When a new extractive industry – particularly one as large, unproven and controversial as fracking – moves in to an area of high conservation value, you would think it would warrant a detailed examination and thorough assessment by the state government's environment protection agency. Apparently not in Western Australia in 2014.
WA's Environment Minister, Albert Jacob, has just dismissed 48 appeals to the decision of the state's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to allow Buru Energy to proceed with its large scale fracking program upstream from the National Heritage listed West Kimberley region without any formal environmental assessment.
Environment Minister Jacob has formally handballed the approval process to the Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) – the very department charged with ensuring the viability and profitability of the mining industry, rather than enforcing environmental standards. The conflict of interest is clear for all to see.
Buru Energy has a poor track record, failing to follow even the DMP's regulatory conditions. Advice to the Minister recommends all Buru's relevant environmental monitoring information be made available in a timely manner to the DMP, as well as on its website. Yet earlier this year Buru refused to release its chemical risk assessment. The issue only became public after a parliamentary question about Buru's overflowed retention ponds.
Meanwhile Buru continues to wage a large scale PR campaign, spruiking the safety and viability of fracking. Its one-sided consultation and 'science' presentations have included community forums, an advertising blitz in local newspapers, as well as presentations in Broome high schools, angering parents and public education watchers.
Following Minister Jacob's decision this week, all public avenues to appeal against Buru's fracking plans appear closed. The state government is pushing the project ahead with unseemly haste. A WA parliamentary inquiry into the implications of hydraulic fracturing for unconventional gas has not even been able to report its findings to the state parliament.
As the Federal government tries to unload national environmental approval power onto the states, in the name of cutting 'green tape', the states let departments of mines handle the approvals. Green tape is replaced with a rubber stamp. Tony Abbott's one stop shop for environmental approvals is starting to look more like a drive-through service staffed by the Department of Mines and Petroleum.
There is no doubt the process of fracking, or, more properly, hydraulic fracturing, is highly controversial. The process is currently banned in Victoria and France, and according to one of its early developers, Professor Anthony Ingraffea, involves an extremely energy intensive and extreme method of extraction. "In short, these techniques leak. You're producing more fossil fuels and the dirtiest fossil fuel at a time when we need to be cutting back, urgently," Prof Ingraffea said.
This is particularly alarming when one considers that the planned fracking would be occurring upstream from one of the most iconic and fragile natural ecosystems in Australia – the heritage listed West Kimberley.
To take the longer view, such shoddy process ultimately damages the companies themselves as well as the integrity of the state governments. Without proper assessment from an environmental agency the companies do not have anything resembling a true social licence to operate. Loss of social licence is lack of security and leads to shareholder loss of confidence.
As we witnessed in the case of the now abandoned gas hub project at James Price Point, Woodside and the WA Government suffered a huge setback when they tried to push through a controversial project via a flawed approvals process. Buru should take heed from that sorry chapter – if the government won't act responsibly the case is likely to be resolved through protracted court battles, years down the track.
If Buru wants to move into this place we love, then it's not unreasonable that its plans be reviewed by the only state department mandated to protect our environmental – the Environmental Protection Agency.
For the WA Environment Minister Albert Jacob not to insist on this layer of assessment, despite considerable public concern about the issue, is a denial of essential environmental process. The Kimberley region deserves much better.
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