WITH gas exploration ramping up on exploration licences in Western Australia's Mid West, local communities, farmers and activist groups are concerned there will be nothing to stop energy companies from using hydraulic fracturing in the future if unconventional gas resources are found within the area.
When a hydraulic fracking moratorium was lifted on existing petroleum titles in WA in November 2018, 98 per cent of the State was left protected from fracking, while the controversial mining process was legalised within the remaining two per cent of the State, covering areas in the Kimberley, Wheatbelt and Mid West.
The decision came after a 12-month inquiry, led by Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) chairman Tom Hatton and commissioned by the McGowan government.
A total of 44 recommendations were made to tighten regulations, including no fracking to be allowed within two kilometres of public drinking water sources, all projects to include EPA assessment, an enforceable code of practice and no fracking within two kilometres of towns and dwellings.
However with 15 operators actively exploring for oil and gas in 23 exploration permits in the Perth Basin and the hydraulic fracturing ban area only affecting four titles in the southern Perth Basin, some locals are concerned the extraction method may be used down the track once gas prices improve, if unconventional gas resources are found.
ASX-listed oil and natural gas exploration and production company, Beach Energy's plans to undertake a 97,000 hectare 3D seismic survey (Zemira) in the area has been met by some opposition from local residents.
The surveys, which are looking for gas, will stretch across the shires of Irwin, Three Springs, Mingenew and Carnamah.
A Beach Energy spokesperson told Farm Weekly the company had been engaging relevant shires in the region over the past six months, even though the survey was more than 18 months away.
"Beach prides itself on working within the stringent conditions set by regulatory bodies across Australia, including Western Australia and has no plans to conduct fracture stimulation activities (fraccing) in the region," the company spokesperson said.
However Lock the Gate Alliance spokeswoman Simone Van Hattem said the group remained sceptical.
"The surveys may be searching for conventional gas, but if unconventional resources are found there will be nothing to stop fracking occurring down the track, once prices inevitably improve," Ms Van Hattem said.
"It's been a problem with a lot of companies which claim they are looking for conventional gas, but don't rule out fracking and we know there is tight and shale gas there.
"There have already been exploration fracks in the area and the companies couldn't do much more without needing to frack, so that's exactly why the government lifted the moratorium there.
"If there was a lot of gas that could be taken out without fracking they would have done it by now, as fracking is a much more expensive method."
Ms Van Hattem said the organisation believed some of the oil and gas companies exploring in the Mid West had altered the wording on their websites.
"Some of the companies have actually removed the word 'tight' from their documents since we pointed out that word was mentioned - we know Strike Energy definitely did that," Ms Van Hattem said.
"Now companies are trying to say it's just sandstone or it's not 'as tight'."
Strike Energy made a significant conventional gas discovery in the Perth Basin in August 2019, which will be developed as the West Erregulla Project.
The company's managing director, Stuart Nicholls, said they would not be fracking in the Perth Basin.
"Strike is targeting deep, conventional gas sources that do not require hydraulic fracturing to be produced," Mr Nicholls said.
"Gas from this discovery had been contracted to Wesfarmers and could ultimately be used in the local production of fertiliser for WA's farmers.
"We have further appraisal drilling planned for later this year and ongoing exploration activities planned over 2021."
With the EPA announcing it would hold a public review over Beach Energy's seismic surveys in the area in April, Lock the Gate Alliance WA co-ordinator Jarrad Thomas said the organisation strongly welcomed the decision.
"People power has been successful here in ensuring the EPA's assessment of this massive gas survey across the Mid West region is open to public comment and review," Mr Thomas said.
"The public deserves the most complete information possible on what the gas companies are targeting here and how local communities will be impacted."
Out of 358 submissions in response to the Beach Energy plan, 350 of those called for a public review.
Irwin farmer Rod Copeland said locals were concerned about the impacts of the seismic testing on farm biosecurity and the spread of dieback.
"I can take you to different positions in paddocks on the farm next door where thumper trucks have worked during previous seismic operations and the indent in the soil would still be there and this work was carried out in early 2012," Mr Copeland said.
"Compaction of soil doesn't occur at the surface - it's about one metre down where the worst compaction happens and it can cause problems in your paddocks well into the future unless they are rehabilitated by deep ripping below one metre to remove them."
With about 1000 hectares of vegetation to be cleared for the seismic surveys, Mr Copeland said he was also concerned about the impact the surveys would have on the native bushland.
"They use the word 'temporary' for the bushland clearing - but I don't know how you temporarily clear 1000 hectares of bushland," he said.
