Making fracking less fractious

Black Mountain Exploration starts to move mountains in Canning Basin

If there is one word that is a favourite of 29-year old US mining executive, Ashley Zumwalt-Forbes, it is “passion.”

The Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Fort Worth-based Black Mountain Exploration, is overseeing the company’s proposed fracking project in the onshore Canning Basin and is all-too-aware of the hysteria that the word often generates.

“I appreciate that fracking can be an emotive subject,” she says from her home base in Fort Worth, Texas.

The industry’s fracking fault

“That is the fault of the industry for not getting on the front foot and educating the public about what fracking really is. It’s incredibly frustrating that it’s become a dirty word. If people had accurate information about what was going on underground, they would be much better positioned to make an informed decision.”

For the record, fracking is the process of drilling into the earth and injecting a high pressure combination of water and sand into rock in order to unlock oil and gas trapped inside. The drill hole, the size of a manhole cover, is encased in steel or cement to prohibit leakage, and monitoring is conducted continuously to ensure rigid environmental protections are met.

Despite being successfully and safely deployed since 1940, then more popularised in the 1990s with the advent of horizontal drilling, impassioned critics maintain that fracking destroys drinking water, triggers earthquakes, and increases global warming.

This is a point of vexation and a reason two States, Victoria and Tasmania, have fracking moratoriums in place. The Western Australian Government had been one of these but it lifted its moratorium in November 2018 after a wide-ranging scientific inquiry which found that it posed a low risk to human health and the environment.

Passionate people need accurate Information

This is what Ashley means when she emphasises the importance of information instead of over-emotion.

“I love passionate people," says Ashley. “I am one. I’m just trying to reach out to people and say 'be passionate, but be passionate with the right information'. People need accurate data in order to make a judgement.”

Ashley says there are over a million wells across the various unconventional basins in the United States that have been fracked and the country has become accustomed to it as an industry that creates huge value for local communities, states, and the federal government.

“We’ve perfected it to a fine art and we are committed to informing people so they understand the process and why they shouldn’t be scared of it. The economic impact to local communities is tremendous.”

The Company, which has submitted plans to the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to drill and fracture six wells near Fitzroy Crossing, 400 km east of Broome, has begun a comprehensive program of consultation in the area, beginning with indigenous groups.

A personal mission to engage directly

“The first thing we did was be open and transparent with the Yungngora and Warlangurru peoples. They live on the title and it’s their land to speak for. They know what we are planning to do and that it will create employment and opportunities for the future so they want us to be there.”

Ashley says she has made it a personal mission to be the advocate and conduit for quality community engagement.

“I’ve been to the site five times now because it’s part of my personal belief system. I’m not going to buy anything if I haven’t seen it. I must see the site, meet with the stakeholders and steward the relationship building process. I need to stay across any challenges the community might face.”

Even with coronavirus restrictions prohibiting her ability to fly to Australia, Ashley says the community engagement is continuing with the team of 20 which Black Mountain employs in Perth.

“Just two weeks ago, our VP for Commercial and Operations Samantha Richardson, made the round trip, meeting up with indigenous stakeholders as well as those in local towns. She said the feedback remained strong and people were very excited about us beginning work.”

Ashley says this positive outlook is reinforced by the West Australian public’s understanding that the resource sector can help weather the recession.

“People there know what the industry is worth to them.”

A Canning Basin domestic gas solution

Due to COVID-19, and subject to final approval by the EPA, seismic testing is now expected to begin in 2021 with drilling scheduled for 2022.

The Company acquired its Noonkanbah Station acreage (EP 371) from Mitsubishi and Buru Energy.

“We ran their information through our own systems and analysis and have identified numerous targets in several different horizons.”

Independent evaluation of Black Mountain’s acreage has suggested a discovered resource of 1.5 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas and 32 million barrels (MMbbls) of liquids and a potential undiscovered resource of 25 TCF and 190 MMbbls.

Ashley says unconventional gas from the Canning Basin could be part of a wider solution to Australia’s domestic gas shortages either by piping gas south to link up with the Pilbara and the domestic gas trunkline from Dampier to Bunbury, or sending it east if a West-to-East transcontinental pipeline materialises.

The US Energy Information Agency has reported that the Canning Basin has the largest unconventional gas potential in Australia, a statistic that Ashley is well aware of as a Petroleum Engineer.

Even so, and as she told Forbes in a video interview (see link below) earlier this year, any project still needs its champions and although some people may not support you, it is important to outwork them, and prove them wrong.