Perth metro and tourist areas exempted from fracking, but Native Title areas exposed

Several Indigenous communities in the Kimberley have opposed fracking in their communities; but under Australia’s Native Title Law, energy companies can take gas from under Native Title lands. Traditional Owners must rely on politicians and businesses to take their concerns into consideration.

Australia is poised to become the world’s biggest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG) in 2019 thanks in part to hydrofracturing – more commonly known as ‘fracking’ – a controversial method of drilling into the ground and injecting a mix of sand, water and chemicals to ‘fracture’ the rock, thereby releasing the gas.

In 2017, community opposition to fracking in Western Australia drove the state government to implement a fracking moratorium. During this time, an independent scientific inquiry to examine the health and environmental risks associated with fracking was commissioned.

The inquiry’s report was handed to the state government in September this year and is due for public release at any time. However, if the report says the health and environmental risks of fracking are low, the moratorium could be lifted.

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Part of the state has already been sectioned off from future fracking. The Perth metropolitan area, as well as the South West region – a tourist hotspot which includes the town of Margaret River – was granted a fracking ban in legislation passed last year.

Dr Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Mangala Traditional Owner and Deputy Chair of the Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation, told The Feed that such a ban should be applied across the state. “Any technical or scientific information that has been utilised to stop fracking in the south west should be applied to the north west,” she said. “Why should our people be treated differently in the Kimberley?”

Beneath the red sand savannah of the Kimberley – a sprawling biodiverse region of Western Australia where many Indigenous people still live in traditional communities – is the Canning Basin, one of Australia’s richest natural gas deposits.

The Nyul Nyul people of the Kimberley’s Dampier Peninsula and the Nyikina Mangala people from the Fitzroy River region both elected this month to ban fracking on their ancestral territories. They join the Yawuru people - Traditional Owners of the region around Broome - in actively voting against the practice.

While those opposed to fracking say that it poses a risk of chemical contamination to the water supply, the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) maintains that the dilution of chemicals used in Australian fracking operations does not impair water quality.

Stedman Ellis, chief executive of the WA arm of the APPEA told WA Today, “WA does not need another fracking inquiry. What it desperately needs is new jobs, investment and royalties to help repair the state budget.”

However, not all are convinced. Dr Poelina further conveyed to The Feed that the Nyikina Mangala Traditional Owners have concluded that the risks of fracking on their land are too great. “After reviewing extensive scientific evidence, we have decided to oppose fracking, given the plausible risks of well failure, groundwater contamination, surface pollution and increased seismic activity,” she said.

“The presence of fracking on our lands and waters raises the question of informed consent. Many Indigenous people do not realise just what an effect the fracking process can have.”

Not all First Nation groups in the Kimberley are opposed to fracking. Indeed, the Yungngora Aboriginal Corporation has welcomed mineral companies onto their lands in recent years. Members of the Corporation believe that a gas project will deliver much-needed jobs for local people.

Under Australia’s Native Title Law, it does not matter if Traditional Owners agree with development or not; they do not have the right to veto on their ancestral territories. The only recourse communities have is to call on politicians and businesses to take their concerns into consideration.

During Western Australia’s most recent election campaign, the state Labor Party flagged Aboriginal veto rights in a campaign pledge. In official correspondence to environmental NGO Environs Kimberley (EK), the Labor Party stated that ‘any decision on fracking in the Kimberley will only be made with the approval of Traditional Owners’. This now forms a key part of EK's submission to the 2018 WA fracking inquiry. Ben Wyatt, the WA state treasurer and Minister for Indigenous Affairs, was contacted by The Feed but could not be reached for comment on this issue.

One politician who has addressed the concerns of her electorate is state Member for the Kimberley, Josie Farrer. Ms Farrer – a Kija woman from Halls Creek – recently declared her support for a state-wide ban on fracking. Citing “unforgivable damage” to the native lands of her people, Ms. Farrer called on her parliamentary colleagues earlier this year to implement a ban.

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