What is fracking?

Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, an established technology for which there is significant scientific information, assessment and regulation. Fracking has been undertaken in the NT for more than 40 years. Fracking is used to unlock and increase the flow of  gas from tight rock layers deep underground, creating paths for the gas to flow into the well.
Hydraulic fracturing starts with safely drilling into shale and other tight-rock formations kilometres below the surface. Once the well is drilled, cased with steel and cement and tested to ensure its integrity, small perforations (or holes) are made in the horizontal portion of the well pipe. A typical mixture of water (90 per cent), sand (9.5 per cent) and additives (0.5 per cent) is then pumped under pressure through these perforations. The pressure creates small fractures in the rock and widens existing ones, which helps gas to flow. When the fluid mixture is removed, most of the sand remains to help keep the fractures open to aid the flow of gas.

Doesn’t fracking use a lot of water?

We conserve water use as much as we can by recycling and reusing water across our wells during the drilling and fracking process. We must carefully manage our water use and operate under a regulated water allocation plan. We must also gain a water extraction licence as part of our approval process. This ensures water is extracted within the parameters of the sustainable yield for the local aquifer.  Cattle and agriculture currently uses around 6% of the sustainable yield. In a future development scenario, at most, our water use would increase that percentage by 1%.

Will fracking harm land and poison water?

Protecting water and the environment is at the heart of almost every conversation about fracking. Natural geological and engineered barriers exist, and we put multiple controls in place to protect water and the environment when we drill a well. If there’s a concern with any of these safeguards and protections, we don’t frack. Fracking has also been occurring in the Northern Territory for over 40 years, and water has always been protected. This is because disciplined and safe operating systems and processes are in place, assessed and approved by the relevant government agencies.

Is fracking during the wet season a greater risk to waste storage and is this contrary to the recommendations of the Pepper Inquiry?

No. We have strict safeguards in place to ensure land and water is protected. Each wellsite location has been weather-proofed to ensure we can operate safely in all seasons and our operating controls and equipment ensure we can accommodate a 1 in 1,000-year rainfall season.

Are the chemicals used in fracking dangerous to humans and animals?

No. Water and sand make up about 98 – 99% of the mix. The rest are common additives. This includes guar gum to thicken the mix, caustic soda and acetic acid (vinegar) to balance the water, potassium chloride (salts) to prevent drilling equipment from getting stuck and enzymes (similar to what is in washing powder) to break it down and ensure what’s being pumped back to the surface can be disposed of appropriately. 
Similar to how you use these chemicals at home — diluted or in small percentages — is no different to the way they are used in fracking.

Environment Protection

What about fugitive emissions?

Predicting emissions at the early exploration stage of a project is difficult and usually far from accurate. This is because we don’t yet know the scale of the resource, how it might be accessed or how it will be produced. 
The first meaningful estimation can only be made as part of the environmental impact statement. 
It’s important to note that natural gas produces about half the emissions of coal when used to generate electricity. Both the International Energy Agency (LINK) and Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel (LINK) recognise the important role gas will continue to play in the transition to a lower carbon world. 

Is the area’s groundwater safe from the effects of fracking?

Yes. We have many controls and safeguards in place when we drill a well and if we don’t frack until they are in place. There are multiple layers of steel and cement separating the well from the underground layers of rock.
There is also at least 1km of inpenetrable rock between the rock being fracked and the aquifer sitting close to the surface.
We also had independently verified groundwater monitoring put in place before we started our exploration work. This is ongoing.

Traditional Owners

How do you decide who are the rightful Traditional Owners to consult with?

We rely on the advice and guidance of the Northern Land Council in the Northern Territory – the statutory representative body for advising who the rightful Native Title holders are in the areas where we are exploring. 
Since becoming operator of our Beetaloo Basin exploration permits in 2014, we have held ongoing conversations to discuss work plans, timing and discuss shared benefits.

What is the process for maintaining Traditional Owner support?

We work closely with the Traditional Owners and Native Title holders and claimants in the areas where we are working. This includes sharing factual, scientifically-based information that is directly relevant to the geology and geography of the area and activity underway. We share our annual work programs well before we start work and take part in on-country meetings with the Northern Land Council (NLC) and the Native Title holders and claimants. We give our work program plans to the NLC up to a year in advance so there is adequate time to engage with the right Native Title holders and claimants and for discussions to occur over time. This also allows time to complete important activities like sacred site avoidance and clearance surveys and to certify these under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Site Act. 

