Fracking policies are wildly inconsistent across Australia, from gung-ho development to total bans

Hanabeth Luke, Southern Cross University; Martin Brueckner, Murdoch University, and Nia Emmanouil, Southern Cross University

Last week, the Western Australian Government lifted its state-wide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Unconventional gas industries were given the green light to develop on existing petroleum leases, especially in WA’s vast Kimberley region.

Following the Northern Territory government’s April decision to lift its temporary fracking ban, this decision paves the way for future growth of the industry across much of northern Australia.

Read more:
Australian gas: between a fracked rock and a socially hard place

Fracking policies vary widely across Australia’s states and territories, and so do community attitudes. Our review of the literature on unconventional gas development in Australia reveals an inconsistent approach in how governments have responded to the industry. While coal seam gas extraction has proceeded almost unimpeded in Queensland, the industry was halted in its tracks in Victoria, with a permanent ban on fracking legislated in March this year.

In the NT, despite an inquiry that acknowledged clear and widespread public opposition to fracking, the territory’s moratorium was lifted. In Tasmania, a moratorium is in place until 2025.

Unconventional gas development in New South Wales – despite pressing energy needs – has been protracted owing to growing community opposition towards fracking, with exclusion zones created near residential areas and industries such as wine-making and horse breeding.

The WA government’s decision to leave in place localised bans in the state’s most populated areas, while allowing fracking in existing petroleum tenements elsewhere, echoes the position taken by the South Australian government in September. The latter’s policy imposes a ten-year fracking ban in SA’s agriculturally rich southeast, while allowing the practice to continue in the northeast.

Balancing policy?

Labelled as a “clean” alternative to coal by industry, unconventional gas is presented as a key “transition” fuel, capable of delivering reliable, lower-emission electricity – a stepping stone along the path to zero-carbon energy. Our research suggests that this clean image is pivotal to public support for the industry.

The unconventional gas industry has been hailed as an economic lifeline for regional Australia. Justification for its growth into new regions is tied closely to the purported domestic “gas crisis”. Others predict that fracking for unconventional gas could have negative economic consequences.

Many affected communities continue to question the capacity of the industry to operate with low risk to health and the environment. In the Kimberley and across Australia, opposition to fracking simmers.

WA and SA exemplify efforts to strike a balance between the unconventional gas industry and concerned community members. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the effectiveness of attempts to secure fracking bans could relate to the political and economic muscle of affected communities. Our ongoing research seeks to analyse this development pattern.

Read more:
Fracking can cause social stress in nearby areas: new research

What are the real emissions?

The industry has argued that “fugitive emissions” of methane from Australian unconventional gas wells are relatively low. However, more recent studies warn that we may be underestimating the true climate risks of unconventional gas.

Indeed, Australia’s spike in greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to the expansion of unconventional gas production and exports. They underpinned a 13.7% increase in national fugitive greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to Australia recording its 15th consecutive quarter of greenhouse gas emission increases this year. These figures call into question Australia’s trajectory to meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

The impacts of rising greenhouse emissions are becoming increasingly visible and costly, in the form of more frequent violent storms, intense rainfall, drought and bushfires. Last week, the Victorian Labor Government was re-elected on the back of
strong climate policy. With 15,000 children walking out of school on Friday, the youth “climate strike” rallies attest to the strength of community feelings on climate action and the role of fracking in this context.

Future of fracking?

For state and territory leaders, the job of balancing gas industry interests with those of increasingly vocal communities is becoming more of a juggling act than ever before. With climate concerns intensifying, renewable energy supported by battery power appears a promising option for meeting regional development and energy needs. This has potential to gain widespread public support and create “green-collar” jobs while helping to reduce Australia’s emissions.

In contrast, a reliance on unconventional gas as an interim energy solution may “frack” more than just deep rock formations – but potentially communities, politics … and not least the climate.The Conversation

Hanabeth Luke, Lecturer, School of Environment, Science and Engineering, Southern Cross University; Martin Brueckner, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability, Murdoch University, and Nia Emmanouil, Research associate, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Australia’s right whales are recovering after whaling bans, but there are still worrying signs

Rob Harcourt

Every July southern right whales arrive in the sheltered inlets of southern Australia to breed. These endangered whales were severely depleted by whaling, with up to 150,000 killed between 1790 and 1980.

After more than a century of protection they are recovering well in parts of their range. Off south west Australia their numbers are increasing at nearly 7% each year. The population found in the New Zealand sub-Antarctic is also looking robust. But the population found in south east Australia and mainland New Zealand does not seem to be faring so well.

In a study published today in Nature Scientific Reports we looked at the migration routes of these whales, which may help explain why they have been so slow to recover.

Where do the whales go?

Southern right whales migrate between their breeding grounds off the coast of Australia and New Zealand and feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean.

For a long time we have suspected that these whales show fidelity to their breeding grounds, as individuals return each year to popular tourist sites such as The Head of the Bight in South Australia and to Warrnambool in Victoria. But where exactly they feed has remained a mystery.

For more than 20 years we have studied these whales using small skin biopsies. We looked at genetic evidence and analysis of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. Carbon isotopes provide an indication of where animals are feeding. Combined with genetic evidence, this provides clear insights into who is feeding where, and in part with whom.

We found evidence of genetic structure at both ends of the migratory network of southern right whales. That is animals showed high fidelity and bred within the same populations returning to familiar calving sites in Australia and New Zealand over many years. These animals also showed distinct separation when feeding in the southern ocean.

This suggests that whales that follow different migration routes belong to different subsets of the population, because if whales were moving between routes we would see more genetic mixing.

Migratory culture

Our data suggest that these whales pass on their migration routes culturally – particularly from mothers to their daughters.

Fidelity to migratory routes is widespread in the animal kingdom, from eels and the Sargasso Sea, through Pacific Salmon returning to spawn in only a single river catchment, the great migrations of the African savanna, to the annual migrations of the great whales.

In the marine environment returning to the place of your birth can have an enormous influence on population structure, and is important for assessing stocks of commercial species such as Pacific Salmon, as well as in conserving endangered species.

For long-lived animals, passing on knowledge of migration routes may be more successful than leaving offspring to fend for themselves. If behaviour is socially transmitted and then shared within subsets of a population, it is called culture.

Therefore, in species with long periods of parental care the transmission of parental preferences for breeding or feeding grounds to offspring is termed migratory culture.

Threatened by loyalty

Migratory culture could help explain why some populations of southern right whales are recovering and others aren’t.

When animals that show fidelity to a particular migratory destination are lost, the “memory” of that migratory destination is also lost. The effect is exacerbated when animals are lost across the migratory network, as was the case with whaling. These losses due to rapid reductions in populations can mean that safe havens may remain lost to a population for generations.

Migratory traditions can be a big advantage to long-lived animals by providing young with ready access to proven feeding areas and safe breeding habitat. But in a rapidly-changing environment, such as hat we face today, previously productive feeding grounds may become less productive.

Loyalty to their migration routes might then mean these animals are pushed back to the brink of extinction.

The Conversation

Rob Harcourt, Professor of Marine Ecology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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