The Northern Territory Labor government's claims the Middle Arm Development Precinct will be sustainable and that it is not subsiding fossil fuels will be held up to scrutiny now that a Senate inquiry has finally been established.
Resources and infrastructure minister Madeleine King claims the government’s $1.5 billion stake in Middle Arm, described as a “sustainable development precinct” is “not a subsidy for fossil fuels” but “an important way of setting up our economy for a sustainable future”.
The precinct on a peninsula, south of Darwin, is being touted by Labor as a “global-first” sustainable project, “largely powered by renewables”.
It is being marketed as a world-class industrial precinct with a focus on renewable hydrogen, advanced manufacturing, carbon capture and storage and minerals processing.
Its website states: “The Territory, Australia and our region need the Precinct in order to transition to renewable energy and achieve net zero by 2050.”
The NT has also committed to “no net increase” in emissions from fracking.
But a briefing document for Environment minister Tanya Plibersek, describes project as central to the expansion of the gas industry in the Beetaloo Basin gas industry.
Documents obtained by the ABC last year show the original business case described it as a “new gas demand centre”.
The NT government submitted its Growing Advanced Manufacturing in the Northern Territory's Middle Arm Industrial Precinct to Infrastructure Australia in September 2020 in an attempt to secure federal funding.
After several failed attempts to set up a parliamentary investigation, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young won support for one, when Labor backflipped, on September 5.
The inquiry had been recommended in a report from an earlier Senate inquiry that examined the Beetaloo Basin.
The Guardian reported the inquiry will focus on the likely and intended future uses of Middle Arm, funding from the federal and Northern Territory governments and the project’s impacts on the climate, health and cultural heritage.
“In the middle of the climate crisis, Anthony Albanese is continuing Scott Morrison’s gas-fired recovery with $1.5 billion of taxpayer money to subsidise gas export and petrochemicals 3km away from the suburbs of Darwin,” Hanson-Young said.
“Gas fuels the climate crisis and taxpayers should not be subsidising its dangerous expansion. Greenwashing gas and ‘petrochemicals’ as renewables means this entire project requires closer scrutiny.”
Independent ACT Senator David Pocock welcomed the inquiry, saying it was a win for communities.
“The government is investing $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds to enable a gas processing hub on Darwin Harbour, just 3 kilometres from Darwin’s suburbs. This goes against expert climate and health advice.”
University of NSW researchers said in August it was not credible to describe the precinct, which includes a gas plant, as “sustainable”.
They said that low-emissions projects planned “rely on highly speculative technologies” including a carbon-capture and storage facility — unproven technology.
Claims that Middle Arm would be substantially powered by renewable energy are in doubt, as one solar project which was planning a giant battery, went into administration this year.
There are also questions about two proposed green hydrogen projects as neither company has ever built one.
The UNSW researchers also criticised the decarbonisation plan for relying on carbon credits.
“Carbon offsets are contentious because they allow companies to keep pumping out carbon. And ensuring carbon credits represent genuine emissions reduction can be difficult.”
Climate activists and First Nations groups have also criticised the development.
Frack Free NT spokesperson Phil Scott said: “This confirms what groups like ours have been saying since day one — that the government-provided $1.5 billion for the Middle Arm Precinct will be a taxpayer-funded subsidy for fracking companies like Tamboran”.
According to GetUp! “At this rate, frackers like Tamboran Resources will be able to turn millions of tonnes of water into toxic fracking wastewater, leaving remote communities without access to the very thing that gives them life.”
Beyond Tamboran, several other companies have secured land at Middle Arm for various projects, including green hydrogen and ammonia production, critical minerals processing, and battery production. Fortescue Future Industries, led by mining magnate Andrew Forrest, is among those planning green hydrogen and ammonia facilities.
The NT government has said more than 20 other companies had expressed interest in building at Middle Arm.
“What have they got to hide?” WA Greens Senator Dorinda Cox asked in the Senate on August 9. The Senate inquiry aims to find that out.
Meanwhile, a delegation of Mudburra, Jingili and Manggarayi people shared their deep concerns about fracking, climate change and the over-extraction of water in the NT with MPs at Parliament House on September 14.
They called on the government to protect water and respect and listen to the cultural knowledge of water systems that First Nations people carry.