Senator Larissa Waters questions NICNAS officials about their assessment of potentially toxic chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process for coal seam gas mining.
Senator WATERS: When I last spoke with you at the Senate inquiry into coal seam gas in August, I asked a few questions about the chemicals used in coal seam gas hydraulic fracturing fluids. You said at the time that you were still trying to work out which chemicals were being used in those fluids and that you thought there were about 50 or 60 common chemicals in the fluids used by the various companies. Do the companies have to advise you of the chemicals that they are using in the fracturing fluids?
Dr Healy: The companies are not required to notify NICNAS. Chemicals that are listed on the national inventory are available for industry to use without, necessarily, further consultation with NICNAS or notification.
Senator WATERS: You told us that you have assessed about four of those, roughly, 60 chemicals that are used in the fracking fluids, so there are 55 or so that you still have not assessed. You also told me that there is a fast-tracking process and that you are hoping to get through about 3,000 chemicals, which are not yet on the list, in the next few years. Are the coal seam gas chemicals on that list of the ones that you will look at shortly, or what is the time frame for working out if these chemicals are safe to be used?
Dr Healy: Yes, the fracking chemicals are included in the list that we will use the fast-tracking process for, and we are expecting that process to start in 2012-13.
Senator WATERS: If the coal seam gas companies are not obliged to tell you the chemicals that they are using, how do you know which ones to assess?
Ms Halton: We have been consulting with the companies as well as with the states and territories, particularly Queensland and New South Wales, but we have been consulting directly with the relevant companies.
Senator WATERS: If the chemicals are on the list but they have not been used in this manner—that is, in fracking fluids being blasted underground—is there a role for you to assess if this new usage of that listed chemical is appropriate?
Dr Healy: Yes, we can do that assessment, and that is what we are planning to do. The states and territories can also make a decision as they make decisions on the licensing arrangements.
Senator WATERS: So you can and in this instance you will, but you are not obliged to?
Dr Healy: Yes, we will. We have included them in the 3,000 fast-track.
Senator WATERS: But you have just chosen to do that; you are not obligated to do that?
Dr Healy: That is correct.
Senator WATERS: You told me last time that your the budget is about $9 million a year and you have about 60 staff, and that in the last 20 years you have been able to assess 220 chemicals, but you have 38,000 still to go. You mentioned you are implementing a new fast-tracking process that will allow you to get through about 3,000 in the next three years. If you were to assess all 38,000 in, let's say, five years, to a standard that is appropriate to ensure safety for people and the environment, how much additional resourcing would you need to get through that list in five years?
Dr Healy: We would have to consider that a bit further. We have not done the costings for the full 38,000. The initial 3,000 that we are looking at are predicated on certain availability of information, as well as certain tools. We will be using the experience of doing that 3,000 to determine the feasibility and cost for the larger part of the inventory.
Senator WATERS: So you cannot quite answer that question just yet? There is no point in taking that one on notice?
Dr Healy: I do not think so—not with any accuracy, anyway.
Senator WATERS: Good luck with the 38,000. I hope you get to them nice and quickly. Thank you.