Risks of fracking in NT can be mitigated, preliminary findings reveal

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Risks of fracking in NT can be mitigated, preliminary findings reveal

Related Story: NT Chief Minister seeks federal intervention as tensions rise within Labor PartyRelated Story: To frack or not to frack: The debate dividing the Top End

The Northern Territory's inquiry into hydraulic fracturing has found that with more "robust and rigorous" regulation, the risks of fracking can be mitigated.

"It is the panel's opinion that, provided that the recommendations made in this report are adopted and implemented, not only should the risk of any harm be minimised to an acceptable level, in some instances, it can be avoided altogether," the draft report states.

But the inquiry panel's draft final report also recommends that before any production takes place, the Government must conduct baseline groundwater studies, which could take two to three years to complete.

Launching the inquiry's draft final report today, panel chairwoman Rachel Pepper said the inquiry would now hold more consultations before releasing its final report in March next year.

"The draft final report is as its title indicates — a draft. As such it may be expected to change following our next and final round of consultations," she said.

The Northern Territory Labor Government commissioned the inquiry as part of its moratorium on fracking.

The Government said it will use the inquiry's final report to decide whether to lift or keep its fracking ban.

Fracking has divided the Northern Territory Labor party and the issue is likely to be hotly debated at the party's NT annual conference due to be held early next year before the Government makes its decision on the moratorium.

Justice Pepper said it was not the inquiry's role to make a recommendation to the Government on the future of the moratorium.

"It is a matter for the Government to decide whether or not to lift the current moratorium, this report makes no such recommendation and will not do so," she said.

The inquiry's draft report makes almost 120 recommendations including changes to regulation, more environmental studies and a system for industry to fund the improved regulatory systems.

"If the recommendations are implemented and adopted in full, then the risks we have identified and analysed can be mitigated to acceptable levels," Justice Pepper said.

More groundwater studies 'critical'

External Link: Shale gas resources in NT (Source: NT Department of Mines and Energy)

Justice Pepper said the recommendations for baseline groundwater studies and increased independence for the regulator were the most significant recommendations in the report.

In the Beetaloo Basin — one of the most prospective areas for shale gas in the Northern territory — there was currently not enough information on groundwater resources to assess the risk of excessive use of groundwater from fracking, the report revealed.

The inquiry recommends a Strategic Regional Environmental Baseline Assessment be done to provide more information on groundwater resources before any production can begin, although exploration would still be allowed during this phase.

Justice Pepper said baseline groundwater studies were critical.

"The community constantly told us that they were very concerned that those studies weren't in place and didn't exist and they do need to be in place and they do need to exist, and you need to know what you're dealing before you go forward," she said.

The draft report also recommends responsibility for regulating the industry be moved from the NT's Department of Primary Industry and Resources, which is also involved in industry promotion.

The panel said the dual roles appeared to be fuelling public concern the department was not independent.

"The panel has concluded that these two responsibilities must be separated to ensure that decision-making is independent," the report stated.

The inquiry has not calculated how much it would cost to implement the recommendations in full, but there would be some cost to industry.

The panel said it was recommending a "full cost recovery system", similar to South Australia's, where industry would contribute to the cost of better regulation such as the long-term monitoring of wells.

"Reforms cost money and it's the panel's very strong view that it ought not be the taxpayer who foots the bill for that, it should be industry," Justice Pepper said.

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