When is extracting energy too environmentally expensive for our community?

Premier Barnett has recently been talking up Buru Energy PTY LTD extracting the unconventional gas trapped in the Canning Basin.  He sees this as the next big resource boom for the state, this comes as no surprise as land based gas extraction is subject to state royalties as opposed to federal for ocean based gas extraction.  However the environmental consequences of fracking the Canning Basin, which stretches from the Kimberly south into the arid outback, are significant.

On the one hand both fugitive and legacy carbon emissions would be catastrophic.  Almost a decade ago Jeremy Leggett asked why as a society we are surveying for more fossil fuels, because the known reserves (back then) were enough to “Cook the planet several times over”.  It follows those hell bent on finding and extracting as many fossil fuels as possible are also hell bent on cooking the planet in terms of global warming.  On the other hand, the Canning Basin is so called because it is the location of a huge artesian basin, supplying most of the water for northern WA.  So the second environmental disaster would the contamination and exploitation of one of Australia’s largest water reserves.

The Water Corporation has many bores in the Canning Basin and fears there is a high risk of contamination if fracking is allowed.  One of their major concerns is that resource companies are regulated by the Department of Mines and do not have a direct line to comply with the same environmental conditions that other businesses (including the Water Corporation) must when it comes to activities close to drinking water extraction points.  These protections include; initiating declared water reserves, well head protection zones, catchment management strategies, water safety plans and monitoring, surveillance and prosecutions.  If fracking of the Canning Basin goes ahead we can expect bores of around 2km deep and use 20 million litres of water per bore.  This water is contaminated with fracking chemicals (which are kept secret by the frackers) and comes out of the bore with the gas.  The water is then separated from the gas, dealing with this water is a major headache for frackers, if not contained properly has the potential to get back into the ground water with devastating consequences.

Yawuru traditional owners are also angry that there has been no real consultation with them prior to the State Government approving the extraction of gas from the Canning Basin in May this year.

When Jeremy Leggett first made his comments they were seen as radical, more of an ambit claim than anything to be taken too seriously.  Now we are experiencing the formative effects of global warming there are many climate scientists, environmentalists and members of the general public calling for some of the known fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground.  Ultimately the world will have to decide which reserves will have to have a moratorium on their extraction, or risk permanently changing the planetary conditions for the worse for untold generations to come.  Surely it makes sense to start that moratorium on fossil fuels that expose the planet to an environmental double whammy associated with not only global warming from their combustion, but also risks associated with their extraction.  Here I’m talking of fugitive and contamination risks from tar sands, contamination risks from deep-sea oil drilling and ground water contamination and wastage from gas fracking in artesian basins.

If Premier Barnett can be convinced to leave the gas in the canning basin our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will thank us for not being irresponsible with global warming, not contaminating valuable groundwater and of course leaving them some valuable fossil fuels, albeit fuels that will require technologies still to be invented to exploit safely.

Published in Fremantle Herald 6-7-13

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