February 5, 2014

When former Howard Government minister Peter Reith completed a review of the gas market for the Victorian Government last October, he urged his home state to embrace the significant benefits of a local onshore gas industry and reject the scaremongering of green activists.

“I have seen many scare campaigns in my time in politics but this particular campaign has been allowed to run for far too long and will have adverse repercussions for living standards and jobs,” he warned in an online opinion piece.

Reith’s warning could just as easily be applied to the Kimberley, potentially one of world’s largest sources of natural gas from shale rocks with enough according to some estimates to meet WA’s current domestic needs for 470 years.

In a region desperate for jobs and investment, the potential economic and social benefits of shale gas are enormous. However, companies keen to develop the Canning Basin’s rich potential are facing an increasingly desperate scare campaign by radical green groups who see safe, clean and abundant natural gas as a threat to their quixotic dreams of a future powered solely by sun and wind.

Let’s be clear – these activists, among them members of the Australian Conservation Foundation, will say and do anything to smear the gas industry, which employs tens of thousands of Western Australians and contributes billions of dollars every year to the WA economy.

Consider recent social media comments by one of the ACF’s board members, Piers Verstegen. When a collapsed power line ignited a bushfire that swept through the Perth hills last month Verstegen rushed to tell his Facebook friends that families who had lost their homes were “victims of the fossil fuel industry.” He went on to suggest: “The act of deliberately profiting from climate pollution should be prosecuted in the same way we prosecute deliberate acts of arson.”

So, a senior member off the ACF, someone who is closely aligned with the anti-gas campaign in the Kimberley, wants gas producers and, presumably, power companies petrol station proprietors and anyone else he considers part of the fossil fuel industry to be locked away like criminals.

This is the sort of ideology that is driving the scare campaign in the Kimberley. And just as Peter Reith observed in Victoria, the anti-gas campaign here in the west centres on hydraulic fracturing – the injection of pressurised water-based fluid deep into the ground to create a network of tiny fissures in impermeable rock formations. This releases the natural gas trapped in the formations and allows it to flow to production wells.

It’s a practice that has already been used successfully here in WA with around 750 wells safely “fracced” since the 1950’s. Worldwide, more than 2.5 million wells have been fracced in the past 65 years including more than one million in the United States. Most importantly, nowhere in the world has hydraulic fracturing been identified as the cause of groundwater pollution.

But a lack of evidence is no deterrent to the anti-gas movement which continues to base its arguments on the 2010 ‘documentary’ Gasland and other discredited sources such as Anthony Ingraffea, a US academic who is well-known for his anti-gas advocacy and activism and whose research has drawn significant criticism from US government regulators and his fellow academics.

Here in Australia, fraccing in shale rock formations like those that occur in the Kimberley has been intensively scrutinised by the highly-respected Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA). Last June, it released a comprehensive report (peer reviewed by the CSIRO) which found: “The evidence suggests that, provided appropriate monitoring programs are undertaken and a robust and transparent regulatory regime put in place (and enforced), there will be a low risk that shale gas production will result in contamination of aquifers, surface waters or the air, or that damaging induced seismicity will occur.”

Western Australians can be confident that any shale gas exploration and production in their state will be regulated by the sort of “robust and transparent” regime called for by ACOLA. In 2011, the Barnett Government appointed respected petroleum lawyer Dr Tina Hunter to review the regulation of shale and tight gas activities and has moved quickly to implement her recommendations.

The oil and gas industry is committed to an open and honest dialogue with communities where fraccing may potentially occur. Community leaders in the Kimberley, however, are voicing concern at attempts by green groups to hijack the debate in an effort to confuse and frighten local residents. Last month, the chair of the Yawuru native title group accused green groups misleading traditional owners.

The stakes are high for the Kimberley and for WA. At risk is an industry with the potential to transform regional economies, reduce greenhouse emissions, provide much-needed revenue for governments and increase WA’s long-term energy security.

WA and the Kimberley must say no to the anti-gas scare campaign.

Stedman Ellis is APPEA’s Chief Operating Officer – Western Region. This blog post was originally published in The West Australian, p18, Thursday, 6 February