The shale gas fracking industry is in its infancy in Western Australia. Gas companies like Buru (in the Kimberly) and AWE (in the Mid West) are still in the ‘proof of concept’ phase of development – drilling isolated wells that are used to assess the economic viability of larger scale production. But we can expect extremely rapid industry expansion soon, after the industry identifies viable gas fields.
The potential scale of the industry is huge. The Perth Basin can expect to see thousands of wells, while the Kimberley region – which is home to the world’s fifth largest known shale gas reserve - might see tens of thousands of wells, each several kilometres deep, and each bringing huge environmental risks.
Once production starts, growth can be explosive. Queensland and New South Wales provide good examples of how quickly onshore gas can ramp up: despite vocal community opposition, inside a few short years several thousand coal seam gas wells have now been drilled in each state.
The Barnett Shale in Texas is another good example of the rapid growth of shale gas. Geologically very similar to WA’s gas fields, in 2000 the region was home to barely 700 gas wells. Today the area is perforated by more than 16,000 wells, and at its peak was growing by more than 3,000 wells per year. Exploitation there has turned into a race, with 600 drilling rigs operated by 30 different companies with varying environmental records. The Barnett Shale deposit contains not much more than half as much gas as the Perth Basin alone.
Is Western Australia ready for this new and deeply controversial industry? Not enough Western Australians even know what gas fracking is, and fewer still have a considered point of view about whether we want it for our state.
It is time to slow down and take a deep breath.
What does gas fracking entail? Briefly, the following: deep wells are drilled into gas bearing rock formations, which are then fractured by cocktails of water and corrosive chemicals at extremely high pressures - up to 85,000 kg per square centimetre.
There are a range of reasons why people are worried about the process. For instance, a well casing failure during critical periods of production - particularly during periods when dangerous fracking fluids are flowing - could permanently poison groundwater.
Famously, methane contamination of water has gotten so severe in parts of the United States that residents on bore water can set their tap water on fire.
There are serious risks of health impacts, with heightened risks of cancers, immune diseases, and birth defects. Even very low levels of exposure increase the risk of a huge range of diseases. Benzene, for instance, is considered dangerous at concentrations of one part per billion – that’s one drop in a swimming pool. Other dangerous chemicals and by-products include radioactive substances like radium 226.
A 2011 literature review, published in the peer reviewed Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, found that of known fracking fluids, 75% affect skin, eyes, or respiratory and gastroinstestinal systems; 40-50% impact on the brain and nervous systems, immune and cardiovascular systems, and/or the kidneys; that 37% affect the endocrine system (hormones); while 25% bear increased risks of cancer and/or mutation.
Here’s the important point: once groundwater has been poisoned like this there’s little that can be done to clean it. The pollution will be there forever.
The line that the gas industry pushes is that fracking has been being done for decades, and they’re right. But it is false to say that slickwater gas fracking using horizontal drilling has been being done for decades – that technique was invented in the 1980s, and has been used at a commercial scale only since the 1990s. And it is slickwater horizontal gas fracking that worries people. The industry knows that – when they say ‘we’ve been fracking for years’ they’re deliberately trying to confuse the issue. It’s disingenuous.
Slickwater fracking techniques multiply risk by using dangerous cocktails of chemicals and experiemental drilling techniques. With this technique there is simply more that can go wrong – and if the experience from the United States is any evidence, more does go wrong.
Given the scale of anticipated development and the seriousness of the risk, we should be asking ourselves this question: what are the cumulative risks of shale gas fracking? And are these risks that we are willing to bear?
These cumulative risks are high. A report of the European Commission, released only a few weeks ago, found that the cumulative risk of contamination to groundwater was high - so too the risk of contamination to surface water, to water resources and to air quality. Biodiversity is threatened. Indeed, of the many criteria against which the commission’s report measured the potential impacts of shale gas fracking, only two were scored lower than ‘high’.
CCWA finds reports like that alarming. It also finds the industry’s attempts to explain away the risks to local groundwater – so important in Western Australian communities and farmers – entirely unconvincing.
Do we want to risk our groundwater – not once, but hundreds of thousands of times, frack by frack by frack?
Maybe we do. But we haven’t been asked, and maybe it is time that we are.
Jamie Hanson is the Manager of the Climate Program at the Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA)