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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.

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