Australia’s Significant Investment into Understanding Onshore Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing

The recent removal of moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing and onshore drilling in the Northern Territory and Western Australia is a direct result of the significant investment Australian governments have made in reviewing the process and impacts of hydraulic fracturing using the best expert and scientific advice.

Since 2011, 14 separate inquiries and investigations have been conducted in Australia into differing aspects of onshore gas activities. These inquiries and investigations have allowed governments to better understand the science and technology of onshore gas and use of hydraulic fracturing, measure the potential social, health, safety, economic and environmental risks, and form recommendations around industry regulation and ensuring best practice into the future.

Specifically, these inquiries include:

  1. Australian Senate Committee. The impact of mining coal seam gas on the management of the Murray Darling Basin (November 2011)
  2. NSW Legislative Council Inquiry. General Purpose Standing Committee Report no. 35 (May 2012)
  3. National Assessment of Chemicals Associated with CSG Extraction (July 2012)
  4. Victorian Gas Market Taskforce. Final report and recommendations (November 2013)
  5. NSW Chief Scientist. Final report of the independent review of CSG in NSW (September 2014)
  6. Northern Territory. Allan Hawke AC. Independent inquiry into hydraulic fracturing (November 2014)
  7. Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. Review of hydraulic fracturing in Tasmania (February 2015)
  8. Victorian Auditor General. Unconventional gas: Managing risks and impacts (August 2015)
  9. Australian Parliamentary Select Committee on Unconventional Gas Mining (November 2015)
  10. SA Parliamentary Committee. Natural Resources Committee. Inquiry into unconventional gas (November 2015)
  11. WA Legislative Council. Standing Committee on the Environment and Planning. Inquiry into the implications for WA of hydraulic fracturing for unconventional gas (November 2015)
  12. Victorian Legislative Council. Environment and Planning Committee. Inquiry into onshore unconventional gas in Victoria (December 2015)
  13. NT Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory (March 2018)
  14. WA Independent Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracture Stimulation (November 2018)

The independent scientific inquiries have allowed Australia to build on its many decades of experience in hydraulic fracturing and onshore drilling, and the accompanying technical literature already in existence.

In the Cooper Basin, in north east South Australia and south west Queensland, more than 1,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured since first stimulation took place in 1969 with no negative impacts identified on water resources or the environment.

In Western Australia, hydraulic fracturing commenced over 60 years ago, with more than 600 wells having undergone hydraulic fracture stimulation in that time. WA’s Government placed a state-wide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in 2017 and lifted it on existing petroleum titles in September 2019 after considering the findings of its Independent Scientific Panel Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracture Stimulation in Western Australia.

In its final report, the Inquiry’s expert panel said:

‘Overall, the findings support a broad conclusion that the international standards for the design, construction and operation of an individual petroleum well (incorporating hydraulic fracture stimulation) if properly executed and located, generally limit risks to the environment and people to a low level.’

It added: ‘Documented cases of groundwater contamination resulting from well integrity failure are few, linking potential contamination to potential harm is contentious when many of the reported cases involve the leakage of methane (as opposed to hydraulic fracturing fluids), which is not toxic under normal circumstances.’

In the Northern Territory, hydraulic fracturing has been used in onshore production since 1967. A moratorium on hydraulic fracturing of onshore unconventional reservoirs was announced in September 2016. Like WA, the Territory’s Government had commissioned a Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory, which was released in April 2018, and prompted the removal of the ban on hydraulic fracturing in the Territory, albeit under strict conditions, and adherence to the Inquiry’s 135 recommendations.

The Territory’s Chief Minister Michael Gunner said: ‘The independent scientific report into hydraulic fracturing found that risks could be mitigated if all the recommendations of their report were implemented. This implementation plan is a comprehensive response to these recommendations. We will be making sure that any fracking that occurs ensures our unique natural environment is protected and creates local jobs.’

In the Northern Territory, onshore gas drilling began in October 2019 at the first of two new exploratory gas wells in the Beetaloo Basin.

The number of inquiries and the expert personnel involved will ensure that the highest standard of regulations and best practice are in place to safeguard our environment. Simultaneously, Australia will benefit from the job and economic opportunities provided by the onshore natural gas sector.

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