An energy economist says the world will watch as a proposal by an Australian onshore oil fracking company in the Kimberley is being reviewed by Western Australia’s environmental watchdog.

The WA Environmental Protection Agency this week released Theia Energy’s request for seven days of public comment, which outlines plans to drill and frack two exploration wells 155 kilometers southeast of Broome.

This is the second application for hydraulic fracturing in the region since a moratorium on the practice was lifted in 2018, with a proposal from Texas-based Black Mountain Energy currently under review by the EPA.

Roberto F Aguilera, a researcher at Curtin University, said that if proven viable, Theia Energy’s proposal had the potential to become Australia’s biggest oil project.

“It could theoretically be a huge project if you consider the resource of almost six billion barrels of oil and compare that with the proven oil reserves in Australia which are around two and a half billion, did he declare.

“But of course it’s one thing to have abundant resources, it’s another to be able to access them.”

Unleashing Australia’s Largest Oil Supply

There has been much speculation about the potential of Theia Energy’s Great Sandy Desert project, located in the northwest Canning Basin – which has some of the largest onshore oil and gas reserves in the country.

A project fact sheet produced by the Perth-based company and dated 2018 suggested that of the estimated tens of billions of barrels of oil to be locked up in shale rock on their oil lease, six billion barrels were recoverable.

The oil discovery is described as “unconventional”, meaning it is encased in dense rock that will require hydraulic fracturing, or fracturing, to allow the oil to flow to the surface.

The company, which has been contacted for comment, also previously released a concept graphic showing a network of wells, pipelines and a new port on the Kimberley Coast to support the project should it develop successfully.

The conceptual development of Theia Energy’s oil project shows a network of pipelines, roads and ports.(Supplied by: Theia Energy)

Economic and social challenges ahead

Dr Aguilera, who is also an oil consultant, said the idea was promising, but there were many financial, logistical and social challenges for this fledgling industry.

“That includes upstream infrastructure to be able to produce the resource, but also midstream facilities like pipelines to be able to deliver it to a market,” he said.

“Not to mention other factors such as environmental and public acceptance, which are also very important in determining a company’s social license to operate.

“Without this license, development becomes very difficult, as we have seen in many parts of the world.”

Dr Aguilera said building infrastructure such as pipelines was particularly expensive, but with oil prices holding near $90 a barrel, that could tip the scales in favor of the project.

Environmentalists remain opposed

While Theia Energy was able to negotiate an indigenous land use agreement with the Karajarri traditional owners in late 2020, the project continued to draw criticism from environmental groups.

Surroundings Kimberley director Martin Pritchard called on the state government to reject the proposal, which is near the environmentally sensitive Edgar Ranges and Fitzroy River catchment.

The Theia-1 exploration well
Theia Energy’s only well is the Theia-1 exploration well in the Great Sandy Desert, drilled in 2015 by Finder Exploration which was spun off in 2018 into Finder Energy and Theia Energy.(Supplied: WA Department of Mines and Petroleum)

“Our main concern is that although this proposal is one well, what this company is looking at are hundreds, if not thousands, of wells in this Kimberley region,” he said.

“This comes with concerns about the pollution of groundwater, surface water and the land clearing that would come with it, but also the carbon emissions that would come with both oil and gas extraction and the burning of the oil and gas for energy.

“We are very concerned that this could be major industrialization of the South Kimberley and we call on the WA State Government, in particular Premier Mark McGowan, to ensure this does not happen. “

Following the conclusion of the investigation by WA’s Independent Scientific Panel into Hydraulic Fracture Stimulation, the practice was found to pose a low risk to human health and the environment.

However, fracking is still banned in 98% of the state, with exploration permits limited to existing oil leases in the Kimberley, adjacent to the Dampier Peninsula region, an area northeast of Carnarvon and a area between Geraldton and Gingin.

A wide shot of anti-fracking protesters carrying banners and signs on the beach at Broome's Entry Point.
Protesters gathered in Broome after the WA government announced it was lifting its ban on fracking in 2018.(ABC Kimberley: Rhiannon Shine)

Worrying carbon emissions

According to a report by consultancy Climate Analytics, carbon emissions from fracking the Canning Basin would be double Australia’s commitment under the Paris Agreement.

The research was led by veteran climate scientist Bill Hare, who said there was a clear contradiction between emission reduction policies and simultaneous support for new fossil fuel projects.

Dr Hare said there was a global shift away from fossil fuels in favor of renewables, as many countries around the world strive to reach net zero targets by 2050.

A flame leaps from a gas well
The future of unconventional oil and gas fracking is in question as the world transitions to a carbon neutral future.(ABC News: Dan Fitzgerald)

“The International Energy Agency has made it clear that if we want to limit global warming to one and a half degrees worldwide, we cannot afford to develop new oil or gas reserves and use them” , did he declare.

“And I believe, as countries strive to increase their commitments and actions under the Paris Agreement, that will only intensify.

“It’s a historically significant moment now on climate change…and I think there’s a risk that the Western Australian government will end up on the wrong side of history on this.”

A mid shot of Bill Hare seated at a desk posing for a photo while holding a pen and leaning over a notebook.
Bill Hare has over 30 years of experience in climatology.(ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)

The public has until January 24 to submit comments on Theia Energy’s exploration well stimulation program.

An EPA spokesperson said the submissions and potential impacts would be considered, and then the environmental regulator would decide whether to assess the proposal.

They said any future proposals or significant increases to the returned proposal would have to be returned separately under section 38 of the Environmental Protection Act 1986.