NT Shale gas boom set to meet resistance

NT shale gas & oil public meeting, Darwin, February 20. Photo: Environment Centre NT

About 120 people attended a public meeting on February 20 to discuss concerns about shale oil and gas exploration in the Northern Territory.

The meeting was organised by the Environment Centre NT and brought together a broad panel of speakers — representing the breadth of concern in the community about new and controversial methods of extracting unconventional gas.

Environment Centre director Stuart Blanch set the scene for the evening, outlining the scale of shale oil and gas in the NT. Mining companies want to explore about 90% of the NT. Large swathes have already been approved for exploration. The rest is under consideration.

This includes nearly all of Arnhem Land, national parks, popular fishing areas, water catchments and areas of high cultural significance.

Luke Bowen from the Cattlemen’s Association of the NT warned that biosecurity was under threat without stronger regulation and legislation to minimise the risks associated with shale oil and gas mining.

In the NT, Aboriginal people have the right to veto mining on land covered by the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA). Given the large amount of ALRA land, this provides an opportunity for traditional owners to make a big dent in the shale industry’s plans if they stand strong together and say no.
Burarra landowner and Protect Arnhem Land campaigner Eddie Mason said his community of Maningrida is waging a campaign to stop a near-shore petroleum exploration licence being approved on their country, including around sacred sites and mangrove areas — “the nursery for marine life”.

He said the government must “stop humbugging our area — stop humbugging the Earth”, drawing links between relentless resource extraction and climate change. “The rainbow serpent holds the Earth — if you dig it, it will move,” he said, referring to increasing “natural” disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones and fires.

Craig Ingram, from the Amateur Fishermen’s Association of the NT, said his members have an interest in many of the same areas as Mason’s people: the coastline, rivers and mangroves.

He said recreational fishers were concerned about the impact seismic testing had on marine life. Studies show that dolphins and whales are affected within a four-kilometre radius of the tests, and turtles within two kilometres. Fish within a five-kilometre radius of testing have been found with damaged hearing.

Lock the Gate president Drew Hutton inspired the audience with stories of alliances between farmers and environmentalists in New South Wales and Queensland.

He said community organising and civil disobedience were crucial: “We lock the gate because there is no other option: the approved path doesn’t work. A people’s movement is the only way that you can address the power difference.”

He said in NSW the campaign had “locked down the state”.

Discussion teased out the similarities and differences coming from the broad range of speakers. One audience member said some were calling for “tighter regulation”, but accidents during fracking — associated with methane leakage, water contamination and other concerns — were beyond regulation.

There was general agreement, and concern, about the many unanswered questions about unconventional gas, and the need for independent, scientific research into its impacts on the unique NT environment.

By the end of the meeting it was clear that more discussion, and a broad community campaign, was needed to respond to threats posed by an impending shale boom in the NT.

The minister for mines and energy, Willem Westra van Holthe, confirmed the need for a campaign the next day. After local news outlets on February 21 reported on the public meeting and interviewed its panel members all morning, van Holthe told reporters that afternoon that oil and gas had the potential to “transform the NT” — and he did not mean in a bad way.

“As well as offshore there is huge potential for oil and gas developments onshore.” He said that concerns about fracking had been raised, but the NT was “fortunate that our geological makeup presents us with a much safer platform for oil and gas extraction.”

He said the shale industry would help the Country Liberal government “in building tomorrow’s great Northern Territory”.