"The end result could be very good, but I do know that they don't like completing rehabilitation and especially when it means spending dollars.
"You only have to look at what happened up on the Canning Stock Route with the company up there that fracked a well and then went broke - there is a bill for taxpayers for more than $60 million to clean the site up.
"Even on conventional gas wells, there is no guarantee they will clean the site up, so they should be made to lodge a considerable sum of money as surety with the government through an account for rehabilitation - I mean mining companies have to do it, why not the oil and gas industry."
Mr Copeland, who has one plugged and abandoned hydraulically stimulated fractured well on his property and lives within 1km of an operational slick water hydraulically fractured well, said he lived closer to a fracked well than anyone else in WA.
"We've had two sites on our farm and we are still in discussion about the final rehabilitation of our property," Mr Copeland said.
"There is a disused hydraulically stimulated-fracked well by the major oil and gas company operating in the area, which has been abandoned - but that doesn't change the status of that well - within 300 metres of my house.
"That well will remain fracked and an ever increasing threat to our water supply, as the underground salts destroy the steel column."
However Mr Copeland said the most significant concern for locals was that the data from the survey would be used to facilitate fracking in the area later on.
He said we need to look 30 years down the track, suggesting the gas companies would have made their money in 20 years and no longer be around.
"It's not who was here first, it's who will have to be here after to pick up the pieces and endeavour to correct the environmental contamination that will most likely be present for many generations after,'' Mr Copeland said.
"Contamination issues arise wherever the oil and gas industry establishes itself and this will be no different."
As the owner of a horticultural farm, Mr Copeland said water was his most important resource.
"We can't have a business without it, but a lot of these farmers are broadacre farmers who are making these decisions - but it will affect everyone if it contaminates the water aquifers, because contamination doesn't recognise a boundary fence," he said
"They say they frack the producing zones at about 5000 metres, but the shallowest well fracked here in the Irwin basin was Dongara-24 at 1451m.
"The companies say there is a big difference between coal seam gas (CSG) and tight and shale gas - but the main difference is with CSG they have to pump the water out to release the gas, whereas with tight or shale gas, they use the water to extract the gas."
Mr Copeland said he was waiting on regulations from the State government, due out by December 2020, for new protocols on entry onto private property.
"I would encourage all landowners who are under pressure from oil and gas companies to resist their overtures until clarification on new access and compensation agreements are released," he said.
Having been involved in the consultative process with AWE Limited (acquired by Mitsui & Co. Ltd in May 2018) for their seismic work in the Shire of Irwin prior to the Waitsia Gas project getting started, Mr Copeland said he had some insight into how the companies operated.
"All of the farmers here got together and had collective meetings and I went as an observer, because they were never going to be back onto my place,'' he said.
"My belief is that no matter how much is offered, it will not compensate for all that has to be given up and especially the devaluation of the property.
"At least through the Public Environmental Review, we can learn more about the nature of the resources the company is targeting, as well as the direct impacts of the clearing and thumper trucks."
A Beach Energy spokesperson said following the survey, rehabilitation of the area would be monitored by experienced environmental specialists annually and compared against a set of completion criteria pre-determined in consultation with relevant authorities.
Mr Nicholls said Strike Energy had been listening to farmers and consulting with those whose land they would possibly need access to.
"We have excellent relationships with our fellow landholders and our surveys will be conducted under strict environmental conditions as determined by WA's environmental regulator," Mr Nicholls said.
Many communities in and around Beach Energy's proposed gas survey have declared themselves fracking gasfield free, including Bonfield (just north of Dongara), Carnamah, Coorow and the Shire of Gingin.
"It's a strong moral stance that brings the community together as a political action," Ms Van Hattem said.
"Generally the results have been 90-95 per cent of people want to stop it and that gets taken to local councillors and MPs and signs get put up in the community so that the companies and politicians know when they're driving through that it isn't wanted.
"Carnamah has a policy about fracking in its extractive industries policy and Three Springs expressed concern to the WA Local Government Association (WALGA).
"The Mayor of Geraldton Shane Van Styn voted to oppose fracking within the city boundaries and they wrote to the State government to do that.
"So the more councils that do that - the more pressure it puts on the State government as well."
Speaking to the presidents of the Shires of Mingenew, Three Springs and Irwin, all three said Strike Energy and Beach Energy had confirmed they were only looking for conventional gas and had no intention to frack.
Three Springs Shire president Chris Lane said all they could do was hold them to their word.