What do you do to protect sacred sites?

We work closely and transparently with the Northern Land Council to ensure sacred sites are protected. This includes sharing our work program plans a year in advance and allowing discussions to occur over time. 
This also allows important activity, such as sacred site clearances to be undertaken and certified by law – this is part of the NT Aboriginal Sacred Site Act. This process is followed very closely each year, to complete these clearances and surveys for current exploration areas.

Beetaloo Basin

What are you drilling for in the Beetaloo Basin?

We are still in the early stages of exploring the Beetaloo Basin, but we believe the size of the resource is material. Early work indicates that most of the basin is likely to contain ‘dry’ gas (the type used in your stove at home), while some parts may contain ‘wet’ gas such as propane and butane, (gases commonly used for BBQs).
These gases are found in a series of shale rock formations up to three kilometres underground, well below and separated from the aquifer’s layers that lie close to the surface. Our current exploration project is focused on finding out if these gases can be safely and economically produced.

Why do we need gas generated power if Australia is rapidly building wind and solar power capacity?

The intermittent nature of solar and wind power – much less power is produced if it’s still and cloudy for example – requires a partner energy source to fill in these gaps. This makes gas the ideal partner to support growth in renewables as it’s affordable, has lower emission compared to coal and oil generation, and is responsive to surges in demand, with modern gas generators able to start up in as little as three minutes. 

What are some other uses for gas other than generating electricity and cooking?

A lot of gas is used for heating our homes or cooking, but it’s also used to produce many important products in our society. 
A lot of fertilisers we spread on our lawn and garden each year are created using domestically produced natural gas, as is hydrogen, a key ingredient in preservatives for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
Flexible polymers that are shaped and moulded into medical equipment, clothing, and children’s toys are created using natural gas and it’s the only fuel that can economically achieve and sustain the high temperatures needed to produce and refine materials such as iron, steel, silver, gold, aluminium, copper, zinc and tin. These high temperatures are also needed to produce the staples of our construction industry – glass, cement, bricks, and ceramics – all produced in furnaces fired by natural gas.

How does Origin’s planned reduction in coal meet the Paris climate agreement?

We agree that climate change is a key global challenge and Origin was the first Australian company to sign up to a science-based emissions reduction target to halve our direct emissions by 2032. Origin will exit coal by 2032, while wind, solar and storage will represent 25% or more of our generation by 2020. Gas is playing an important part in our transition to lower emissions.

Why did horizontal drilling stop on the Kyalla well?

We chose to stop part way through drilling a horizontal section of the well because it wasn’t meeting the specifications we needed to adequately complete drilling, undertake fracking and then do a good test of the well’s potential.
The vertical section of the well is safe and the steel and concrete barriers protecting groundwater and the environment remain in place. The partially drilled horizontal hole will now be plugged with engineered cement, as we are required to do under regulations. 
We will now drill another horizontal section from the vertical well – this is not an uncommon step and poses no additional risks.
We’ve advised the regulator and will ensure we continue to comply with our environmental management plans, which were approved in August 2019.
You can hear more about this decision in an interview Origin’s  Growth Assets and Beetaloo General Manager Tracey Boyes gave to ABC Outback NT shortly following the announcement.

What are you doing to protect your staff and the community from Coronavirus?

Activity on site is minimal and includes road works, installing water monitoring bores as required by regulation, and safely packing down the rig and moving it to the side of the lease now that drilling has been successfully completed. We have temporarily paused moving forward with the next stage of the project until the second half of the year.
We currently (as at 26 March 2020) have 45 employees and contractors accommodated in a self-contained camp, 14 of which are Northern Territory residents and the remainder from interstate. Nobody on site has flown in internationally.
Those on site are observing health authority requirements for social distancing and we are also maintaining separation between Territory and interstate team members.
We will progressively reduce our presence to essential personnel only, ensuring we meet regulatory and environmental management conditions to monitor and maintain the site.
Those leaving will follow controlled travel plans and not travel through communities on the way from site.

How will the NT border closure impact your work in the Beetaloo?

Our operations are geographically isolated but in the interest of safety we have decided to temporarily pause activities at our Kyalla well site and reschedule further work to the second half of the year.
During this interim period we will use Northern Territory based employees and contractors to undertake civil and other works in preparation for the resumption of activities later in the year.