Does the Northern Territory scientific inquiry into fracking know what it is talking about?
For that matter, does the Commonwealth Chief Scientist, or the New South Wales Chief Scientist, or the CSIRO?
The answer is obviously ‘yes’, in each instance.
But it is a favourite of the anti-gas lobby to attack any research or inquiry finding which does not suit it – and it appears the NT Inquiry may be the next in line, as activists push the NT Government to continue its moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing, regardless of the final finding of the Pepper Inquiry.
An item on ABC radio in the past week provided a good indicator. When trying to find a voice willing to criticise the findings of the NT scientific inquiry (Draft report), where did the ABC go? Inner Melbourne, of course. As far away from the NT as one could get, while staying on the mainland.
“One of Australia’s top legacy mines researchers has questioned the scientific accuracy of some of the Northern Territory fracking inquiry’s key environmental findings,” the ABC item declared.
And who was this “top researcher” – and apparent authority on hydraulic fracturing to the extent he was willing to question the findings of the Pepper Inquiry and other eminent scientists?
None other than Dr Gavin Mudd, an academic at RMIT (Melbourne) for the past year, but also a principal in Anstey-Mudd Environmental and Community Consulting, a firm he set up with his partner to help environmental and community groups to lobby Governments and statutory authorities.
“At AMECC, we strive to work with communities concerned about adverse social/gender/cultural issues, as well as environmental/social impacts,” the pair say on their website.
“Communities concerned about adverse social/cultural issues can turn to us for professional project management and development services…”
Of course there is nothing wrong with providing advocacy services, but does this qualify Dr Mudd to dismiss the work of Justice Pepper and her expert panel, as well as the CSIRO and Chief Scientists of Australia and NSW, all of whom have examined the issues thoroughly and concluded that fracking is safe, so long as it is properly regulated.
Regardless, it didn’t stop Dr Mudd declaring on the ABC that these eminent authorities were in some kind of zone of false comfort.
The Pepper Inquiry’s draft findings, published only a few weeks ago, were “overly optimistic”, he said.
“The constant emphasis on risks being low and manageable just shows too much confidence.
“You can’t manage what you don’t know.” Dr Mudd said.
This last claim is audacious, to say the least, given that fracking has been safely used in North America since 1947, and in Australia, including in the NT, since the 1960s. A total of 2.5 million fracks have been carried out worldwide.
Dr Mudd was not asked on what basis he made his sweeping assertions, but he did volunteer this:
“We need to be much more realistic and mindful of examples [of contamination] like PFAS, like McArthur River Mine, Rum Jungle and Red Bank Copper Mine.”
Dr Mudd did not mention (nor was he asked) what any of these examples had to do with natural gas production, nor the well understood extractive process hydraulic fracturing (dubbed ‘fracking’ by activists so that they can tell gas companies to ‘frack off’).
For the record, PFAS (poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are fire-retardant chemicals used at airports and military bases for firefighting and training drills. McArthur River, in the remote north-east of the NT, is the site of a large, open-cut zinc mine, operated by a local subsidiary of the Swiss mining company Glencore. Rum Jungle is a former uranium mine south of Darwin, which was closed in 1971 and Redbank is a disused copper mine near the NT/Queensland border.
All of these instances, while of genuine concern in different aspects in their own right, have no relevance whatsoever to any form of natural gas development.
The Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Matt Canavan, summed the situation simply:
“Every review has concluded that, with robust regulation, you can safely develop natural gas. Justice Pepper’s inquiry has come to the same conclusion.
“I really think it is time to just get on with it.”
Natural gas has been safely extracted in the NT and every Australian State dating back more than 100 years, without environmental calamity.
As inquiry after inquiry has found, the gas industry has a strong record of safe operations and a demonstrated technical expertise to properly manage risks.
In recognition of some semblance of balance, this strong historical record was acknowledged in the ABC story.
The CSIRO scientist in charge of onshore gas research, Dr Damian Barrett was quoted, saying the Pepper Inquiry had accurately assessed the “low level” risks associated with natural gas extraction, including the hydraulic fracturing process.
But Dr Mudd wasn’t having any of that either. The gas industry had a history of promising high standards it did not meet, he said, again, without providing an example. He also claimed that there was evidence of wells leaking.
Dr Barrett said the risks associated with wells leaking were very low – particularly given high standards of engineering and the fact that natural gas is not toxic in groundwater.
The NT fracking inquiry is scheduled to deliver its final report by the end of March.