The Country Liberal government of the Northern Territory announced on October 26 it was extending a reservation over Darwin’s rural area to “protect rural and rural-residential areas of the Greater Darwin region from oil and gas development”.
“Whilst the Country Liberal government is open for business, we know it is not practical to have oil and gas development in the middle of the Greater Darwin Region”, said mines and energy minister Willem Westra van Holthe.
This announcement followed months of lobbying and campaigning by many residents after they discovered a petroleum exploration application over a large part of the rural area in July.
Shale gas is an unconventional gas that requires horizontal hydraulic fracturing — fracking — to be extracted from rock deep underground.
The original area covered by Exploration Permit 224 (EP224) covered many properties in Humpty Doo and elsewhere, as well as a bore field that supplies 20% of Darwin’s water.
Public objections to the application closed in mid-September. After raising awareness across the area, encouraging people to write submissions, lobbying local members and a burst of letters to the editor, residents faced a nervous wait while the government assessed the application.
The reservation will not cover all of the area threatened by EP224, but does protect the bore field and heavily populated areas around Humpty Doo.
The reservation will come as a relief to rural residents whose properties are now protected. But community campaign group Don’t Frack the Territory has pledged to continue calling for a moratorium on fracking across the NT, so that an independent inquiry can be held and the community can be fully informed of the risks.
In the same announcement, the government affirmed that it is “unashamedly supportive of the oil and gas industry”.
Chief Minister Adam Giles has been aggressively encouraging the development of an onshore gas industry to supply Asia and other Australian states. The NT holds huge shale gas reserves, although the industry is in the early stages of development and there is no commercial production yet.
But as the territory government talks up the potential of a massive gas boom, more communities are realising what is at stake and getting organised to protect their land and water.
Just days before the announcement of the rural area reservation, the government rejected a call from traditional owners in the Protect Arnhem Land campaign, who were asking for their coastal waters to be protected from exploration.
The Protect Arnhem Land campaign was created after 12 applications for petroleum exploration across Arnhem Land, including the coastal area around Maningrida, were lodged by US company Paltar Petroleum.
There is a precedent for certain mining practices to be banned due to environmental concerns. Earlier this year the NT government caved to pressure and banned seabed mining in areas around Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island.
But van Holthe said there would be no ban on petroleum exploration, despite traditional owners’ concerns. It seems the NT government thinks that some areas are more deserving of protection than others.
In Alice Springs on October 31, the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) hosted a community meeting about shale gas in the NT. About 30 people heard from ALEC’s Meg Humphreys, who gave a comprehensive review of the science of fracking, and the geological situation in central Australia.
Tracy Willoughby from the NT Cattlemen’s Association outlined pastoralists’ concerns about the industry, including the weak regulatory protection for landholders, who cannot veto access to their property. She suggested access agreements between pastoralists and petroleum companies could be mandated, rather than optional.
A representative from Santos, who was in the audience, said that company had recently committed to not entering properties without a negotiated access agreement, although it is not a legislated requirement in the NT.
The meeting also heard an update from the Don’t Frack the Territory campaign, which focuses on grassroots community education and mobilisation to protect the NT from the invasive unconventional gas industry.
[Emma Murphy works for the Environment Centre NT and the Lock the Gate Alliance, and addressed the Alice Springs meeting on behalf of the Don’t Frack the Territory campaign group.]