THE Northern Territory Government has announced that New South Wales' Justice Rachel Pepper will chair an independent scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracturing of onshore unconventional reservoirs in the NT.
Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Lauren Moss made the announcement last week when she also released the details of the terms of reference the 11-member inquiry panel will be guided by.
Ms Moss also said the government had broadened the scope of the inquiry following consideration of the public submissions received during the consultation phase on the draft terms of reference.
She said the scope of the inquiry had been broadened to include consideration of other activities that were associated with hydraulic fracturing, such as water acquisition and treatment of waste water.
"Members of the chosen expert panel have combined scientific experience of over 300 years in disciplines such as water, geology, ecology, health, sociology and engineering - we are extremely fortunate to have such an eminent panel of experts to oversee such an important process of evidence gathering and community consultation,” Ms Moss said.
"This multi-disciplinary science-based approach to a hydraulic fracturing inquiry, supported by such a diverse composition of panel expertise, is a first of its kind in Australia.”
The broadening of the scope of the terms of reference was roundly welcomed by stakeholder groups who had been vocal in their opposition to the draft terms of reference.
However, groups have expressed concerns about the composition of the inquiry panel.
Lauren Mellor, from Frack Free NT, said there appeared to be the potential for a conflict of interest with some members.
"The independence of the panel is paramount to gaining community trust, but there do appear to be a number of panellists who have worked for the unconventional gas industry, which may create some perceived conflicts of interest,” Ms Mellor said.
"Pastoralists and indigenous communities have raised concerns about the lack of panellists and expertise that understand the risks that industrial gas fields pose to their interests in lands.
"The panel is also notably lacking economic expertise.
"The inquiry commits to a cost-benefit analysis but does not seem to have the skills to deliver it, and therefore can't properly assess the impacts of gas fields on other sectors like tourism or agriculture or the consequences of the current over-supply in global gas markets.
"We're concerned that the overall balance is not right on the expert panel, although we welcome the calibre of the chair in Justice Pepper.”
Traditional Owners from the Western Arnhem Land region said the NT Government's updated terms of reference for the inquiry was an improvement from the draft, but they were disappointed there was no requirement for the panel to visit Arnhem Land.
Uncle Eddie Mason, who is a Traditional Owner from around the Maningrida region, made a statement on behalf of the group Protect Arnhem Land.
"We clearly asked in our submission that the government come to Maningrida and talk to us before they finalise the fracking inquiry plan, and that they bring interpreters to make sure we understand each other properly,” he said.
"Our whole community is surrounded by proposals for gas fields but they don't even have to come out here and talk to us.
"We wanted to see indigenous knowledge on this panel. We are the custodians of our country and we need our knowledge respected.
"We can't understand why that knowledge has been left off this panel. We understand water in this country, we understand the springs and the floods, and we know that fracking will put that all at risk.”
Pastoralist Colin Ross, from North Star Pastoral, also welcomed the revamped terms of reference and the appointment of Justice Pepper, but he was critical of the whole make-up of the panel.
"Whilst the terms of the inquiry have been improved, I am disappointed there is no expert on the panel with a deep knowledge and understanding of the pastoral sector.
"The proof of the pudding will be in the eating - we need to see the inquiry comprehensively examine all the aspects of the shale gas sector and its potential impacts on the cattle industry.
"Both what happens on top of the ground and how we are treated, as well as below it,” Mr Ross said.
The Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association CEO Tracey Hayes welcomed the release of the expert panel and terms of reference for the inquiry.
"The Northern Territory Government appears to have listened to community concerns and is taking this inquiry seriously,” Ms Hayes said.
"By appointing a high calibre, multidisciplinary group of specialists with a comprehensive terms of reference, we hope this inquiry will cut through to the issues that really matter for the future of our industry and future generations of Territorians.
"The NTCA does not support industries or activities which in any way threaten the integrity and future of our people, land, water, livestock, environment or markets.
"This is not negotiable and many of the questions and uncertainty our industry is experiencing in relation to fracking must be dealt with.”
Ms Hayes said everyone had been focused on fracking, but it was just one process in a much wider set of issues and challenges in relation to oil, gas and resource exploration on the land.
"The challenges to our industry start from the moment permits are issued to an exploration company in a government office in Darwin to managing the legacy of resource companies long after they have gone,” Ms Hayes said.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.