Territorians love the natural environment. We enjoy the environment both for the exhilaration it gives us, and for its tourism value. We should also remember that our health depends on having clean air and water and safe food.
Damage and contamination of the NT’s natural environment from petroleum extraction present significant risks to Territorians. The practice can stifle other industries, including food production and tourism, and has led to bitter community disputes interstate and can harm our health.
The new regulations for oil and gas that came into operation in July raise significant concerns.
Firstly, there is the bizarre claim that they are consistent with Ecologically Sustainable Development, a recognised concept of international law.
However, it is impossible for extraction of petroleum to be environmentally sustainable, since extraction of a finite resource must eventually deplete the resource and ecological processes will inevitably be damaged by climate change from burning petroleum.
Worse, burning petroleum leads to CO2 production, which is leading to climate change. Already we are seeing impacts of climate change in Australia and worldwide, including increases in drought, fire, heat waves, floods and storms.
Secondly, the new regulations assume NT has the capacity to regulate fracking.
This is far from the truth. The regulations do not lay down minimum standards for companies to reach, and they depend on companies to demonstrate that all environmental risks and impacts are identified and reduced to an acceptable level.
Doctors for the Environment Australia is concerned at the NT Government’s capacity to regulate this industry in the interests of all Territorians.
Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting into the ground solutions containing dozens of chemicals. Some of these are known carcinogens while many more are unknown.
The practice raises concerns about the quality of local aquifers, and the intense consumption of water resources. This is of particular concern in NT due to limited water supplies. How will we ensure that underground waterways are replenished and maintained?
Other problems associated with fracking include leaking gases from well heads, including methane, a greenhouse gas dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The Minister for Mines advised that an independent overseer would be appointed to review decisions around oil and gas production. However, two weeks after the regulations have commenced with no mention of an independent overseer.
While oil and gas development is both contentious and rapid, a secure government with strong capacity to monitor performance is essential.
The NT Police Commissioner, Public Interest Disclosures Commissioner, Public Employment Commissioner and Auditor-General and Ombudsman have stated:
“The Northern Territory does not have an independent watchdog with enough teeth to investigate politicians and their staffers for corruption and misconduct, according to the territory’s own police and investigative bodies.”
This begs the question as to whether NT should be mining for gas at all.
Doctors for the Environment Australia looks forward to the Minister’s planned appointment of an independent overseer of applications for oil and gas development which will support the long term future wellbeing of Territorians. Until the position is functioning, further developments of oil and gas should be deferred.
With NT voters giving swings of over seven percent to the ALP in the recent Federal election, and the resignations this year of both NT Deputy Chief Minister and Minister for Primary Industry due a conflict of interest and the Minister for Education following a sex scandal, the Country Liberal Party government has many issues to manage.
However, there is the opportunity for a public mandate for allowing or banning fracking at the Territory election on 27 August.
The ALP, as well as some minor parties and independents have distinguished themselves from the ruling CLP with a clear commitment to a moratorium on fracking.
Dr Rosalie Schultz is a Northern Territory GP and public health physician. She is also a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
First published in Croakey on 22 July 2016
Another version of this opinion piece was published in the Sunday Territorian on 17 July 2016, however the link is unavailable to non subscribers.