While fracking wells have just started to be drilled in the mid west and Kimberley regions of Western Australia, the State Government has issued exploration licenses from Margaret River in the south up to Broome in the north.
Most recently, new licenses have been granted to fracking companies to explore for gas around Bunbury and in the Swan Valley, just outside of Perth.
The fracking industry has torn eastern states communities apart, with many families forced to leave their homes, or live with a web of gas wells on their properties. Serious health issues have resulted in some communities.
Current laws in Western Australia do not provide a right of veto for farmers, landholders or Traditional Owners against gas fracking on their lands. This means landholders can be forced to accept fracking on their lands for minimal compensation.
Landowners' rights, fracking and Western Australian law
Under Western Australian law, landowners cannot prevent gas fracking occurring on their land. Fracking companies are also permitted to frack in nature reserves and other areas of our conservation estate.
Fracking companies can go where they want, pay little compensation, pollute people's water, and then leave the state to clean up the mess. Petroleum companies get special treatment - and leave the rest of us to pay the price.
Shale gas is methane - also called natural gas. Natural gas is generally considered to be a form of petroleum production and is governed by the Petroleum Geothermal Energy Resources Act 1967 (WA) (PGER Act).
Importantly, the PGER Act sets out an entirely separate tenement regime for petroleum exploration and production than that used for coal mining or the mining of other subsurface minerals under the Mining Act 1978 (WA). Petroleum companies get special treatment.
The PGER Act provides limited rights to farmers and private land owners. Under the PGER Act:
- The Minister for Mines and Petroleum may legally grant exploration, retention and development titles over ‘private land’;
- It is not a requirement that landowners be notified or consulted in the event a gas exploration title is granted over their land;
- In many circumstances, landowners have no rights of objection to exploration or development of unconventional gas resources on their ‘private land’;
- Petroleum exploration and development companies have fairly broad powers in terms of accessing petroleum resources on ‘private land’; and
- Upon receiving formal notice from an exploration company, landowners have three months in which to reach a compensation agreement, or the matter will go to the Magistrate’s Court for determination.
The general overarching principle is that ‘private land’ is open for shale gas mining.
For more information on relevant petroleum legislation and for legal advice, contact the Environmental Defenders Office.
Serious health risks are associated with shale fracking
Scientists and doctors around the world have pointed to the serious health risks associated with shale gas fracking. The shale gas industry must not be allowed to gamble with our health.
A variety of chemicals involved in gas fracking are known to be toxic, causing skin, respiratory, liver kidney and nervous system damage.
These chemicals can affect people through water pollution, of either ground or surface water. Even more worrying, many of these dangerous substances can evaporate from fracking wastewater ponds, polluting the air that locals and workers breathe.
Long term, low-level exposure to many of these chemicals is linked with a range of diseases. For instance, some affect bone marrow, causing anaemia and cancers such as leukaemia, while others – ‘endocrine disruptors’ - can affect the growth and development of children, even at very low levels of exposure.
For more on these, see this article by Australian doctors, or this report by Canadian regulators.
Shale fracking and long term chronic illness
Many chemicals used in, or released during shale gas fracking operations can have long term health effects that are not immediately apparent. These include unpredictable, delayed effects on people who are exposed to fracking-related toxins - and on their children.[iii]
For example, BTEX compounds are commonly released from source rocks during fracking, and are present in fracking flow-back fluids – fluids that are piped through your water supply. Once on the surface, they are left to sit in uncovered (and possibly leaking) settling ponds, where they ‘gas off’ – escape into our air as extremely toxic gases.
BTEX compounds are acute skin, respiratory and nervous system irritants, and long term exposure to them has the capacity to affect bone marrow, causing anaemia and increasing the risk of leukaemia. BTEX chemicals can also affect the liver and kidneys.
Another commonly used chemical in fracking processes is 2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE) which is rapidly absorbed by humans in a number of ways - through the skin, ingestion and inhalation. Once absorbed, this substance has the capacity to destroy red blood cells, damage the liver, spleen and bone marrow.
A report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Authority has shown that drinking water wells have been contaminated with 2-BE in fracked areas of Wyoming, USA.[iv]
A range of the toxic pollutants associated with shale gas fracking are not present in the actual fracking fluid, but are actually released from the shale during the fracking process itself. Commonly, these particulates include harmful substances such as bio-accumulative heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs), including radium, thorium and uranium. Other common toxic substances released during gas fracking include arsenic, benzene and mercury.[ii]
Even though they are naturally occurring, these chemicals carry serious health risks. Benzene, for example, even at the lowest level of detection - 1 part per billion (the equivalent of one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool) – is highly dangerous. There is no safe level of exposure.
An unlined fracking waste water pond at the Arrowsmith well, in Mid West WA. Photo credit: Dane Griffin, 2012
How do fracking-related chemicals and other substances come to threaten our health?
The toxic pollutants mentioned above reach human populations via groundwater contamination, surface water contamination and air pollution. The European Commission’s 2012 report into the threat to health from shale gas fracking found that there is a high risk of pollutants reaching human populations in these ways.
Toxicity: fracking fluids
Many health risks are related to the toxic nature of the chemicals used in gas fracking. Researchers in the United States examined 353 chemicals used in fracking fluids, and found them to include toxic, allergenic, mutagenic and carcinogenic substances. [i]
Of the 353 chemicals:
- 75% may affect skin, eyes and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastro-intestinal systems.
- 40-50% may impact the brain and nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys.
- 37% could affect the endocrine system.
- 25% pose a risk of cancer and mutation.
Astonishingly only 4 of the 23 most commonly used fracking chemicals have been assessed by Australia’s national chemical regulator (NICNAS) – and yet shale gas companies are being allowed to frack, at potential risk to our health. Not one of the chemicals in question have been specifically assessed for use in fracking processes.[v]
Scientists and doctors around the world have identified serious health risks associated with gas fracking. The shale gas fracking industry should not be allowed to gamble with our health.
A typical gas flare at a fracking well pad site.
[i] Colborn Theo, Kwiatoski Carol, Shultz Kim, Bachran Mary, Natural Gas operations from a Public Health Perspective, in Human and Ecological Risk assessment : an international Journal, 2011.
[ii] Broomfield Mark, Support to the identification of potential risks for the environment and human health arising from hydrocarbons operations involving hydraulic fracturing in Europe. AEA Technology, 2012, available onhttp://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/energy/pdf/fracking%20study.pdf
[v] Please see Senate Inquiry, at 2:04, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBnOBgJPuYE