Santos battles perceived risk

SANTOS has urged the Northern Territory’s frac inquiry to at least allow the gathering of baseline and characterisation data to inform human and environmental health risk assessments and help industry and government manage real, not perceived, risk.

Santos battles perceived risk Flag of the Northern Territory, which is considering whether to move ahead with shale gas or not.

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While similar arguments were made to policy-makers in Victoria or New South Wales without success before exploration controls were imposed, there is every indication Santos now has the ear of a panel that has been given greater scope to explore the real issues impacting both industry and landholders.
The inquiry's first round of community consultations unearthed the "anxiety, if not hostility, surrounding fraccing".
Yet the inquiry also said "many groups and individuals have expressed the opinion to the inquiry that properly regulated, and adequately safeguarded, the onshore extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing could be beneficial to the Territory, creating employment opportunities and raising much needed revenue".
The inquiry has met with several pastoralists in the Beetaloo Sub-basin to hear their experiences with oil and gas companies and their concerns regarding land access, the spreading of weeds and long-term well integrity.
The inquiry also met with the Queensland Gasfields Commission, an independent statutory body that facilitates interaction between landholders, regional communities and the onshore gas industry in Queensland.
Addressing the frac panel chaired by Justice Rachel Pepper last week in Darwin, Santos had suggested a similar shale gas commission for the NT.
Santos said this should include representatives from the land councils, town councils, Charles Darwin University, industry and the cattlemen's association, which wants a right of veto to fix the apparent "power imbalance" between gas companies and pastoralists.
The inquiry also visited Santos' CSG operation around Roma and visited Miles State High School and Trade Centre, where a partnership with Origin Energy is facilitating education to employment pathways.
Dr Pepper said that while much of Queensland's resource activity is focused on CSG, "there are nevertheless similarities with onshore shale reservoirs and valuable information and learnings can be obtained from Queensland's experiences in land access and regulatory reform, amongst other matters".
The inquiry also met with AgForce, CSIRO's Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance, the University of Queensland's Centre for Coal Seam Gas, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and the Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment.
Santos technical environment and monitoring team leader Paul Wybrew reminded the inquiry panel that while at its simplest, exploration was done only to acquire data, it also had a diverse range of environmental benefits.
"Baseline data is acquired to identify environmental values and inform environmental, social and economic impact assessments. These are then used during regulatory approval processes and developing planning," he said. 
"Characterisation data is also collected to inform human health and ecological risk assessments, which I'll discuss more in a moment. Monitoring data is also collected to demonstrate performance and compliance with regulatory or statutory obligations. 
"Therefore, much of the data to complete location specific assessments will require the collected during exploration activities - and some of this can't be collected without drilling and flow testing wells."  
Wybrew also noted his colleague, Santos executive vice president exploration and appraisal Bill Ovenden's comment on the "precautionary principle" -  that is, the treatment of uncertainty with over-prescription or exclusion.
"My concern is that over-regulation could potentially dismantle any opportunity we have. Our position is let's collect the data and understand where we need to go," Ovenden said.
"Where we would support a prescriptive approach to regulatory change is in relation to codification of well integrity management. There are many instances of industry best practice codified now in relation to well integrity."
Ovenden said Santos supported the concept of exclusion or no-go zones like national parks, residential areas, urban areas, sacred sites, sites of cultural significance, with buffers.
A prescriptive approach or exclusion of activities in fractured zones is "where things start to get a little grey for us", he said. 
"We'll be acquiring 3D, we'll be doing our critical stress modelling, we'll be letting the data tell us. 
"Fractures occur on many scales, so where do you stop? Where does the exclusion occur? We believe this requires a more risk-based, objective approach," Ovenden said.
"Where should it be objective and not prescriptive?  Limiting the operating window would be a big deal for us, a negative impact over the long term. It would impact local content, on local jobs."
In this light, Wybrew said it was critical that the regulatory framework enabled the acquisition of data and allows scientific assessments to occur overtime, "rather than ruling something out now".
"Given that we are in the very early stage of planning for exploration, every opportunity is ahead of us," Wybrew said.  
"To collect the right data at the right time and for data to be used to inform risk assessment and management controls. We clearly need to manage risk - not perceived.
"For this reason it's critical that the regulatory framework enables the acquisition of the right data - recognizing that some of this data will be collected over time." 


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