Fracking the NT
The shale/tight gas industry in the Northern Territory is currently in the early stages of development, actively pushing for Government support to ramp up exploration and production.
The government is backing the shale gas industry financially and pushing ahead with plans for a gas supply pipeline to eastern Australia. An Australian Council of Learned Academies Report suggests that NT shale gas reserves could support more than 50,000 production wells across just four geological basins.
Key Concerns with Shale Gas Fracking in the Territory
The Northern Territory has plentiful secured reserves of conventional gas. Onshore shale gas, extracted using horizontal fracking, has not been commercially produced in the NT.
Currently, shale gas fracking licences and applications cover over 100 million hectares of the Territory, around 85% of our landmass. For example, fracking applications cover recreational fishing spots from Fogg Dam to Kakadu, and approved exploration licences surround the iconic Mataranka Hot Springs on three sides. The details and locations of these licences across the Territory are available on this interactive online map.
Since 2013, over 300 new peer reviewed scientific reports have been released internationally about the impacts of shale fracking. Studies have found drilling fluids, flow back fluids, fracking chemicals, and naturally occurring contaminants migrate into drinking water and rivers (Broomfield, 2013 and Vengosh et al 2016), with shale fracking fluids causing cancer and major fish kills.
In 2014, an expert panel investigating shale gas for the Council of Canadian Academies found, “The greatest threat to groundwater is gas leakage from wells from which even existing best practices cannot assure long-term prevention.” The NT’s Hawke Report into hydraulic fracturing also noted this concern.
A 2014 University of Waterloo report found that 10% of all active and suspended gas wells in British Columbia now leak methane, while some hydraulically fractured shale gas wells have become “super methane emitters” that spew as much as 2,000 kilograms of methane a year.
A 2014 Cornell University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that horizontally fracked shale gas wells were leaking at six times the rate of conventional (vertical) wells.
In June 2016, after reading recent peer reviewed science reports on shale gas fracking, Ron Kelly (the head of the NT Government Department of Mines and Energy) said in an email to the NT Lock the Gate Alliance, “There have been some adverse findings with respect to water contamination from fracking“.
The Australian Government’s Office of the Chief Scientist recognised in 2013 that shale gas extraction uses vastly more water than coal seam gas. The horizontal shale fracking method planned by gas companies in the Territory is the most water intensive. A 2015 American Geophysical Union study found that hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells uses 19 million litres per gas well per year, and also measured shale wells using up to 37 million litres – over 15 Olympic swimming pools per well per year.
In the Territory, gas fracking companies access water for free, and water use adds up when the number of shale gas wells is considered.
Shale deposits in the United States have been targeted with tens of thousands of fracked wells to access reserves, turning large areas into industrial grids. A 2013 report issued by the Australia Council of Learned Academies predicted that over 50,000 fracked wells could extract the Northern Territory’s shale gas reserves. Just a few hundred operating shale gas wells could have significant impacts on local water availability for other users.
In 2014, the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced an internal report called Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts. They found, “Tourism and other sectors may lose business due to increased congestion and noise… reducing the number of visitors and an associated reduction in spend in the local tourism economy.”
Regional tourism economies are not alone in risking losses. A 2016 Bloomberg report found fracking companies had been spending almost $2 drilling for every $1 they earned selling oil and gas. Reuters reported in May this year that fifteen oil and gas companies filed for bankruptcy in the first quarter of 2016, bringing the total to 59 oil and gas companies bankrupt, with more bankruptcies predicted.
Despite these realities, the only Northern Territory report investigating shale gas economics is a 2015 Deloitte’s report – commissioned and paid for by the gas industry peak body: the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.
In the face of damming scientific evidence and poor economics, countries such as France, Italy, Germany and South Africa have banned shale fracking, along with New York State and dozens of other states of the USA and Canada.
A five-year pause on shale gas activity in the Territory would allow time for recent and expanding scientific evidence to come to light. Water recharge areas for our critical underground water supplies could be mapped and protected in permanent no go areas for fracking. Further positive steps would be the removal of sensitive applications and exploration licences, and for landholders to be granted the right to say ‘no’ to shale gasfields.