Heavily redacted documents released under freedom of information laws show the McGowan Government considered allowing fracking companies to use cancer-causing chemicals, in direct contrast with the state’s fracking inquiry recommendations and health department advice.
As part of the FOI document release (available here), Lock the Gate Alliance obtained a draft copy of the government’s Code of Practice for Use of Hydraulic Fracturing in Western Australia.
Because it took two years for the government to release the documents, it remains unclear whether the use of BTEX chemicals is still under consideration. However information contained within the documents suggests it would be impossible for the industry to proceed without bringing BTEX chemicals to the surface.
Page 31 of the draft code (document page 159), under the heading “Drilling Fluids Section”, section 126.96.36.199 (e) states: “Chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens, developmental toxicants and endocrine disruptors can only be used with prior approval”.
The draft code appears to acknowledge the use and movement of low levels of BTEX (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene and Xylene) chemicals would occur as a byproduct of fracking development (see document page 191), and would be part of ”rarely used” “synthetic or oil based drilling fluid or hydraulic fracturing fluid”.
This contrasts with the original fracking inquiry recommendation 6 (p340 of the report) that the use of the chemicals be banned, and fracking information on the Health Department’s website which states: “The use of… (BTEX) as additives or ingredients in drilling and hydraulic fracture fluids is not permitted.”
The documents also reveal internal government concerns about the risk of well corrosion, a phenomenon that has led to contamination fears in Queensland, where the unconventional gas industry has expanded rapidly since the early 2000s.
On page 46 of the draft code (document page 175), under the “Well Integrity Management Section”, an internal government reviewer appears to express disbelief that in the event of a “compromised well barrier”, a fracking company would be allowed to, “conduct their own risk assessment process and if required, undertake appropriate remediation action, in order to continue operating a well”.
The reviewer comments: “I’m not sure this is sufficient if a well is believed to be compromised?!!!”
Lock the Gate first applied to access the tranche of documents in June 2021. Despite numerous attempts by the government to block them, they were eventually released in March this year.
The documents were also heavily censored, with 83 of 250 pages entirely redacted - a little over 30 percent - and further specific text removed throughout the entirety of the document.
Lock the Gate Alliance WA Coordinator Claire McKinnon said the length of time it took for the documents to be released, and the heavy redaction of information made a mockery of the state’s freedom of information laws.
“Despite the heavy-handed censoring and years-long delay of these documents, what we were able to obtain will concern any West Australian unfortunate enough to live near a fracking proposal - either in the Mid-west or Kimberley,” she said.
“The McGowan Government ruled fracking was too risky for residents of Perth, the Peel, the South West, and Dampier Peninsula, yet is in the process of assessing massive new fracking projects in the Kimberley. In doing so, it is treating West Australians who live near regions where fracking is permitted like second-class citizens and putting their health and water at risk.
“Cancer causing chemicals are par for the course in the fracking industry, not just in the fluid it uses, but also in the flow back water that returns to the surface. What’s clear from these documents is that if WA gets fracking, it gets BTEX chemicals coming to the surface. No community should have to live with that reality - even the fracking inquiry and the government’s own Health Department recognised that. Fracking must be banned statewide.
“No West Australian should be forced to share their community with this toxic industry. We’re calling on the McGowan Government to dump its fracking go ahead before it’s too late.”
When the fracking moratorium was lifted in 2018, the McGowan Government said it had:
“accepted all 44 recommendations in the report including an enforceable code of practice, and banning the use of four fracking fluids collectively known as BTEX, which have been found to be “persistent and toxic.”
In September 2021, the McGowan Government said instead of releasing a stand alone code of practice to govern the fracking industry, it would require a new set of regulations under the state’s Petroleum and Geothermal Energy Resources Act.
However, these regulations have been delayed multiple times, and the West Australian public is still waiting for their release.