our grandchildren.

Doctors for the Environment Australia is grateful to be heard by the NT Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing. We would like to see a long-term view of energy and economic options. A bigger picture is needed to work out where our energy future should be.

DEA considers that current assessment, monitoring and regulation of unconventional gas activities are not adequate to protect the health of current and future generations of Australians. There is no requirement for health risk assessment prior to projects occurring.

Both DEA and the Australian Medical Association have called on Australian governments to ensure that unconventional gas projects are subject to rigorous and independent health risk assessments.

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