Across the Mid West and Kimberley regions of WA there is currently a mad scramble by companies to develop new onshore oil and gas resources. Many of the companies claim their developments are conventional and will not involve fracking. However these claims don’t always hold up.
Conventional, shale and tight sands gas deposits, what’s the difference?
Conventional gas deposits are generally easier to extract than unconventional gas. Unconventional gas is found in tight sands or shale deposits deep underground. All shale gas requires fracking and most tight sands gas requires fracking. Fracking involves pumping large volumes of water, chemicals and sand into the ground at high pressure to release gas.
Conventional gas does not need to be fracked to make it flow but the industry sometimes uses fracking to increase the flow of gas in conventional gas fields. The diagram shows the difference between conventional gas and tight sands and shale gas deposits.
Waitsia a new conventional and unconventional development
At Waitsia, in the Shire of Irwin, there are plans to develop a massive gasfield. The outwardly conventional gasfield is owned by Japanese company Mitsui & Co, Ltd. Its subsidiaries Mitsui E&P Australia and AWE work the project under the banner of MEPAU. Beach Energy, of which Kerry Stokes is a director, also owns a large stake in the Gasfield development. It is one of the largest onshore gasfields ever discovered in Australia and was found accidently while exploratory drilling was targeting known unconventional gas reserves in the area’s tight sands. The company says that under normal operations it employs a total of just 11 people in the Mid West of WA.
The Waitsia Stage 2 plans include injecting more than 1 million cubic metres of waste water underground into old gas wells over the next 20 years. Six additional wells are part of the plans, as well as a massive new gas production facility, a new pipeline to link it all up. What will stage 3 entail?
There are several gas deposits in the Waitsia area that will require fracking. These deposits are the Synaphea, Irwin and Senecio gas fields. Investor documents for the gasfield have openly admitted to a plan to develop fracking wells alongside the larger conventional resource. The Senecio 2 well was fracked in 2012. The company has told its investors that there is “significant potential beyond Stage 2”. It is referring to the additional 234bcf of gas it can potentially extract from the tight sands fields that will require fracking. Once the pipelines and other infrastructure are in place there will be nothing stopping the proponent from trying to develop the fracking side of their business plan.
Conventional oil and gas wells can be fracked to increase production.
In 2018 the founder of oil and gas contractor Terrex Seismic, Steve Tobin, was reported in The West Australian as saying that the then fracking moratorium was holding up the development of both conventional and unconventional gas resources in WA because fracking could increase the production of a gasfield and the industry was waiting to see if the bans would be lifted before committing to develop even conventional fields. This statement indicates that while companies claim they won’t need to frack they may still use the technology once the gasfield or oilfield is up and running in order to boost the production of their wells and speed the extraction process along.
Close scrutiny needed
But even without fracking the development needs close scrutiny. Conventional gas wells are not benign. They have been implicated in water contamination issues, excessive water use and problematic waste production. A study published in June this year in the journal Groundwater suggests that conventional gas and oil production methods also seriously affect groundwater.
The research "Conventional Oil--The Forgotten Part of the Water-Energy Nexus” warns that the environmental impacts of all oil and gas production needed further study and the practice of injecting water underground during conventional oil and gas activities has the potential to contaminate groundwater supplies. It also warned that orphaned conventional oil and gas wells could be leaking leading to contamination of freshwater aquifers.
Conventional gas wells have also been linked to earthquakes
Fracking wells have been linked to earthquakes but so have conventional gas wells. In the Netherlands region of Groningen local famers and townspeople have sought multi-billion dollar damages claims against gas producers Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil after repeated earthquakes damaged buildings and slashed the value of properties in the region. The problem is so bad that the Government of the Netherlands has ruled that all gas development in the region will have to cease by 2022(and fracking for tight shale gas is already banned).
Conventional gas developments are still new fossil fuel developments
The Waitsia gasfield is a new fossil fuel development that will be coming online right at the time when the world is moving away from fossil fuels. Developing the Waitsia gasfield will lock us into another 20 years of a rapidly outdating and anachronistic resource. We are only using about 3% of gas produced in WA domestically, our household and industry use has been declining. Our renewable energy capacity is increasing greatly. WA does not need to develop these new fossil fuel resources.