A worldwide movement
After nearly two decades of activity, primarily in the United States, unconventional gas has left a damaging legacy increasingly well documented in peer-reviewed journals, court cases and community testimonials. A growing number of governments have now banned unconventional gas extraction and fracking because of the risks and impacts on public health, the economy and the environment.
New York State and Maryland, Scotland, France, Germany and other national governments have enacted bans and moratoria, with Ireland placing a ban on fracking June 2017.
Learn from the mistakes of the past
To date, there are few Australian examples of the industry for WA to learn from. Queensland has the most advanced unconventional gas industry, harvesting gas from coal seams that are much shallower than the shale beds in WA. The industry began gaining momentum in 2005, resulting in approximately 4402 wells in production by 20151 , and continuing. The industry extends across Queensland, in the form of pipelines and compressor stations, and major industrial development expansions for processing, liquefying and shipping gas overseas. The export business raises, rather than lowers, gas prices for Australian consumers—an impact that has already been felt by Queenslanders. Australian experience with unconventional gas is recent and, therefore, limited.
The United States’ experience is now extensive. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that there are currently 300,000 unconventional gas wells in production. It was estimated in 2013 that 15.3 million Americans were living within a mile of at least one unconventional gas or oil well that had been hydraulically fractured at least once since 2000. These extensive operations began despite very few peer-reviewed research publications on possible environmental and health impacts.
Focus on Western Australia
Until recently, methane (natural) gas used in households and industries around the world has mainly come from areas with large, concentrated deposits of gas that is released relatively easily (i.e., without fracking). As global reserves of these ‘conventional’ sources of gas from accessible locations are dwindling, remaining deposits, such as those located in deep offshore waters, are increasingly complex and expensive to recover. The gas industry is now focused on obtaining gas from ‘unconventional sources’, including gas within deep shale deposits in the Perth and Canning Basins of Western Australia. The government has expressed significant interest in promoting shale gas mining in these locations. As in other states and territories, this has been met with significant community opposition.
Because gas is spread out in low concentrations within shale beds, ‘unconventional gas’ mining requires many more wells and well-heads, and deep, horizontal drilling and fracking to release the gas. Because of the investment needed for these expensive operations, the capacity to link into a large international export market is often required in order for the venture to be commercially viable.
The case for a statewide ban
The campaign against unconventional gas and fracking has been described as the greatest social movement in Australia’s history. Hundreds of communities have already declared themselves ‘gasfield free’, with 75 in Victoria alone driving the Government there to permanently ban unconventional gas. Western Australia is fast growing its own anti-fracking movement: an increasing number of South West, Mid West and Kimberley communities are rejecting the industry, with metro communities also joining calls for a statewide ban.
The WA Government should extend its welcome Southwest-to-Swan Valley regional bans such that unconventional gas activities are immediately and permanently banned in sensitive areas including National Parks and conservation reserves, productive farmland, groundwater areas, National Heritage listed areas, drinking water catchments, floodplains, buffer zones for communities, and tourism zones. Existing bans should be legislated.