The final terms of reference and expert panel have been announced for the Independent Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory, with the moratorium on fracking to remain in place for the term of the Inquiry.  

On 3 December 2016, the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Lauren Moss announced the final Terms of Reference and the Panel members for the independent scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracturing of onshore unconventional reservoirs and associated activities in the Northern Territory.

Finalising the draft Terms of Reference

We previously examined the draft Terms of Reference for the Inquiry which were open for public consultation until 13 October 2016. It is understood that the final Terms of Reference have been broadened in response to key issues raised in public submissions to include the following:

  • consideration of those activities which are associated with hydraulic fracturing, such as water acquisition, impact on groundwater use and the reuse, treatment and release of wastewater;
  • consideration of the impacts and risks of the development of the onshore unconventional gas industry, including exploration activities such as seismic surveys and aerial surveys, land access and costs and benefits of the industry, which may be undertaken through a social impact assessment or similar activity; and
  • recommendation of a process for identifying priority areas for no go zones and will consider the economic, cultural and social impacts and risks of the onshore unconventional gas industry more broadly.

The Government's response to the key issues raised in the draft Terms of Reference can be found on the Government's website.

Final Terms of Reference

The final Terms of Reference are that the Inquiry will:

1. 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 [1]in the Northern Territory;

2. advise on the nature of any knowledge gaps and additional work or research that is required to make the determination in Item 1, including a program for how such work or research should be prioritised and implemented, that includes (but is not limited to);

a. baseline surface water and groundwater studies,

b. baseline fugitive emissions data,

c. geological and fault line mapping, and

d. focus areas for baseline health impact assessment,

3. for every environmental risk and impact that is identified in Item 1, advise the level of environmental impact and risk that would be considered acceptable in the Northern Territory context;

4. for every environmental risk and impact that is identified in Item 1,

a. describe methods, standards or strategies that can be used to reduce the impact or risk; and

b. advise whether such methods, standards or strategies can effectively and efficiently reduce the impact or risk to the levels described in Item 3;

5. identify any scientific, technical, policy or regulatory requirements or resources that are in addition to the reforms being implemented through the existing environmental reform process that are necessary to reduce environmental risks and impacts associated with the hydraulic fracturing of unconventional reservoirs to acceptable levels; and

6. identify priority areas for no go zones.

The Chair and the Panel for the fracking inquiry

The Honourable Justice Rachel Pepper of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court will chair the Inquiry and oversee a panel of 10 scientists with expertise in disciplines such as water, geology, ecology, health, sociology and engineering:

  • Dr Alan Andersen (NT)
  • Peta Ashworth (QLD)
  • Dr Vaughan Beck (VIC)
  • Ms Jane Coram (ACT)
  • Professor Barry Hart (VIC)
  • Dr David Jones (QLD)
  • Professor Peter McCabe (SA)
  • Professor Brian Priestly (VIC/SA)
  • Dr Ross Smith (QLD)
  • Dr David Ritchie (NT)

Next steps for the independent fracking inquiry, and the NT moratorium

It is understood that the the inaugural meeting of the panel will be held on 8 December 2016 and the consultation schedule and proposed timeline of the Inquiry will be determined. The timeframe for the Inquiry and the stakeholder engagement program which the Panel is to develop and implement is to be advised prior to 1 January 2017.

Once the Inquiry has been completed, the Government will consider the findings and the future of fracking in the Northern Territory. Until then, the moratorium on fracking in the Northern Territory will remain in place for the term of the Inquiry. The terms of the moratorium are:

  • hydraulic fracturing of onshore unconventional reservoirs will not be approved across in the Northern Territory until the Government has considered the outcomes of an independent inquiry;
  • it applies to the whole of the Northern Territory;
  • it applies to hydraulic fracturing of unconventional reservoirs, as well as the use of Diagnostic Fracture Injection Testing;
  • it applies to hydraulic fracturing under any permit or licence, which means that fracking will not be approved whether it is for exploration or extraction; and
  • it is not retrospective, which means that it does not apply to existing approvals.