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NLC Fracking submission supports Traditional Owners’ rights

Posted: Wed, July 02, 2014

NORTHERN Land Council Chief Executive, Joe Morrison, today launched the NLC submission to the NT Government’s Inquiry into hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

Mr Morrison, speaking from Darwin, described the document as providing a “thorough” look at how Traditional Owners can be supported to make informed decisions on their land about fracking proposals.

Mr Morrison said that the comprehensive submission to the NT Government’s Inquiry is “predicated on the NLC’s core role of facilitating sound, information-based decision-making by Aboriginal traditional owner groups”.

The submission has 17 specific recommendations and is compiled under six headings: Communication, Project Assessment and Regulation, Risk Assessment and Management, Water, Well-placement and Construction, and Well-closure and Abandonment.

The NLC has told the inquiry head, Dr Alan Hawke, that it does not hold an opinion on the merits (or otherwise) of hydraulic fracturing, and seeks only to ensure that its Aboriginal constituents are well-informed when they make decisions affecting their land.

The submission also highlights a number of issues that do not appear to have been considered in the Inquiry’s terms of reference, but the NLC says these should be carefully considered by the Inquiry.

*The NLC’s recommendations are reproduced below.
*The full submission can be downloaded here

NLC Recommendations to NT Government’s Hydraulic Fracturing Inquiry

1. Communication
Recommendation 1.1
In order to facilitate the dissemination of information on impacts and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing to Indigenous stakeholders and to enable NLC to properly administer free, prior and informed consideration of petroleum proposals, it is recommended that the following information is provided to the NLC in respect of petroleum developments on lands subject to the Native Title and Land Rights Acts:
• The total number of hydraulic fracturing events projected annually;
• The rate of growth in the number of hydraulic fracturing events projected annually (Northern Land Council submission Hydraulic Fracturing Inquiry Page 49)
• The density of wells and platforms, especially in relation to their proximity to water sources and environmentally/culturally sensitive areas;
• The proposed minimum acceptable distance between wells;
• The anticipated longevity of each well or platform;
• How individual companies, the industry, and industry regulators will manage the sequential abandonment and drilling of new wells to ensure that the risk of environmental fragmentation (and other environmental impacts) remains well managed and minimised;
• The chemicals used in well drilling and reservoir stimulation, and independent assessment of the risk such use of these chemicals may pose to environmental resources and human health. Such information should be provided prior to the use of these chemicals and for the specific purpose of consultations with affected peoples. (Section 3)

Recommendation 1.2
The Commissioner should recommend specific pathways for the dissemination of information arising from the Inquiry. (Section 4)

2. Project Assessment and Regulation
It is of relevance that the method of hydraulic fracturing makes it possible to access petroleum resources in the NT that would otherwise be inaccessible or uneconomic; the expansion of the industry would not occur at the same rate in the NT if hydraulic fracturing was not possible. Therefore it could be argued that any distinction between the growth of the petroleum industry and hydraulic fracturing as a technique for extracting the resource is unnecessarily restrictive. As a result, some of the recommendations below on assessment and regulation relate to rapidly expanding petroleum developments which are enabled by hydraulic fracturing (see Section 4).

Recommendation 2.1
It is recommended that the Commissioner provide the NT Government with specific and public advice on how to improve consideration of the cumulative and bioregional impacts of hydraulic fracturing into the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) assessment process (Section 4.1).

Recommendation 2.2
The outcomes of the Inquiry should be used to develop relevant and practical regulatory measures and standards that represent leading practice. This should include specific measures that become mandatory considerations in an Environmental Impact Assessment regime. Such a regime should include specific triggers for assessment not only of individual projects, but also assessment at a landscape scale to enable analysis of cumulative impacts where petroleum development is proposed and enabled by the technique of hydraulic fracturing (Section 4.1).

Recommendation 2.3
Strategic regional assessments should be undertaken with specific consideration of habitat fragmentation. This may occur as part of this inquiry, a subsequent inquiry, or a Cumulative Impact Assessment process (Section 4.4)

Recommendation 2.4
As stakeholders with key interests in potentially affected resources, Indigenous populations should be provided thorough consideration in Cumulative Impact Assessment processes. The inquiry should instigate further detailed consideration of broader socio-economic and cultural impacts of petroleum industry development in the NT, particularly those relevant to Aboriginal people (Section 4.4).

Recommendation 2.5
Until variables affecting well failure over long time periods are determined or better understood, a cautious approach (application of the precautionary principle) to the regulation Northern Land Council submission Hydraulic Fracturing Inquiry Page 51 and assessment of projects proposing extraction of oil and gas by conventional and unconventional means is warranted (Section 4.7b).

