More than 600 activists rallied here on April 22 to condemn Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s announcement that fracking would go ahead in the NT despite his election promise of a 5-year moratorium.
The Gunner Labor government was elected in 2016, partly on the promise to hold back on fracking which would open 51% of the NT to the controversial process of mining gas via hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.
A strong movement of environmentalists, landowners, recreational fishers, farmers and traditional owners have come together over several years to oppose fracking, supported by groups in other states.
The results of an inquiry, released on March 27, argued that by adopting a new regulatory framework the hazards of fracking could be minimised. On April 17 Gunner announced the NT would adopt those recommendations and allow fracking to go ahead.
Debate raged within Labor in the lead-up to Gunner’s announcement.
NT Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy told ABC News on April 19 that her office was flooded with calls of dismay at the decision: "It was a day of much sadness for many people … [for] the people who fought for that moratorium to stay in place.
“[It was] a sad day for the people of the Northern Territory, for the country, our environment and everything that we hold dear.”
McCarthy also took aim at the federal government, accusing it of “forcing” the Territory into the decision by starving it of funding.
NT government members Chancey Paech and Sandra Nelson were also against the decision.
Gunner has denied that intervention from the federal government influenced the decision and also denied that a better GST deal announced on April 23 had anything to do with it.
“Those external issues like Australian government commentary was secondary, not even secondary, it was not part of my decision making. For me it was about this report,” he said.
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had both encouraged the NT to lift the fracking moratorium and praised the decision.
From the outset, Gunner said fracking needs social approval to go ahead and some critics have said the 15-month inquiry process was designed to secure this approval rather than look at the issue objectively.
The proposals include “no-go” zones, increased monitoring and a new regulatory framework to oversee fracking development.
But even if these recommendations are successfully implemented, the ability for the NT to effectively control the fracking industry seems weak, given the public health crisis that was revealed when community members in the remote community of Borroloola received a letter on April 19.
The letter warned them against drinking the water due a lead leak in the water supply, which had become contaminated by the McArthur River zinc mine. The mine was approved by NT parliament in 1993 and has a history of water and fish contamination.
Gadrian Hoosan, a Garrwa and Yanyuwa man from Borroloola, has long been a supporter of the campaign to close the mine and began to rehabilitate the river.
He wrote a statement, which was read at the April 22 rally: “The NT Government Health Department just sent a letter, nothing else. They didn’t come to my door, they just sent a letter saying something like: ‘There is lead contamination in the drinking water’.
“It’s dangerous for pregnant women, kids and everyone really. They told us to drink bottled water. We live in the bush, next to a huge river, the McArthur River, and we have to drink from bottled water, or a tank on a truck. It is very scary for our families. I am very angry and so are all of our Elders and leaders…
“We demand clean water, and together with our allies, the Campaign for Water will ensure that fracking does not take place in our homelands or anywhere in the NT, where water is precious, where water is life, where water is poison.”
The health department said the crisis should only be for the short-term and an alternative source of drinking water will be provided in the meantime.
But if the NT can’t even provide safe drinking water in known mine sites, it does raise the question of how can it guarantee that its new regulations will be enough to protect water from the huge expansion that fracking would bring.
The anti-fracking campaign plans to target the NT Labor state conference on May 12 at the Darwin Entertainment Centre.