"If it falls within the guidelines of the development and the exploration permits that they have, then they are able to do what they are legally able to do out there," Ms Lane said.
"They are at the end of our shire, so the impact would be quite minimal for our residents, but I just hope they are good corporate citizens and if they are going to have a long-term presence in the area, they support our communities."
Irwin Shire president Michael Smith said the shire's position was neutral on fracking and it was supportive of the State government's independent scientific inquiries.
He said the shire was not concerned about the environmental impacts of Beach Energy's 3D seismic survey and the impact on local farmers' operations.
"A stringent management program was highlighted to the shire, which had been developed in consultation with local farmers and uses the latest modern technology with lower impact equipment," Mr Smith said.
"An example of the consultation with the farmers is that the seismic survey work is seasonal so as not to interfere with farming activities.
"The State government issues gas exploration permits and the shire has no legislative powers with respect to these permits, but the shire will continue to be informed and liaise with these companies on a regular basis, as it has done in the past."
The Nationals WA MP for Moore, Shane Love, who has been vocal in his opposition to fracking over the years, said that oil and gas was a sunset industry and that the companies which wished to undertake fracking had no social licence to operate.
"For years I've been asking oil and gas companies which want to frack - 'what are the economic returns for the local community?' - and the result has been crickets," Mr Love said.
"So why would local people want to support an industry which seems to offer them very little?
"I think had there been a marriage of development of industry with development of gas in my electorate, then people may have listened, but it's never been proposed that we'd see any meaningful development in the area.
"All that we're left with are a few holes with rusty caps on tops which will be there for thousands of years."
Mr Love said in the current environment, gas that required the added cost of fracking would be sure to face significant economic challenges.
"I think economically it doesn't make any sense, the price of gas now will probably go negative again and oil reserves are completely full and I know that is short-term, but it's not indicating there's a pent-up level of demand for it," he said.
Mr Copeland said that with all of the renewable and clean energy now available, there was no need for the controversial practice of fracking to continue.
"The government has encouraged them to go in and look for this gas, because they have this fixation that we need gas, but we don't - there is a world oversupply and prices are cheap, so we shouldn't put our water at risk because it's irreplaceable," Mr Copeland said.
Mr Love said the environmental impacts of gas fracking in the Perth Basin looked likely to remain mostly theoretical for the foreseeable future, as long as cheaper gas was readily available in WA.
"At the end of the day, it's pretty clear that the world isn't going to use all of the oil and gas that's available, so there is no need to suck the last molecule of gas out by whatever intrusive method you can find because the world doesn't bloody need it," Mr Love said.
"I'm sure we will be moving beyond gas and oil."
- If you would like to know more about Beach or Strike Energy's operations in the Perth basin, visit beachenergy.com.au/perth-basin or https://strikeenergy.com.au/perth-basin/
FARM Weekly journalist Bree Swift conducted a Q&A session with the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety deputy director general Phil Gorey on fracking, some of the different types of gas and the various methods required to extract them.
Q: What is the simple definition of fracking?
A: Hydraulic fracture stimulation, also referred to as "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking"/"fraccing", is an underground petroleum extraction process that involves the injection of fluids under high pressure into low permeability rock to induce fractures to increase the rock's permeability.
This term is as defined in the Petroleum and Geothermal Energy Resources (Hydraulic Fracturing) Regulations 2017.
The process is usually associated with "unconventional resources" such as shale formations.
Q: When is fracking required and what are the effects of the process?
A: Hydraulic Fracturing is required to extract natural gas from underground rocks with low permeability, such as shale and tight sandstone.
The effect of the process is to increase the permeability of low permeability rocks to enhance the flow and extraction of natural gas that would otherwise not be accessible.
Q: What is shale and tight gas, how do they differ from one another and what are the methods required to extract each type of gas?
A: Shale gas is natural gas trapped in shale rock.
These shales are an organically-rich sedimentary rock formed of very fine-grained, or small, particles, such as clay, that have been compacted to form a layered rock.
Shale can be rich sources of oil and natural gas.
Tight gas is natural gas trapped in subsurface sandstone formations with very low permeability.
Tight gas formations are generally more permeable than shale gas formations.
Shale gas and tight gas resources are typically found between 2000 and 4000 metres underground.
Due to the low permeability of shale and tight gas resources, hydraulic fracturing is often required to extract natural gas from such reservoirs.
Fluids are pumped under high pressure into a petroleum well to create fractures in the rock deep underground to enable the flow of the gas resource to the surface.