Won't our strong regulatory framework make fracking safe in WA?

Regulators and industry like to claim that there are strong regulations in place in WA which ensure that the community and environment are protected from the risks of shale gas fracking.

This claim is highly questionable. Under WA law, most activities that pollute (or have the potential to pollute) the environment are subject to licensing by the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) under the Environmental Protection Act 1986. While other activities such as mining and minerals processing require Operating Licenses to control pollution, shale gas fracking is currently exempt from these requirements.

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An unlined frack-fluid flow-back pond in Western Australia.

As stated by the previous Minister for the Environment, Hon. Bill Marmion it remains the State Government’s preference that the environmental impacts of shale gas fracking are regulated by the Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP).

In 2011, the DMP commissioned an independent expert (Dr. Tina Hunter) to review its regulatory arrangements for gas fracking in WA, which falls under the Petroleum and Geothermal Resources Act. In her report, Dr. Hunter concluded that “there are no legal provisions in the [petroleum] Act that specifically pertains to the management of the environment in onshore petroleum activities.”

Dr. Hunter identified DMP’s requirement for proponents to develop ‘Environmental Management Plans’ (EMP) as a measure to manage environmental impact, however she also noted that “under the current legislative framework the EMP is legally unenforceable.”

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The Woodada 1 well in Lake Logue Nature Reserve,  Western Australia
 
While some improvements have been made since this report, the fundamental failures noted by Dr. Tina Hunter have not been rectified.  As a consequence the WA community cannot have confidence in the regulatory regime currently in place for shale gas fracking in WA.
 
Sources: Hunter, T (2011) Regulation of Shale, Coal Seam and Tight Gas Activities in Western Australia, Faculty of Law, Bond University