Academic overlooks key facts on history and regulation in WA gas industry

May 31st, 2017

A report released this month by a Perth-based academic, Dr Ryan Vogwill, has suggested that the well-understood practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) could pose a risk to Western Australian groundwater – and therefore it should be banned.

This conclusion not only lacks scientific rigor, it has an odour of ideological pre-determination.

The ban call is made despite the fact that fracking has a 60-year safe history in Australia, including in WA, without impact on aquifers.  When the global picture is examined, it is apparent that almost 2.5 million wells have been fracked worldwide, again without any evidence of aquifer contamination (including Europe and North America).

But these highly pertinent facts are overlooked in Dr Vogwill’s report.

Dr Vogwill is an Associate Professor, a member of the School of Earth and Environment at the University of WA, and the study he authored was sponsored by none other than Frack Free Future, an activist group of overt bias.

Dr Vogwill’s findings are flawed in many ways.  Lets begin with the biggest factual oversight – the absence of relevant history in WA.

Hydraulic fracturing has been successfully used in WA since the 1950s. More than 600 wells have been fracked, most of these on Barrow Island, in the State’s north-west.

In promoting Dr Vogwill’s report, Frack Free Future cited “a growing number of examples showing serious impacts on groundwater in the US from fracking”.

This claim is untrue, but unsurprising, because Frack Free Future has a history of perpetrating incorrect information about the shale gas industry in the USA.

Given the study sponsorship, and a body of evidence to the contrary in WA, it is no surprise that Dr Vogwill turned to the Internet and the ‘evidence’ from north America for his conclusions.

A focus was Canadian Dr John Cherry who told a local authority that “ no place in the world was actually doing scientific monitoring of what happened to the substances that leaked from shale gas wells”.

He had to delve back to 2015 to find this comment – but the truth is the comment had no basis then or now.

All around the world are long-standing and robust regulations governing well construction and monitoring to ensure structural integrity.  In Australia, we have world-class engineering practices and as a result have had no problems with leaks causing soil or groundwater contamination.  Many claims have been made in the USA (where there is considerable gain to be made from successful litigation), but most have been disproved.

Despite having been a supporter of more research into the possible impact of fracking on groundwater, the USA Environmental Protection Agency itself has admitted it has found no direct link between fracking and aquifer contamination.

The movie Gasland famously featured the “Godfather of well integrity”, Dr Anthony Ingraffea, whose claims have since been rejected and his testimony comprehensively rebuffed in court.

But the industry is not resting on its laurels.  New technologies are being developed to further enhance the monitoring of shale wells.

Most non-engineers are surprised to find just how much trouble to which the oil and gas industry goes in order to ensure well integrity – particularly when compared, for instance, with common practice in agriculture.

In the gas industry, there is an obvious and strong economic incentive to ensure that gas travels up the well and stays safely inside it.  Wells are made up of multiple layers of steel casing and cement, forming a multi-stage barrier to separate the well bore and the subsurface geology. During testing  and production, operators monitor structural integrity with pressure testing.

Dr Vogwill’s conclusion is straight from the activist handbook — that fracking ought to be banned until investigations can prove it poses no threat to groundwater.

As every scientist knows, it is virtually impossible to prove zero threat in just about anything.

Sixty years of safe practice, including 2.5 million ‘test cases’ would seem to suggest the industry has a pretty thorough understanding of the techniques it is using and how to deploy them with minimal risk.

To date there have been no fewer than a dozen inquiries into fracking in Australia – and they have all come to the same conclusion:  when properly executed, fracking does NOT pose a serious threat to soil or water.  The NSW Chief Scientist, the CSIRO, the Commonwealth Chief Scientist and many expert State-based environmental organisations have examined the practice and found similarly.

In WA, there have been three thorough studies undertaken and all concluded fracking could be done safely, without the environmental carnage predicted by groups like Frack Free Future.  More details are available  here, here and here.

A decade ago, sister organisations to Frack Free Future tried to convince people that fracking in south-east Queensland would destroy the land and poison the water.  It simply hasn’t happened.  What has happened is that $80+ billion has been invested in the State, tens of thousands of jobs have been created, and the Government is reaping up to $500 million a year in royalties which can be invested in roads, schools and hospitals.

In addition to ‘real world’ experience, there is also an abundance of information available on environmental management, and groundwater protection.

WA has a stringent framework successfully safeguarding the gas extraction process.

It is one element of a long history of developing a safe and responsible natural resource industry, working in partnership with the community to foster an open and honest conversation about the use of fracking. The relevant regulatory authorities should be applauded for their transparent efforts to educate and inform.

The following table goes into more detail regarding the uninformed recommendations made by Dr Vogwill.  What the table illustrates is an apparent lack of understanding of the rules which already apply in WA.   Is this the kind of ‘evidence’ on which the WA Government ought to make a decision to spend more taxpayer money on a fourth unnecessary inquiry into fracking?

 

Report Recommendation Facts
Require that industry proponents fund the investigations necessary to present a robust and defensible understanding of the impact risk (incorporating geology, hydrogeology, environment and Aboriginal cultural heritage, including their linkages) in Western Australia, prior to undertaking tight gas exploration or production activities. Investigations have already occurred, which have proven that the State can safely manage the risks surrounding the development of an onshore natural gas industry:

–          WA Dept. of Health

–          Curtin University

–          Parliamentary Inquiries

Require that groundwater take be licensed and impact assessed, particularly given the risk of impact from water supply and tight gas wells in the proclaimed Groundwater Areas of the northern Perth and Canning basins. Water extraction and water bore licensing is required by the WA Dept. of Water
Require post well abandonment monitoring across relevant aquifers Companies are required to provide an activity program to ensure site rehabilitation is completed to a high and acceptable standard which is agreed upon prior to any activities taking place on site
Make the Environmental Assessment and Regulatory System (EARS) and EARS2 publically available. The community has the right to know the environmental impact assessment under which tight gas exploration projects are being approved. There is information available to the public regarding EARS. In addition, many operators make their Environmental Plans available on their own websites

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