3. Risk Assessment and Management
Recommendation 3.1
Noting that equivalent or similar requirements currently exist within the NT government’s regulatory structure, the NLC raises the following risk management standards in the hope that they are preserved and/or enhanced as a result of the findings of this Inquiry:
• Subsurface mapping should be used in the initial stages of planning the well placement to identify possible faultlines or weaknesses within the geological formation. Avoidance of placing wells in high-risk areas will minimise the risk of fault stimulation resulting in new pathways for groundwater contamination (Section
4.5 );
• In order to effectively assess risks of contamination, baseline data of natural methane levels and signatures is required, as well as ongoing monitoring for additional contaminants entering the groundwater (Section 4.5);
• Baseline studies are needed to characterise groundwater quality and water chemistry and should be taken into account in the well design phase. Well design should provide detailed consideration of local groundwater conditions and geology. Consideration of locally specific risks and robust and responsive engineering should be monitored in each case by the appropriate regulatory agency (Section 4.5);
• Groundwater monitoring should be conducted before, during and after hydraulic fracturing operations. Data should be assessed by appropriate experts and independently reviewed (Section 4.7e).

Recommendation 3.2
In addition, NLC recommends that the following specific risk analysis and risk mitigation measures be implemented. Information arising should be made available to the NLC:
• Thorough risk assessment of the storage and disposal of potentially radioactive wastewater (Section 4.5).
Northern Land Council submission Hydraulic Fracturing Inquiry Page 52;
• Investigation into risks and impacts of injecting wastewater into abandoned wells under pressure poses to communities and water quality should be conducted (Section 4.5);
• The surface ‘produced’ water containment and treatment facilities should be constructed to the highest standard possible, particularly in the wet tropics where large volumes of surface runoff occur in the monsoon season. Closed containment systems (e.g. tanks) are preferable to open pit-type systems (Section 4.7e);
• The 1km minimum hydraulic fracturing depth imposed by the NT Government via the Petroleum Act should be reviewed wherever deeper groundwater resources are found (Section 4.5);

4. Water
Recommendation 4.1
To protect the interests of our constituents, NLC proposes:
• Further baseline modelling of regional groundwater resources be undertaken;
• A localised groundwater risk assessment be undertaken prior to each hydraulic fracturing activity being conducted; and,
• That wells not be located near bore fields, known aquifers and weak geological formations such as faults or fractures. (Section 4.5).

Recommendation 4.2
Reform of existing NT legislation and regulations should be designed to manage the potential impacts of unconventional gas development on the NT’s water resources. This includes bringing water use for hydraulic fracturing into the water allocation planning framework, in line with the National Water Initiative framework (Section 4.7c).

Recommendation 4.3
Priority should be given to comprehensive groundwater assessment and management planning in basins where water is extracted for unconventional gas operations (Section 4.7c). Northern Land Council submission Hydraulic Fracturing Inquiry Page 53.

5. Well Placement and Construction
Recommendation 5.1
Traditional owners and Land Councils should have opportunity to provide input into well placement, so as not to diminish traditional owners access to land for purposes of hunting, fishing and for recreational and spiritual purposes (Section 4.3).

Recommendation 5.2
The NLC recommends that the Commissioner provide specific advice pertaining to the standardisation of well plugs that promote long-term well integrity. The Commissioner should investigate whether it is practicable and potentially beneficial to require as minimum standard in the NT the use of sophisticated life-of-well cement formulations that react to annular influx of hydrocarbon and expand to fill gaps in cement (Section 4.7b).

Recommendation 5.3
The NT government should establish an enduring record of well locations in the NT, and this record should be shared with the Land Council (Section 4.7b).

6. Well Closure and Abandonment
Recommendation 6.1
The Inquiry should make public the outcomes of investigations into the following matters associated with well integrity. The rate of failure of new and abandoned onshore wells including:
• The variables contributing to those failures;
• The types of failures;
• The extent and types of environmental impacts caused by those failures;
• Measures implemented to address those failures;
• The success of those measures; and, furthermore, should instigate: Northern Land Council submission Hydraulic Fracturing Inquiry Page 54
• Ongoing-research into improving the safety and integrity of wells;
• Investigation into the ability of the Northern Territory’s regulations and capacity of its regulators to effectively manage and regulate failure of wells in the short-term;
• Investigation of the capacity of systems that have been put into place or are being developed by companies and government regulators to manage abandoned wells into the future. (Section 4.7k)

Recommendation 6.2
Abandonment plans from well operators should be made available to land holders. Any detected well failures should be reported and actions taken to remediate in a timely manner. The NT government should provide consideration to options for the management of medium and long term liabilities associated with abandoned and failing wells, including the option of a levy and/or a bond system (Section 4.7k).