Fracking: Are we there yet?

COMMUNITY EFFORT: Hundreds of people took to the streets on horseback to protest against fracking in the NT last year.
COMMUNITY EFFORT: Hundreds of people took to the streets on horseback to protest against fracking in the NT last year.

HERE we are, February, and still no clearer on whether the Territory will frack its gas reserves or not.

The story so far has seen the NT community rise up with unprecedented unity to condemn the practice of hydraulic fracturing as a flagrant risk to water supplies and resources that we don't need to take.

In 2016, a Labor government was elected to govern the NT, in part because it promised a moratorium on fracking while further investigations were undertaken.

The moratorium was announced on September 14 that year, and under the direction of Inquiry Chair Justice Rachael Pepper an investigation into hydraulic fracturing began from December.

Meanwhile electricity prices rose across the country in concert with the price of gas and the collective blood pressure of federal ministers and consumers. A year later, after an estimated 105 public hearings, 29 community forums, 500 submissions and $3 million in costs, we are apparently approaching the end. A draft final report was released in December, making 120 recommendations that, based on the evidence heard, the panel suggests can mitigate the risks of fracking.

In a statement, Justice Pepper said: "... if the recommendations made in this draft Report are adopted and implemented in full, those risks may be mitigated or reduced - and in many cases eliminated altogether - to acceptable levels ..."

On 19 January a series of Social Impact Assessment reports were published, two of the reports focussed on the Betaloo Basin, long coveted by gas developers.

Justice Pepper's positive statement on risk mitigation prompted some to speculate that the NT Government may soon lift its moratorium.

That would certainly have made Malcolm Turnbull happy, after he has repeatedly turned a political blow torch to NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner in a bid to force him to give over NT's gas to east coast users.

And there is no doubt gas prices have risen these past few years.

But as Heartbeat noted last year, Australia remains a net exporter of gas.

This year we are expected to surpass Qatar as the world's biggest exporter of LNG .

Turnbull has continued to blame state Labor governments for their reluctance to frack, but delivered an ultimatum to the gas industry nonetheless: Look after the locals or face regulation of exports.

The bluff worked, and by September the parties had struck a deal to ensure domestic supply. Gas prices fell.

But a new report this week by the McKell Institute, commissioned by the Australian workers Union, says Turnbull's actions have not gone far enough to ensure gas reservation.

For those still blaming the moratorium, fracking the Territory's gas remains one answer.

But the fracking inquiry report has also stipulated that vital environmental baseline studies be completed before fracking production licenses are granted.

Such studies would likely take two to three years to complete.

In and of itself, this recommendation is perhaps the single most important outcome of the Inquiry, which has been tasked with trying to give sage advice in an environment of significant scientific and political uncertainty. The fact is, we don't know a great deal about our unique Territory environments.

The knowledge deficit has plagued resource managers and decision makers for decades. The age of participatory democracy is certainly upon us, when voters supposedly get a say in major development decisions.

And the fracking inquiry is as good an example as any.

But is it really doing anyone any good?

Like any scientific study since the late 20th century, the report will ultimately bow to political will, the real decision likely made not on evidence, but on degrees of political advantage.

And yet, as former UK chief scientist John Beddington warned only last year, such short-term political opportunism that ignores science is doomed to disaster.

Beddington was speaking on genetically modified crops and climate change.

The difference here, is a gas company's ability to adhere to the findings of science, to assure the risk mitigation measures Justice Pepper proposes are undertaken. And that is open to serious question. Moreover, to suppose that the underfunded, undervalued and long-neglected bureaucracy charged with environmental regulation in the Territory could in any way hold a gas company to task on its practices is simply laughable. Scientific evidence is one thing, drilling crews and their equipment working for profit-hungry miners another.

Indeed, Justice Pepper's finding that risks can be mitigated is now being questioned by scientists and stakeholders alike. Meanwhile, gas prices keep ticking over.

The fight to stop fracking in the Territory is not over, and this week concerned citizens gather yet again for community hearings in Darwin, Katherine, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.

The purpose is to have one last say before the Inquiry finalises its final report on March 18. Don't be shy.

Topics:  fracking fracking inquiry gas glenn morrison have your say heartbeat northern territory