Northern Territory buckles to federal pressure on gas

A protest in Darwin on April 18 against the NT government's decision to allow fracking

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Northern Territory parliament in Darwin on April 18 to protest the Labor government’s decision, announced the day before, to lift the ban on fracking. Another protest is planned for April 22.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced the onshore ban on fracking would be lifted following the tabling of an independent report which concluded that the risks associated with the hydraulic fracturing of gas could be “managed” and “regulated”.

The Northern Territory Minister for Natural Resources Ken Vowles denied the territory had been bribed, or bought, by the federal government’s offer of a greater slice of GST revenue if the ban was dropped.

The Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory, headed by Justice Rachel Pepper ran from December 3, 2016. Pepper claims the report did not recommend whether or not the ban should be lifted.

But, among the conclusions, she found that if all the inquiry’s recommendations were to be implemented “the identified risks associated with any onshore shale gas industry can be mitigated or reduced to an acceptable level, and in some cases, the risks can be eliminated”.

Naomi Hogan from Lock the Gate Alliance, said the government had failed regional and remote Territorians who oppose fracking due to its devastating impacts on land and water. She said those who rely on tourism, agriculture, pastoralism and fishing for their livelihoods felt particularly betrayed.

“It’s shameful for the government … to ignore the concern and opposition to fracking from the majority of Territorians and Aboriginal people in regional communities” she said.

“More than half of the NT is now at risk of fracking — at risk of damage from thousands of fracked gas wells, water impacts and widespread industrialisation”.

The Beetaloo Sub-Basin, 500 kilometres south-east of Darwin, in the Sturt Plateau region is what has been described as “ground-zero for onshore gas”. It is also thought to contain oil.

Origin Energy wants to frack its gas reserves, which the industry says is around 6.6 trillion cubic feet. Knowing the fracking decision is controversial, it has promised to employ “locals” rather than fly-in, fly-out workers. Santos, also keen to get drilling, has made the same comment in relation to jobs in the industry.

Last year, Origin’s own environmental report for 10,000 square kilometres of the Beetaloo Sub-Basin warned that drilling could pose a risk of causing aquifers under some properties to leak into each other. It also found groundwater could be affected by gas mining.

An investigation by the ABC’s Bridget Judd found about 70% of the Territory’s prospective shale gas resources occur in the Beetaloo Sub-Basin. “It’s considered so promising that it’s pulled in around 50% of the total $505 million of exploration investment in the NT since 2010.”

The basin is home to many Indigenous communities, who do not agree with fracking. It is also an important pastoral area.

Hogan said that the report’s 135 recommendations had identified serious information gaps. “Lifting the moratorium before studies are done demonstrates a risky ‘frack and see’ approach.” She also said that the high costs associated with fracking clean-up and regulation of the industry outweigh the revenue that the industry brings to the Territory.

“The Gunner government can be certain the depth of opposition to this invasive industry will continue to grow across the tourism, cattle and farming industries as the threat of fracking gasfields becomes very real and urgent.

“Territorians everywhere will be holding the government accountable, and will band together strongly to prevent gas companies riding roughshod over communities and the Territory’s water resources.”

The Don’t Frack the Territory group said the battle is far from over: “From Alice to Darwin communities rallied [on April 18] determined not to let the Chief Minister’s gutless cave in to fracking company interests slow our fight to protect land, water and livelihoods from invasive gasfields.

“Our answer to the government riding roughshod over community voices and our democratic process is: we pledge to build an even bigger, more powerful movement of the people to keep the fracking industry out, and out politicians accountable.

“Now more than ever we need your support and solidarity to ensure no community is made a sacrifice zone for this toxic industry.”

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