Fractured Country – An Unconventional Invasion
Lock the Gate Alliance Film
For any foreigner, Australia looks like an Eldorado that miraculously made its way through the world’s economic crisis. There is no special economic policy underpinning such success; Australia sits on vast mineral resources and the export of mining products is keeping the country afloat. Yet as with any resource-based economy, Australia needs to find more resources to extract and export to retard its collapse. Fractured Country explains how the mining industry’s aim to extract methane through gas ‘fracking’, and its dreadful consequences.
Understanding Fracking and its consequences on the Environment
Over the past five years, Australia’s mining industry has discovered that the world’s largest resource of methane (approximately 8 trillion cubic feet of shale and tight gas resources) is lying under their feet, and decided to begin its exploitation. Methane in this context is regarded as ‘unconventional’ gas. It is actually contained either in shale or sandstone rock and extracting it requires unconventional methods: hydraulic or chemical fracturing, otherwise known as gas ‘fracking.’
Gas fracking involves the high-pressure injection of sand and chemicals into the soil through drilled bores, in order to break the stone and allow the extraction of methane. This method has been used in the US for about ten years and in Queensland for five years. It is an extremely polluting extraction mechanism. Each ‘frack’ uses between 11 and 34 million liters of water, which is permanently contaminated. Each well can be fracked up to 18 times. 70 per cent of the polluted water remains in the soil or the underwater table, while the remaining 30 per cent are stocked in large basins. The evaporation of this water causes severe air pollution. Fracking constitutes a severe threat both for the water and the air.
A threat to local communities
In addition to the health and pollution issues involved in gas fracking, the practice also threatens local communities. In Western Australia, unconventional gas can be found both in the Perth/Mid-West region and up North in the Kimberley Region.
In the Perth Mid-West Region, the Western Australian government has delivered gas fracking extraction permits to mining companies on what is currently farming land. This has been possible due to the nature of land rights in the region. Much of Australia’s agricultural land is actually ‘Crown’ (in effect, government) land and has been leased to farmers, often for generations. In order to allow fracking, the government can cancel a lease and reclaim the land at relatively short notice. Farmers won’t be able to keep cultivating their land once gas extraction has taken place as the pollution induced by fracking renders both water and land inappropriate for food production. Fracking therefore constitutes a severe threat for the thousands of farmers working in the Mid West region of Western Australia.
In the Kimberley region, the situation is different. Aboriginal people occupy the land. Yet, land rights are not clearly defined and the conflict over land ownership is extremely complicated. The government has already granted extraction permits to the mining companies without regard to the current occupation of the place and the conflict already taking place concerning the land rights of Indigenous people.
Urban areas are also under threat. Not only have some permits have delivered in and around Perth, but also, the consequences of gas fracking on soil and water pollution will impact the community as it is likely to depend in the future on the groundwater resources of the Mid West once metropolitan aquifers are exhausted.
Fractured Country is very comprehensive in documenting the impact of gas fracking on the various communities. Yet, instead of focusing on the complexity of land rights impacting both farmers and aborigines, it relies on stereotypical situations, without going into much depth.
There are obviously political mechanisms in play that explain why the permits have been delivered. However, the documentary does not say a word about it. I think it constitutes a major drawback to the quality of the movie as political power – backing up the mining industry – is at core of the gas fracking issue.
More generally, the movie focuses too much on the “victims” and does not address accurately the real issue behind the delivery of permits for gas fracking. Similarly, the response given by the community seems apolitical. The Lock the Gate Alliance is a farmer’s movement that took place in Queensland and New South Wales, encouraging farmers to block access to their fields to the mining trucks. Once more, the movement – on camera at least – does not address the deep economic and political causes of this unfolding environmental disaster.
Fracking Western Australia’s future
As far as Western Australia is concerned, only seven wells have been drilled so far. Yet the industry perceives potential for 25,000 wells in the Perth Mid-West region and an additional 100,000 in the Kimberley. In regard to the threat such project poses, it is to be expected that the “No Fracking Way” activist collective in charge of organizing the response in Western Australia will be more incisive and integrate political issues as well as the interests of all three communities (Indigenous, farmers, and urban dwellers) in its analysis of the situation. This way, we can hope that fracking will be actually stopped before the tragedies in Queensland are repeated in the West.