Opinion

Cement: materialities and temporalities of fracking in northern Australia

Image: A banner hangs from the old Katherine rail bridge. Sourced via The Macleay Argus.

If I told you that cement was the solution to fracking’s environmental woes, what would you say?

After an 18 month “Scientific Inquiry” and intense public debate, the Northern Territory Government decided to lift its moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on 16 April 2018, on the basis that all of the Inquiry’s 135 recommendations will be implemented.

The Inquiry’s final report, released just a few weeks earlier, is a challenging read, with over 500 pages of analysis in its body, and a further 694 pages of appendices. In it, a specially-convened panel of scientists carefully parses the environmental, social, cultural and economic risks posed by fracking and makes recommendations to mitigate them drawing on specialised fields of expertise such as engineering, hydrology, geology, geochemistry, and ecology. Its final conclusion is that, if all recommendations are implemented, “not only should the risks associated with an onshore shale gas industry be minimised to an acceptable level, in some instances, they can be avoided altogether” (p.60). The report reads as a triumph of expertise over nature’s unpredictability, the science scaffolding a rational answer to a complex suite of issues.

Amid this scientific certainty, an everyday material emerges as an unexpected saviour.

Contamination of groundwater aquifers, which supply 90% of the Northern Territory’s water, is the environmental issue that has perhaps most captured the public’s imagination in the fracking debate, with many Indigenous groups, activists and pastoralists mobilising around the unifying theme “water is life”. The hydraulic fracturing process pumps large volumes of water, sand, and a small but toxic mix of chemicals vertically underground via a drilled well-bore which (at staggering depths of up to 4km) then turns 90 degrees to enable “horizontal” fracturing or cracking of shale rock that, under pressure, releases the gas trapped within that rock. Contamination of aquifers can occur when the well becomes a pathway for fracking fluids or gases accessed during the fracking process to migrate into the aquifer closer to the surface.

The solution, according to the Inquiry? Cement, pumped vertically down the well during its construction as a slurry to seal the gap between the well’s steel casing and the drilled hole, and poured into the well at the end of its fracking life to harden into a “plug” to ensure the integrity of the well “in perpetuity, effectively re-establishing the natural barriers formed by the impermeable rock layers that were drilled through to reach the resource” (CSIRO, 2017, cited in Final Report Appendices, p 99). The very ordinary physicality of this unremarkable building material, cement, seems out of place amid the otherwise dense jargon of petroleum engineering.

But perhaps cement’s use as a bulwark in hydraulic fracturing should not surprise us. Cement is the binding agent in concrete, used in houses, footpaths, bridges, roads, skyscrapers, and sea walls among many other human constructions. It is an indispensable part of modern life: human-manufactured liquid rock. However, the everyday materiality of cement raises everyday questions: what about the effects of corrosion, seismic activity, moisture, design flaws and age on cement’s presumed durability? Harkness (et al., 2015, p. 314) writes that concrete’s “guileful ruse is to offer us a permanent fix, once and for all”. Cement’s claim of permanence is deceptive, particularly when compared with the resource that is to be extracted. The shale rocks in the Beetaloo Basin – the most prospective area for shale gas in the NT – are the world’s oldest to be accessed for extraction. They were formed 1.5 billion years ago in the pre-Cambrian age when a hot oozy bacteria-filled sea covered the region. The forms of life we recognise as complex were still a billion years away, the shale in the Beetaloo Basin holding clues to the earliest forms of life on earth. Against this unfathomably deep history, what is meant by the claim that the relatively recent technology of cement will plug abandoned wells “in perpetuity”?

The deep history of shale gas reserves in the Northern Territory can also be compared to another temporality – that of development in northern Australia.  On a loop for over 150 years, the discourse around the ever-present (but never satisfactorily realised) need to “develop the north” for often vaguely defined economic benefits is always one of urgency. The laws that crystallise around development in the Northern Territory – including relating to the grant of mining and petroleum titles, native title agreement-making and environmental assessment – are focused on the moment of approval, not compliance, and certainly not afterlives.

The woeful inadequacy of the NT’s environmental assessment legislation even in relation to this moment of approval (which runs to a grand total of 6 pages, tilted strongly in favour of development) has seen a slew of environmental disasters. Legacy mines such as Mount Todd, Redbank, Western Desert Resources, and Rum Jungle despoil the landscape, perhaps irrevocably, with imminent environmental disaster looming elsewhere such as at McArthur River Mine in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In a political jurisdiction focused on the agile approval of mines and other developments, what happens after the moment of approval is often left unaddressed, unenforced and underfunded. While the recommendations of the Scientific Inquiry, if followed, will go some way toward an overhaul of the environmental assessment and regulation of fracking in the Northern Territory, is it any wonder the public remains sceptical of its capacity to do so?

Frequently captive to the temporalities of northern development are the traditional owners on whose land fracking occurs. Native title agreements underpin many fracking activities in the NT. The “right to negotiate” under the Native Title Act is triggered when the NT government issues a notice indicating it proposes to grant an exploration permit applied for by an oil and gas company. If six months pass and the parties have not reached an agreement, the company can ask the National Native Title Tribunal to determine the matter, which it almost invariably does by granting the tenement. In the case of the Beetaloo Basin, exploration permits were granted years ago. Unconventional gas exploration, including by fracking, has been occurring in the NT on those tenements for the better part of the decade. Thus, many native title agreements were done and dusted without the benefit of the findings of the Inquiry, and indeed without any public environmental assessment processes at all. The best cement job cannot redress the power imbalance embedded within land justice issues.

Finally, there exists a wider global geopolitical problem for which cement certainly does not hold an answer. The economic anthropologist Timothy Mitchell (2013) has written of how, in the quest for greater energy independence, the USA has deepened its economic dependence on fossil fuels in a time of looming climate disaster. How hard will it be to turn away from fracking when its infrastructures are firmly enmeshed within the NT’s economy?  While the life-cycle emissions from fracking in the NT are small in a global sense, and despite the Inquiry’s extraordinary recommendation that they be offset (despite the mechanism for doing so remaining entirely opaque), the rapidly worsening effects of climate change in Australia and globally suggests that it may be better to leave these 1.5 billion-year-old shale rocks where they are, 4 kilometres underground.

To answer my opening gambit, of course, cement is not the solution to fracking’s problems, and nor did the Inquiry say so.  However, questioning its materialities and temporalities leads us to another question: just because fracking is scientifically possible, does that mean we should do it?

References

CSIRO. (2017). Report into the shale gas well life cycle and well integrity, in Appendix 14 in the Final Report of the Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory. Access here.
Harkness, R., Simonetti, C., & Winter, J. (2015). Liquid Rock: Gathering, Flattening, Curing. Parallax21(3), 309-326.
Mitchell, Timothy. (2013). Peak Oil and the New Carbon Boom. Dissent Magazine (June 25, 2013). Access here.
The Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory. (2018). Summary of the Final Report of the Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory. Access here.


Kirsty Howey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. She is a Board member of the Environmental Defenders Office (NT) and was a land rights and native title lawyer at the Northern Land Council for a decade prior to commencing her studies.