NT Labor gives fracking the go-ahead, despite First Nations’ objections

May 9, 2023
Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation
The Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation are fighting to stop fracking in the Beetaloo Basin. Photo: Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation

First Nations people, farmers and communities across the Northern Territory have condemned NT Labor’s decision to approve exploration permits for shale gas fracking in the Beetaloo Basin.

NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said on May 3 that as the Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing had concluded industry risks “could be managed” if 135 recommendations were implemented, the territory would welcome “jobs” and “secure energy”.

Fyles said opening up more of the NT to fracking would be part of the “transition to renewable energy technology”. She cited David Ritchie, a member of the inquiry, who had “provided advice” that “ensures an onshore industry will be operating to world’s best practice”.

While onshore gas has been mined across the NT for some time, the Beetaloo Basin had been ruled out after campaigns to protect the recharge area of Mataranka Springs — supporting important freshwater aquatic ecosystems — and extensive tropical savannah woodlands forced the NT government to place a moratorium on exploration in 2016 and hold an inquiry.

The inquiry report, released by Hon. Justice Rachel Pepper in 2018, provided a set of recommendations to “mitigate to acceptable levels” identified risks with onshore shale gas development.

Fyles said “tough and uncompromising” new measures would “create a sustainable environment”, including $2 million a year for a new “Petroleum Operations Unit”.

She also insisted that First Nations people would be able to veto developments. However, experts in Native Title law say it is not as simple as that, as rights to control what happens on country varies according to land tenure.

The federal Aboriginal Land Rights Act gives Traditional Owners rights to control activities on their land. But as most of the Beetaloo Basin where gas companies want to mine is on a pastoral lease, which is covered by Native Title law, a veto is not possible. About half of the NT comes under the Native Title Act 1993.

Even the Pepper report found that: “If Traditional Owners want development on their country, they are forced to make a decision at a time when there is limited information available about what the size of the final project will be.”

Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (NNTAC) chair Johnny Wilson — whose organisation represents more than 60 native title holders from 11 native title determination areas throughout the Beetaloo Basin — is concerned about the lack of a veto right for native title holders. “When our old people said yes, many years ago, they had no idea of the many thousands of wells we are looking at now,” he said on May 6.

Lock the Gate (LtG) said many fracking companies have been attempting to gain approvals over the last decade to explore and develop the large onshore shale gas reserves believed to exist in the Roper-Gulf Region.

“Affected communities in the northern area of the Beetaloo Sub Basin include Katherine, Barunga, Beswick, Mataranka, Jilkminggan, Minyerri and Ngukurr,” LtG said. “The central area includes communities in Larrimah, Daly Waters, Dunmarra, Newcastle Waters, Marlinja and Elliott. Communities affected in the east include Borroloola and Robinson River as well as Tennant Creek in the South.”

First Nations peoples, represented by NNTAC, have said that there has been no genuine free, prior and informed consent process, LtG said.

“While some Traditional Owners have supported gas exploration on their land, many other affected groups oppose fracking but have had no opportunity to exercise their free, prior and informed consent rights.

“When Traditional Owners take their objections before parliamentary inquiries and company AGMs, gas companies and politicians simply rely on the Traditional Owner’s lack of legally enforceable free, prior and informed consent rights to ignore them.”

Tamboran, Empire Energy and Santos want to start operations soon. Tamboran, which has major United States financial backing, said it is ready to begin drilling in July, with “the most powerful rig drill rig in Australia” having just arrived in Darwin.

Tamboran chief executive Joel Riddle told the Australian Financial Review on May 5 it is able to drill more than 3000 metre horizontal sections in the main shell plate. “This is a big deal because the longer horizontal wells that we can drill with this rig, the more reserves that we can recover per well and it will be a real driver to bring down well costs and also improve the economics of the Beetaloo development.”

One hundred scientists and other experts sent an open letter to Fyles last November warning her that large-scale gas production in the Beetaloo Basin could add 89 million tonnes of emissions to the atmosphere annually — the equivalent to four times the NT’s current emissions and 18% of the country’s emissions.

First Nations opposition to shale gas drilling in the NT is being sidelined just as the nation is being urged to listen to First Nations voices and vote “Yes” to enshrining a First Nations Voice to parliament in the Constitution.

Traditional Owners from the region have called for a halt to fracking exploration and production until proper consultation is done and the combined risks from what will be a major industrialisation of their country are better understood.

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