The campaign against fracking in the Northern Territory ramped up a few notches last week, with the government announcing a successful bidder in the North East Gas Interconnector project coming amid allegations of a conflict of interest for a key NT government advisor.
On November 18, the NT government announced a raft of changes to environmental approval processes, which it will now take to community consultation. While the proposals include some positive steps, such as making mining and petroleum operations subject to the Water Act, the Country Liberals' track record does not inspire confidence.
Indeed, the day before this announcement, the government announced Jemena had won the bid to build the $800 million pipeline which will take gas from Tennant Creek to Mount Isa, where it can then be transported to the eastern seaboard for export.
The pipeline had been on the cards for a while and had already drawn sharp criticism from traditional owners, landholders and environmentalists.
In early November, Frack Free NT pointed to new data showing there would be an oversupply of gas in coming years. Naomi Hogan of Frack Free NT said on November 3: “The Giles government's pipe dream is facing an abrupt wake-up call in the face of a gas supply glut around Australia and the world.
“It appears a very risky investment to pour around $1 billion into a gas pipeline that may not have any customers at the end of it.”
In response to the announcement about Jemena, the Environment Centre NT pointed out that it came before necessary approvals from the NT Environmental Protection Authority or the federal environment minister.
The pipeline was one of the key recommendations of the 2014 Independent Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the NT, conducted by independent commissioner Allan Hawke. That inquiry ruled out the need for a moratorium on fracking, which has been a key demand of the campaign in the NT.
Frack Free NT has raised concerns about Hawke's impartiality, pointing out that he sits on the board of Icon Water, which, along with the board of Jemena, manages a gas distribution venture called ActewAGL. Lauren Mellor, from Frack Free NT and the Lock the Gate Alliance, said the strong links between Hawke and Jemena should be investigated.
Concerned stakeholders vowed to campaign against the pipeline's construction. Gadrian Hoosan, a Garawa man from Borroloola, said: "We'll stand together against this pipeline to protect our land and community from the gas fracking explosion this government wants to push onto us.”
The day before the announcement, Hoosan joined a panel at a public meeting at parliament house, where traditional owners, pastoralists, environmentalists and others raised their concerns about the government's push for an onshore gas industry.
Daniel Tapp, from Big River Station, said: “'Developing the north seems to be about developing the port of Darwin and the gas industry. We should be developing a clean green food industry.
“At the moment, pastoralists have no veto rights over mining or exploration on their properties. The government says it is trying to change laws so that companies have to negotiate access agreements with landholders.
“I don't want to negotiate, I want to say 'no'. Total ban on fracking, I say.”
Hoosan has first-hand experience of what happens when water is poisoned. He told the meeting: “We're already dealing with contamination from the MacArthur River [zinc] mine.
“That poison should have stayed at the minesite but now the river is poisoned and we don't fish there anymore. That was our livelihood and they took it away.”
The meeting was hosted by independent Speaker Kezia Purick and chaired by Naomi Hogan from the Lock the Gate Alliance and Frack Free NT. The meeting was attended by a small number of MLAs, including environment minister Gary Higgins. But organisers were disappointed that Hawke, who had been invited, did not appear.
Instead, Hawke gave a keynote address the following evening to an invitation-only gas industry event at the Skycity Casino. Twenty-five campaigners gathered outside, trying to put their concerns to Hawke, but he stayed well away.
Frack Free NT kicked off its roadshow, visiting communities that stand to be affected by the onshore gas push. Tapp was joined by Dr Melissa Haswell from the Public Health Association; James Wright, an underground drilling expert; Mark Ogge, an economist with the Australia Institute; and local speakers in Katherine on November 18 and Mataranka on November 19.