There is growing concern in the NT that the Gunner Government may remove the moratorium on fracking. However, rejecting the moratorium would be a grave mistake, and Territorians know this. That’s why we voted for the moratorium in the landslide ALP victory in August 2016.
People may think of fracking as an environmental or industrial issue, but ultimately fracking is an issue of health and wellbeing. Fracking is not safe, and that’s why countries and states around the world – including Victoria – have permanently banned it.
Doctors for the Environment Australia, a medical group of leading health experts including a Nobel laureate and recipients of the Australia of the Year award, recently submitted its response to the NT Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing. DEA argued that robust national and international expertise and local knowledge have shown that fracking can be hazardous to health.
This sentiment has been echoed by peak medical body the Australian Medical Association, as well as the United Kingdom’s Chief Scientific Adviser, whose annual report drew a comparison between fracking impacts and past health issues such as exposure to asbestos and tobacco.
People’s health can be affected in many ways throughout the fracking process.
Whether or not to frack is a divisive issue which can potentially damage community and individual health. For example, fracking operations in the Surat Basin in Queensland have left previously cohesive communities fractured.
People dependent on the land through pastoralism, and Aboriginal communities whose ancestral ties span thousands of years, may be put at odds by those who want to use the country for short term financial gain. Rural lifestyles will be upset by the arrival of fly-in-fly-out workers. Health may be affected through stress and rental price escalation, or through contact with contaminated water, air, soil or food. Road traffic accidents are another risk associated with gasfield development.
The work of the Hydraulic Fracking Inquiry panel in framing the diversity of issues that need to be considered is impressive. These include water, land, air, public health, Aboriginal people and their culture, social impacts, and the regulatory framework.
Water is a major concern.
The large quantity of water consumed by fracking- 4 to 22 million litres for each frack – could have profound impacts on natural and human environments. This is especially a concern in NT with our fragile arid zone environments.
Water quality left after fracking is another concern. The fracking process uses multiple chemicals which have not been properly assessed for safety. It can also release naturally occurring chemicals within the shale, including heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic, and radioactive elements such as radium, thorium and uranium. Even common salt can be detrimental in the high concentrations that arise during fracking. Some of the fluids used in fracking return to the surface, and need to be treated or disposed of. Any escape of these into the environment, whether from watercourses, ponds, closed tanks or evaporation ponds can contaminate other water.
The focus on developing a regulatory framework for fracking suggests an underlying anticipation that the government will find a justification to end the moratorium on fracking. This would follow the pattern of the NT Hawke inquiry into fracking in 2013. Hawke concluded that a moratorium was unnecessary. However the CLP government that followed this advice was swept from office, suggesting people disagreed.
No amount of legislation or voluntary code can prevent accidents, flooding and spilling of containment pools, or casing failure, which cause leaks. NT is at particular risk because of our extreme climate. This is may be exacerbated by climate change, with the likelihood of increasing floods and cyclone intensity.
Experience elsewhere demonstrates contamination occurs despite the best efforts of companies and communities. Attempts to draw attention to a leak near Broome were silenced. The NT has a poor record of enforcing regulation, ensuring compensation to affected communities and rehabilitation of sites damaged by extractive industries. Our culture of relaxed attitudes to regulation, and a focus on mateship and relationships could leave future generations at great risk.
Doctors are also particularly concerned about the contribution that fracking for unconventional gas will have on climate change, the greatest threat to public health this century.
Gas extracted through fracking – methane- has as much greenhouse gas per unit energy as coal when the full life cycle is considered. Methane is the second largest greenhouse gas contributor to climate change after CO2. Methane’s global warming potential is more than 86 times that of CO2 over a 20-year period, and 34 times that of CO2over a 100-year period. Gas leakage can occur during the extraction, production, processing, storage, transmission and distribution of natural gas.
How do we best respond to such profound threats to our health and land from fracking?
The precautionary principle urges caution when considering risks to human health and the environment that supports us. Invoking this principle can lead to better health outcomes for the community, economic development that supports rather than places human lives at risk and to striking innovation opportunities. For example, NT has immense capacity for renewable energy, including solar and wind, and it could be a global leader in clean energy technology.
Dr Rosalie Schultz is a Northern Territory GP and public health physician, and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia
First published in On Line Opinion on 8 May 2017