Noonkanbah in the Kimberley region of Western Australia is part of the area that may be fracked. (Image: AAP/Diana Plater)

Indigenous traditional owners from a remote part of Western Australia fear developers will use strong-arm tactics to get consent to frack their land for gas.

The Western Australian Labor government recently lifted a statewide moratorium on fracking after a WA Environment Protection Authority report found the risks to people and the environment was “low”. The controversial drilling process — which involves injecting very large amounts of water with a small amount of chemicals deep underground — will be allowed on existing petroleum licences covering 2% of WA.

But that area covers a whopping 5.1 million hectares and includes the gas-rich Canning Basin, near Broome and around 1500km north of Perth.  

Farmers, landowners and native title holders can refuse fracking. But Bardu and Nyul Nyul traditional owner and Kimberley elder Albert Wiggan said the veto rights meant little, as developers would “assert themselves” into remote Aboriginal communities and offer traditional landowners “huge amounts of cash”.

“It will create division among family groups and the developers will then only work with the families who are pro-fracking,” he told Crikey.

“It’s divide and conquer — it’s terrible, but the industry is just so powerful. There are some Indigenous groups that want the employment benefits. But there are new industries been developed by Indigenous groups which complement and sustain our heritage, but they are not even being looked at.”

Nyikina traditional owner Anne Poelina said some Indigenous landowners in the Kimberley were simply unaware of the environmental impacts of fracking.

“Fracking raises the question of informed consent,” Poelina, the deputy chair of the Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation told Crikey. “We had a members’ forum recently and most of them knew nothing about the impact of fracking. But it’s not just the Indigenous community, it’s the broader public as well. We want to know how the state government is going to regulate the industry. And if fracking is not bad for the environment why is it banned in so many places like Ireland and Victoria?”

Conservation Council WA president Piers Verstegen said landowners might have the right to veto but that provided no comfort to families in nearby properties.

“In the midwest, gas companies have already been buying farms so that they can avoid protracted negotiations with farmers seeking to protect their land and water,” he said.

“But the surrounding landholders and community who will bear the impacts from pollution, noise and other loss of amenity will be given no such veto. It also appears that the veto will only apply to the production phase, so any number of wells can be drilled and fracked during exploration, without consent, establishing a physical presence that will be very difficult to unwind.”

The highly contentious issue of fracking is not confined to WA. The process of ripping gas from the ground has alarmed environmentalists around Australia over fears drinking water and aquifers could be contaminated during the process.

There has been more than a dozen inquiries into fracking in Australia and the results are almost always identical: there needs to be strict regulations and conditions, but the risks are low.  

Many of the states are divided over the drilling process. Victoria has outlawed it, Tasmania has introduced a moratorium while New South Wales has placed certain restrictions on fracking. South Australia went one step further recently, imposing a 10-year ban in the south-east of the state.

In Queensland there is no restriction on unconventional gas exploration and development, and early this year, the Northern Territory lifted a two-year moratorium on fracking, claiming it will create hundreds of jobs. The “more gas is good for jobs” is also the mantra of the federal government.

But WA Greens MLC Robin Chapple believes very few Indigenous people will be employed in the industry.

“A recent report by the Australia Institute has revealed that despite the oil and gas industry employing a marginally higher rate of Aboriginal people compared to other sectors, a fracking industry would likely only create between three and 19 full time jobs for Aboriginal people, based on sector wide employment rates,” he said.

 “Only one group in the Kimberley has indicated support for fracking based on the promise of jobs in an agreement with Buru Energy. The Yawuru, Nyikina Mungala and Walmajarri traditional owner groups, that have native title within the area that the government proposes to open up for fracking, have formally voted to oppose fracking.”

A spokesperson for the Minister for Mines and Petroleum said job creation figures were unclear.

“Those numbers can’t be confirmed until all approvals are obtained, Aboriginal landowners agree to fracking on their lands and the project is proved to be commercially viable. If it’s a small industry, it’ll create a small number of jobs. If it proves to be a large industry it will employ more,” he said.

“In any event it’s important that government does what it can to assist in the creation of jobs in regional and remote Western Australia, particularly if those jobs are available to Aboriginals and assist in supporting their communities.