Sorry, but the hypocrisy here is outrageous. For years now we have been having a fierce debate about the possible impact on the watertable — and ultimately, human health – of chemicals used in fracking for coal seam gas. You’ve heard the concerns we risk “poisoning the food bowl”. Fair enough. Itis worrying.

Now, via an excellent report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, we find that – just quietly – NSW Farmers have been trying to undermine a review of the chemicals used in agriculture, particularly some which are already banned in Europe and the United States.

They are taking advantage of the federal government’s agenda to remove “red and green tape” – which sounds like fun but, once you get beyond the repeal of dead letter law, gets worrying indeed. Distract us with welcome repeal of lighthouse legislation. Sneak through the repeal of vital food safety laws.

To explain: depending on the geology, after a well has been dewatered, extracting coal seam gas not always but often requires fracking – short for hydraulic fracturing – in which large volumes of water and sand are injected down a well at high pressure to open up lots of tiny cracks in the coal seam and liberate more gas. Over long experience in the US they found that this process was improved by adding relatively small (but in absolute terms, large) quantities of chemicals, acting like lubricants. Some of those compounds were toxic: known carcinogens like BTEX were used in the early days of the industry, imported straight from the US, where fracking began.

There are lots of dangers associated with the CSG industry’s use of toxic chemicals: spills happen, airborne emissions, waste disposal. We can’t just take the industry on trust: all of it requires heavy-handed regulation to ensure it is safe.

One of the most scary things about the industry is it doesn’t recover all of the frack fluid it injects down wells – including the chemicals. Recovery rates are in the vicinity of 30-70%. The industry might say the concentrations are only 1%, which sounds small, but when it’s 1% of a large amount of water, in a process that is repeated sometimes multiple times per well across thousands of wells, they’re leaving a lot underground. This is where the idea comes from, that fracking will poison the watertable.

Some of the chemicals degrade. Some also migrate, slowly or less slowly: when you’re pulling gigalitres of water from underground aquifers, pressure gradients change, groundwater flows become less predictable, connection between coal seams filled with salty water, and overlying freshwater acquifers, can and has happened, All this differs from well to well.

The industry can never predict, with 100% certainty, the impact of a given frack job. What industry can do is work hard to eliminate toxic fracking chemicals, and they are trialling edible and even organic frack fluids.

However worrying chemical use is in the CSG industry — personally I think it’s one of the more manageable issues they face — the gas companies aren’t wandering round spraying frack fluid directly onto our food. We need to keep some perspective.

“Red/green tape seems to be OK for the gas industry, but problematic for farmers.”

One of the very useful things about the CSG debate has been to shine a light on how hopelessly under-resourced the industry-funded National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme is. When it came to fracking chemicals, NICNAS was basically taking the industry’s word for it, relying on outdated research about toxicity from the US. If you rang to inquire, you found NICNAS was an empty office and a phone number. A very part-time regulator. Assessments would take years if they happened at all.

Surprise, surprise: it appears we are just as lax when it comes to assessing the chemicals used in agriculture, a job that falls to another industry-funded quango, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. APVMA was established in the early 1990s. Farm chemicals in use before 1996 were grandfathered, and reviews since have been conducted on an ad-hoc basis. So, some farm chemicals in wide use have never been assessed at all and we are effectively being subjected to the health standards of two decades ago. Consumer watchdog group Choice says chemicals such as the insecticide trichlorfon and the miticide dicofol, used on food crops here, have been banned by the European Union because of environmental, human health and residues concerns.

National Toxics Network co-ordinator Jo Immig says while NICNAS is “totally toothless”, APVMA can at least ban chemicals that are unsafe so “they have some teeth, although they don’t use them very often”.

The former Labor government instituted a process, to begin in July, to require APVMA to re-approve and re-register farm chemicals in the market. Choice is campaigning to preserve those reforms, and ensure they are complemented with a better process to register newer and safer or “softer” new chemicals . The farmers, who have been up in arms about the risks from fracking, don’t want to bear an expense they see as unnecessary. Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, who has been outspoken about the need to protect prime farmland from CSG, has rolled over. Red/green tape seems to be OK for the gas industry, but problematic for farmers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s own imagery – lighting a bonfire in Parliament – was always uncomfortable. (Book burning much?) Bonfires can get out of control. Here is a prime example – and if farmers think they can credibly bleat about chemical use in the oil and gas industry, while quietly dosing us up on the cheap with relics of last century’s industrial farming technology, they have another think coming.

*Paddy Manning is the author of What the Frack: Everything you need to know about Coal Seam Gas

Peter Fray

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