Why we are
DEPENDING on who you ask, a legislated ban on fracking in the South-East is a triumph of politics over common sense, or a win for the people and the environment against the interests of big business.
With the nation’s largest power generator, AGL Energy, warning this week that Victoria could face gas shortages in the early 2020s, the price of gas going through the roof in recent years, and various proposals afoot to import gas into Australia – which should be a ridiculous concept given the vast reserves we have – there is no doubt our policies around the extraction of gas, along with our other energy policies, are fraught.
Critics and supporters of a ban on fracking in the SouthEast agree on one thing – it’s a win for a vocal group of people, and their elected representative Troy Bell, against the interests of the resources industry.
But from the industry perspective, this is a perverse, populist response that ignores the science around a process that has been used safely in South Australia since 1969.
Opponents of fracking, such as Limestone Coast Protection Alliance chairman Angus Ralton, are “beside ourselves” with joy after securing the ban.
The oil and gas sector could be forgiven for being taken by surprise by the fracking issue in SA. Having used the process safely, and without controversy, in the Cooper Basin in the state’s topright corner since 1969, without incident and with no evidence of groundwater issues, it could have safely assumed the jury was in when it came to what the industry prefers to call hydraulic fracture stimulation.
The process, in lay terms, involves blasting high-pressure fluids into rocks far underground.
“Proppants”, such as small grains of sand or ceramic, prop open the fractures in the rock and keep them open for oil and gas to flow.
But five years ago, things began to change. At home, Beach Energy expressed interest in doing more work outside of the Cooper, and after acquiring a company with interests in the SouthEast, began looking at how to develop its assets there (it has since successfully found gas using conventional methods with the help of a state government grant).
But the issue that really brought fracking to the fore was the increasing controversy around the process in the US. Technological advances made previously uneconomic oil and gas worth getting out of the ground, and a huge land grab ensued.
Companies dotted the landscape in areas such as North Dakota with screeds of oil and gas wells.
There were tales of gas leaking into water supplies, public campaigns to ban fracking, and documentaries such as Gasland – of dubious quality if you ask the resources sector – that tallied the various sins of the resources companies.
Back home, by 2013, farmers and residents of the South-East – a prime dairy, beef and wine region – were getting worried about the impact fracking could have on their water tables, and also on their clean, green reputation.
An initial tilt at a parliamentary inquiry, put up by the Greens, was shelved in 2014, despite being supported before that year’s election by then-Liberal Mr Bell, who would go on to win his seat.
By 2016, Victoria had banned fracking and later banned all onshore gas exploration entirely until 2020.
The SA Liberal Party had gone to the 2014 election supporting a parliamentary inquiry into fracking – no doubt as a result of strong pressure from Mr Bell, whose seat could have depended on the issue.
That inquiry did get up, and reported back in 2016 after it received 178 written responses, heard from 66 witnesses and made numerous site visits.
The problem was, in a sense, it allowed both sides of the debate to claim victory.
“More than 750 petroleum wells have been fracture stimulated in the Cooper Basin in the Far North of SA and more than 100 petroleum wells have been drilled in the Otway Basin in the state’s South-East,” then resources and energy minister Tom Koutsantonis said at the time.
“Again and again, the outcomes have been demonstrably safe.’’
The report did find that “the specific process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in deep shale, properly managed and regulated, is unlikely to pose significant risks to groundwater’’. However, other parts of the process were not without risk.
But the inquiry effectively decided the question of whether it could recommend whether to frack was not its to answer. And without community buy-in, safety, while paramount, was not the overriding issue.
“After considering all the evidence available to it, particularly the definition of social licence … the committee has reached the position that
NO-GO ZONE: The Limestone Coast Protection Alliance protests at a Beach Energy conventional gas well near Penola. The alliance opposes all forms of gas exploration.