More than 100 people gathered in a park in Katherine on March 24 to launch the Frack-Free NT Roadshow, a group of pastoralists, traditional owners and environmentalists doing community education and outreach in the Roper and gulf country.
Days before the event, the Northern Territory government announced it had granted a petroleum exploration licence over a massive parcel of land near Katherine. The licence covered iconic Elsey Station and Bitter Springs — both prime pastoral land — and the Aboriginal community of Jilkminggan, 25 kilometres south of Mataranka.
Many people at the March 25 event had not heard the news and were devastated. However the mood was strong and defiant. A range of speakers, including traditional owners and pastoralists, described their commitment to stop companies fracking the land. There was a sense of different parts of the community uniting behind an important cause.
Pastoralist Daniel Tapp, from Big River Station, told of other extractive companies on his land, and how few rights he had — he hadn't even known they were there until he was out checking the fences one day. This is entirely legal under the loose regulatory framework of the NT.
"When I say my land, I really mean our land,” Tapp said. "I'm just looking after it. We all have to look after it … Lock the gates, people, before it's too late."
Nancy McDinney, a Garawa traditional owner, was one of a group of leaders joining the roadshow from Borroloola. McDinney and others have been launching a strong campaign against contamination of their country by the McArthur River zinc, lead and silver mine. Petroleum companies also have that area in their sights and McDinney and her family are gearing up for a fight.
"The land is more important," she told the crowd. "Our rivers, our bush life. Countrymen: we speak different languages but we need to come together and say ‘frack off!’."
Djungan custodian Colin Judulu Neale from Yarrabin in North Queensland is part of a small delegation of traditional owners joining the roadshow from across the border. They have been fighting the damaging and invasive unconventional gas industry in their country. He reminded the audience that Aboriginal law gave everyone the responsibility to share and protect country.
Dr Bruce Hocking, a long-time GP from Katherine, was concerned about the lack of adequate research into the health risks associated with fracking. "We don't want fracking to be our generation's thalidomide."
The roadshow, which includes David Morris from the Environmental Defenders Office, Tapp, McDinney and other traditional owners, and representatives from the Frack Free NT Alliance, will visit pastoral stations, communities and outstations targeted by petroleum countries.
The roadshow comes just after the NT government released the Hawke Report into hydraulic fracturing in the NT. The report found that a robust and effective regulatory regime was not yet in place in the NT, but said there was "no justification whatsoever for the imposition of a moratorium". Despite the lack of adequate regulation, the NT government appears to be going full steam ahead with the granting of exploration licenses.
Lauren Mellor from the Frack-Free Alliance said: “NT Petroleum Law is the weakest in Australia, and landholders have few rights to stop access to unwanted invasive exploration and mining on their land. The regulators NT EPA [Environment Protection Agency] and NT DME [Department of Mines and Energy] are unprepared and under-resourced to manage the risk posed by the thousands of wells planned by shale gas companies in the NT.
“If fracking goes ahead it will be communities, landholders and the public who will be left with the long-term economic and environmental costs, not the gas companies or even the current NT government who will be long gone.”