Submissions on the background and issues paper are due by 30 April 2017. 

The independent Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing of onshore unconventional reservoirs in the Northern Territory has commenced its hearings and community meetings after releasing a background and issues paper for feedback. Submissions can be made on the background and issues paper by 30 April 2017.

On 20 February 2017 the Background and Issues Paper was released as part of the Inquiry to facilitate a discussion between the Panel and Territorians about the Terms of Reference by identifying the potential risks of the hydraulic fracturing of onshore unconventional shale reservoirs and its associated activities in the Northern Territory.

The Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing

On 14 September 2016 a moratorium on new hydraulic fracturing for exploration or extraction in the Northern Territory commenced and the Northern Territory Government announced that the future of hydraulic fracturing in the Northern Territory would be determined by an independent scientific inquiry.

This is not the first moratorium or inquiry in relation to hydraulic fracturing in Australia (or, in fact, the Northern Territory). We have already seen Parliamentary inquiries in Western Australia and South Australia; in Tasmania a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing is in place until March 2020 and in Victoria, after its own Parliamentary inquiry and moratorium, legislation was passed earlier this month to permanently ban all unconventional onshore gas exploration in Victoria.

In 2015, the Independent Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory delivered its report on hydraulic fracturing, making a series of recommendations that had largely been adopted by the Government, prior to the current moratorium and inquiry.

These various Parliamentary inquiries across Australia have been largely driven by community concern, spurred on by activist groups such as the "Lock the Gate" alliance. Previous reports delivered as a result of the Western Australian and Northern Territory inquiries have noted that hydraulic fracturing has invoked an emotional debate around Australia, with community distrust of the industry becoming apparent.

The final Terms of Reference for the Northern Territory Inquiry and the Panel members were announced on 6 December 2016. We previously considered the terms of the moratorium and both the draft and final Terms of Reference for the Inquiry.

The Inquiry Panel is now seeking feedback from the community and stakeholders on the potential risks, or issues, that the Panel has identified in its Background and Issues.

Background and Issues Paper to the fracking inquiry

Essentially, the Background and Issues Paper:

  • provides background information about hydraulic fracturing, including the basic facts, the differences between conventional gas and unconventional gas, coal seam gas and shale gas, and the location of prospective shale gas reservoirs in the Northern Territory;
  • provides an overview of prior reports that have been produced in relation to hydraulic fracturing in the Northern Territory;
  • provides an overview of the current regulatory framework for hydraulic fracturing and the petroleum industry in the Northern Territory; and
  • lists the potential risks, or issues, associated with hydraulic fracturing for onshore shale gas in the Northern Territory.

The first Term of Reference requires the Panel to “assess the scientific evidence to determine the nature and extent of the environmental impacts and risks, including the cumulative impacts and risks, associated with hydraulic fracturing of unconventional reservoirs and the Associated Activities in the Northern Territory”. This will involve the Panel:

  • identifying the risks, or issues, associated with hydraulic fracturing, its associated activities, and any unconventional shale gas industry; and
  • determining the nature and extent, or "level", of those risks.

The Panel has formed a list of potential risks, or issues, which it considers relevant to the Inquiry having regard to the submissions that the Northern Territory Government received on the draft Terms of Reference for the Inquiry, categorised into nine themes:

  1. water;
  2. land;
  3. air;
  4. public health;
  5. impacts on Aboriginal people and their culture;
  6. social impacts;
  7. economic impacts;
  8. land access; and
  9. regulatory framework.

What next?

Written submission to the Panel on the potential risks, or issues, identified in Background and Issue can be made up until 30 April 2017.

The first stage of community consultation in the major centres of Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin, including the Darwin rural area concluded on 10 March 2017. The second stage of community consultation will occur in a number of communities between 20-29 March 2017.

Following the community consultation program in March 2017, it is understood that the timetable for the Inquiry is:

  • mid-2017: Panel releases an Interim Report summarising the feedback received by the Panel on the Background and Issues Paper;
  • July-August 2017: public hearings in Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs and remote communities;
  • October 2017: Panel releases draft Final Report;
  • November 2017: briefings in Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs and remote communities; and
  • December 2017: Panel provides its Final Report to the Northern Territory Government.