Fracking report could split Coalition

Jo FulwoodCountryman
Irwin horticulture producer Rod Copeland, who is the Fracking Awareness Irwin Region organiser, was keen to have a dig at Parliament House, protesting against the lack of safeguards in place to protect the rights of farmers against gas companies.
Camera IconIrwin horticulture producer Rod Copeland, who is the Fracking Awareness Irwin Region organiser, was keen to have a dig at Parliament House, protesting against the lack of safeguards in place to protect the rights of farmers against gas companies. Credit: Bob Garnant

A little-known report on fracking and gas exploration is threatening to split the Liberal-National partnership at the next election.

A legislative standing committee report considering the implications of hydraulic fracturing for unconventional gas made numerous recommendations, but the WA Nationals have walked away from the Government’s response to the report.

According to National Party Member for Moore Shane Love, the Government has failed to commit to key recommendations that would safeguard the rights of farmers.

Without these legislated safeguards, farmers say they will be at the mercy of gas exploration companies.

Mr Love said he was extremely disappointed at the Government’s response to the committee report, warning this would become a key election issue for him and the National Party.

“I expect that it would be part of the conditions of us forming any government after the next election. This is one of those discussion points that would have to be ticked off,” he said.

While an industry agreed code of conduct for land access was developed under the guidance of former deputy premier Hendy Cowan in 2014, the framework would not be enshrined in legislation, following the Government’s response to the standing committee’s recommendations.

While the code becomes a legally binding document once signed, it remains voluntary for both parties.

“I don’t understand the minister’s (Bill Marmion)'''''' reticence to give that (code) some meaning and real teeth so that there is proper recognition of the impost that a proposal to explore and extract gas puts on a landowner,” Mr Love said.

“I don’t think asking for some decent treatment and laying out in the law a proper and respectful way for companies to come on to people’s land is too much to ask.

“Small family farms don’t have the time or the expertise or money to put themselves through an exhausting argument with a company that wants to come onto their land.”

Irwin horticulturalist Rod Copeland also believes farmers need more protection than the expensive avenue of the court system to oppose gas exploration and production on their farms.

Mr Copeland has been in negotiations, including court proceedings, with a gas exploration company for the past five years.

Unlike provisions in the Mining Act 1978, farmers have no right of veto over oil and gas exploration, production and rehabilitation on private land.

He said he was devastated that despite the 12 key recommendations made by the parliamentary committee, the Government had refused to commit to legislating for the rights of landowners.

Mr Copeland said he was particularly disappointed the government did not consider the rights of a farmer important enough to legislate for veto mechanisms.

“This is not an issue about who owned the land first, this is about who has to be here afterwards and who has to clean up the mess,” he said.

“Complete land rehabilitation is just as, or more, important than land access.”

Mr Copeland said a mandatory land access agreement and an independent umpire to resolve disputes were essential to safeguard the environment and the farming communities that lived on top of or near these proposed developments.

He said Irwin was the only community in WA forced to live on top of a fracked gas field.

“Water is the most important natural resource in the world, but because the industry is becoming emboldened by Government support, their proposed drilling and fracking is coming closer to, and through, this essential resource,” he said.

“It’s only a matter of time before residual chemicals in the underground water aquifers gradually leak into human consumption water supplies.

“Contamination does not recognise land boundaries.

“If farmers have the right to veto, these pending catastrophes can be stopped at the farm gate.”

WAFarmers chief executive Stephen Brown has called for the voluntary code to be a mandatory requirement in all gas exploration permits presented to the Department of Mines and Petroleum.

“The department should not accept an application or an assessment for a drilling permit until a copy of this code has been sighted. We are not asking the DMP to be the policemen, but it (this code) has to be on the checklist, which means that the DMP knows what the rules are,” he said.

Mr Brown said while the code had received the tick from all interested parties, including the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, he did not believe it could be enforced upon gas companies, particularly those not affiliated with APPEA.

APPEA chief operating officer western region Stedman Ellis said the voluntary land access agreement, negotiated over several years by APPEA and peak farming organisations, was providing a strong framework for coexistence and should be given more time before any changes were contemplated.

In the official Government response, it is stated the Department of Mines and Petroleum will establish a working group to develop recommendations for any further changes required, including the need for statutory framework, which may be considered in the future based on the recommendations of that working group.

Aside from the statements contained in the Government’s response to the committee report, Minister for Mines and Petroleum Bill Marmion refused to comment.

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