For years, gas companies have been eyeing the Beetaloo Sub-basin, 500 kilometres south-east of Darwin, in the Northern Territory.
Now, a compliant NT Labor administration, working hand in glove with the federal Coalition government, has emboldened them to step up production, despite widespread objections.
A 2018 NT government inquiry into fracking found the Beetaloo Sub-basin potentially contains one of the largest shale gas reserves on the planet — more than a hundred trillion cubic feet of gas. This has prompted profit-hungry companies to spend big on exploration.
Like coal seam gas, shale gas has to be extracted through a dangerous process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting toxic chemicals and huge quantities of water into the rock to extract the gas.
NT Traditional Owners, pastoralists and others have been vocal opponents of NT Labor’s moves to open up Beetaloo to companies such as Origin, Santos and Pangaea.
They say plans for up to 1200 wells over the next 25 years will guzzle and pollute water, contaminate land and compromise, if not destroy, First Nations culture and dreaming.
Many Indigenous elders remain opposed to fracking.
Ray Dimakarri Dixon, a Mudburra elder whose land lies on the Beetaloo Sub-basin, told Origin’s Annual General Meeting in Sydney last October: “For you [the land is] a resource to make money, for us it is our spirit, our songlines … it is an identity for who we are.
“What we understand is [that fracking] is not going to be good for our land or our people.”
Gadrian Hoosan, a Garrwa Yanyuwa man from Borroloola, also spoke at the AGM, saying: “We don’t want fracking in the NT ... we want a total ban and we want to make this clear to everyone.”
Speaking to Borderlands’ Lauren Mellor, Jingulu elder Janet Gregory said fracking companies were not welcome. “Any mistakes ... we’re the ones who will cop it.”
Remote NT communities already have to cope with prolonged drought conditions. Mellor, who is involved with the Protect Country Alliance, has documented how remote Aboriginal outstations “have been left without drinking water for weeks at a time”.
She writes: “This Dry season many rural residents have been forced to truck in their own drinking water.
“For a region almost entirely reliant on groundwater for its survival, water, who gets it, and how we manage it as we enter a drier, less certain climate future has become the talk of the Territory.”
Speaking to Green Left, Protect Country Alliance’s Daniel Robins said: “Origin are saying they prefer to hold their waste water in open-air tanks during the highly volatile wet season, when cyclones can flood water catchments in minutes. We are concerned that in the future fracking fluid could enter the rivers and creeks that people get their drinking water and fish from.”
Labor came to power in 2016 promising to heed the science on the dangers of fracking. To the relief of many, it imposed a moratorium on the practice.
But after a 15-month inquiry, which Mellor said “attracted unprecedented participation”, Labor concluded gas companies could frack in parts of the NT. This was despite the report finding there was an “overwhelming consensus” that “hydraulic fracturing for onshore shale gas in the NT is not safe, is not trusted and is not wanted”.
Robins told GL many people feel Labor lied to them. “Residents are upset that the Labor Party was elected on the promise of a 5-year ban on fracking. They feel like they were cheated.
“Our recent doorknocking, stalls and surveys show a vast majority still do not support fracking.
“Labor promotes gas as a ‘transition fuel’, but it is also beginning to admit that the jobs and economic benefits are not as significant as the industry has alleged.
“The Australia Institute has estimated the entire NT gas industry will only create the equivalent of 524 full-time jobs and most of those will be for fly-in, fly-out workers.”
If the NT is opened up to gas companies, more than 22 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents could be released, Robins said. Some estimates say this would be equivalent to more than 20 years of Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions.
“Origin Energy also admits it would use up to 60 million litres of water for a single fracked well. In a place where water is as precious as the NT, this is totally unacceptable.”
Robins has been helping at weekly protests outside the office of NT Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Eva Lawler, in Palmerston.
“The weekly protests are being organised by her local constituents”, Robins explains. “They want the minister to hold a community forum before the NT August elections to answer questions about fracking and water security.
“But she has been locking her doors and closing the curtains as constituents arrive.”
That is because she knows that fracking is very unpopular, Robins said.
More than 6000 people contributed public submissions opposing Origin’s plans to drill its Kyalla 117 well in the Beetaloo Sub-basin — but it went ahead anyway.
“The well was drilled 1900 metres vertically and 700 metres horizontally until the company said it experienced ‘operational challenges’,” Robins said. “The horizontal well had to be plugged, but Origin said it will resume drilling and begin to frack in coming months.”
Robins explained that a former senior manager of compliance at Origin turned whistleblower, Sally McDow, has alleged the company had a deliberate policy of ignoring leaking CSG wells.
“McDow alleged in 2017 that Origin’s business model included ‘serious compliance failures at its gas and oilfields’ and that it ‘victimises and intimidates anyone who dares to speak out’.
“With a customer base of more than 4 million Australians who may not know it is fracking in the NT, Origin has a lot to lose.”
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner insists Aboriginal people can veto gas companies wanting to frack on their land. But Dixon told Mellor this is wrong, because most land targeted for fracking is on pastoral leases where only limited Native Title rights apply.
Dixon said: “Many don’t realise that for the majority of our people, when it comes to fracking or mining, we don’t have any say over what happens on our traditional lands.
“We need to fix the power imbalance between our communities and the fracking companies, who right now can walk in, drill, frack and contaminate our land or water without our consent” Dixon said.
“The survival of our people and our culture relies on keeping that water healthy. We may not have much in the way of legal protections, but my people cherish this country, it’s like a diamond to them.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to protect it.”
[Sign the pledge to protect the NT from fracking here.]