The Andrews Labor government in Victoria has announced it will lift a moratorium on the exploration of onshore conventional gas reserves, but will enshrine a permanent ban on fracking and coal seam gas exploration in the state’s constitution.
The Victorian government will introduce two bills to parliament, with one effectively lifting a moratorium and allowing for a restart of onshore conventional gas exploration from 1 July 2021.
The second bill will seek to amend the Victorian state constitution, enshrining a permanent ban on fracking and coal seam gas exploration. Such amendments can be passed by the Victorian parliament, and it may not be necessary to be put to a vote by Victorian electors.
In lifting the moratorium, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said his government is responding to scientific findings, as well as delivering on an election promise to include fracking ban into the state’s constitution.
“We’re backing the science to create jobs, boost energy supply and support regional communities across the state,” Andrews said in a statement.
“We promised to enshrine our historic ban on fracking in the constitution and we’re delivering – to protect farming communities, and our huge food and fibre sector.”
Adding to this, Victorian minister for resources Jaclyn Symes said that the decision had followed an evaluation of scientific research on the environmental impacts of gas exploration which confirmed the need to lock in a ban on fracking but supported a restart to conventional gas exploration.
“Three years of research shows securing local gas supply for Victorians will not come at the cost of the state’s groundwater supplies, agricultural industries or our farming’s clean and green reputation,” Smyes said.
The Victorian government placed a moratorium on fracking within the state in 2017, which has attracted criticism from Coalition governments at both State and Federal levels, which have advocated for a ramping-up of Australian gas exploration.
The announcement follows the release of findings from a three-year study into Victoria’s gas resources, which concluded that the recommencement of onshore conventional gas exploration would not have “any material impact on ground and surface water quality or quantity.”
Additionally, the report found that ” the minimum, low and medium scenarios” for gas development would “have no material impact on existing farm industries, food and biosecurity” but may have a slightly negative impact under a “high” gas development scenario.
The assessment completed by the Geological Survey of Victoria estimated 128 to 830 petajoules of onshore gas reserves have been identified across Victoria. The extraction of this gas would be expected to contribute an additional 0.1 to 0.3 per cent to Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions, not accounting for emissions released through the use of the gas itself.
Federal energy minister Angus Taylor has said that a boost to Victoria’s gas production would be a core demand of any bilateral deal struck between the federal and Victorian governments on energy investment.
The NSW government has already struck such a deal, securing $1 billion in federal funding towards energy developments, and in return agreed to boost gas production by up to 90 petajoules a year.
“We would like to replicate [the NSW bilateral deal] in other states and Victoria is one we would like to do it with. I mean we’ve been very clear about the prerequisites for that but it is a deal we want to do. I’ve spoken with the Victorian Minister about it,” Taylor said.
“There’s been no secret that we want to see more gas in the system in Victoria.”
The lifting of Victoria’s moratorium on onshore conventional gas opens the door to Victoria striking a similar compromise with the federal government, which may see an increase in gas production facilitating federal government co-investment in clean energy projects.
The Energy Users Association of Australia welcomed the announcement and called on both the State and Federal governments to now boost the support of natural gas.
“While just supplying more gas isn’t a silver bullet that will solve all the issues in our gas markets, the increased competition and availability of supply is a critical step in the right direction,” EUAA CEO Andrew Richards said.
“State and Federal Governments must now move quickly to accelerate development of Victorian conventional gas reserves. We encourage them to work proactively together to ensure we not only get more gas flowing but enhance competition by supporting diversity if suppliers.”
The Victorian Greens labelled the decision to recommence onshore gas exploration as “disaster capitalism”, claiming that the Andrews government was using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to backtrack on the gas bans.
“It is truly appalling that the Victorian Labor Government is trying to pull the wool over our eyes by making this disastrous announcement in the middle of a pandemic. Opening up more drilling for gas is terrible for our farmers, environment and climate,” Victorian Greens environment spokesperson Ellen Sandell said.
“What kind of future is Dan Andrews planning for us?”
This was a criticism echoed by the Doctors for the Environment, who said that now was not the time to be rolling back environmental protections.
“As a health professional the timing of this announcement is entirely inappropriate. Gas is a polluting fossil fuel that puts Victorians’ health and safety at risk,” Doctors for the Environment spokesperson and GP Katherine Barraclough said.
“We’re facing an unprecedented health crisis at the moment with COVID-19, and the medical profession is stretched to the limit. Backpedalling on the onshore gas drilling ban at this time is an highly irresponsible move by the Andrews Government.”
Environmental groups likewise slammed the decision, saying that the lifting of the moratorium would work to undermine Victoria’s efforts to date to address climate change.
“Climate science makes it abundantly clear we need to keep most fossil fuels in the ground if we are to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change,” Friends of the Earth’s campaigns coordinator Cam Walker said.
“Today’s decision is a profound lapse of judgement by the Andrews government. One that undermines their other achievements on climate and energy policy”.
The moratorium was set to expire on 30 June of this year, and the Victorian government has said it will now commence work on the development of consultation guidelines and processes for the gas industry to engage with communities.
The Andrews government expects that the lifting of the moratorium could help generate more than $300 million in economic activity and support the creation of up to 6,400 jobs.