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Environmental concern in mining debate

Posted: Wed, October 12, 2011

Much of the Northern Territory is now under application by companies seeking to use a production process known as high-pressure horizontal hydraulic fracturing to recover oil and gas from coal seams or from deep-seated shale deposits.

Many of these are situated over the major aquifers stretching between Katherine and the Queensland border.

Should these reach production, then tens of thousands of wells are likely to be constucted and cumulative environmental impacts on a regional level may occur.

Aboriginal peoples appreciate the economic prosperity that a viable on-shore oil and gas industry has to offer but are unwilling to entertain it if there are long-term and irreversible impacts to the environment and the natural resources it contains.

Recent reports, both from overseas and within Australia, indicate that using this process has resulted in serious adverse environmental impacts, mainly through elakage of introduced chemicals, gas and/or oil into potable water supplies.

Serious questions have been raised about the standard of legislation and monitoring that is being applied to the use of this technique.

This is creating great concern amongst Aboriginal peoples who are now being asked to enter into arrangements that place this critical natural resource at high risk of contamination both now and well into the future.

Consistent with experiences overseas, their major concerns include protection of the integrity and quality of water supplies and how chronic leakage from abandoned wells can be prevented in the face of seemingly ineffective regulatory and monitoring regimes.

It is of special concern that the resources industry in the Northern Territory is effectively self-regulating, creating a system similar to that which has contributed largely to the problems seen overseas with hydraulic fracturing.

The potential concentration of a large number of wells over major or interconnected aquifers creates a need for environmental impact assessment on a regional scale, but the ad-hoc systems of assessment that are currently in place in the Northern Territory do not tend to consuder cumulative impacts well.

Taken together, this creates a system of assessment, legislation and monitoring that contains a level of robustness far from what would appear to be required.

In response to these concerns, the Northern Land Council's technical experts are currently undertaking a thorough investigation of this process, how it is regulated and the potential for environmental impact in the short and long-term.

This will include a review of how it operates, how it affects a wide range of stakeholders overseas and what is being done to minimise impacts.

The report is due for completion by December 2011 and will provide a basis for the Northern Land Council's imput to discussions aimed at improving regulation and monitoring of the on-shore oil and gas industry in the Northern Territory.

Story: Kim Hill, CEO Northern Land Council