Will NT Labor stick to its fracking moratorium?

An rally in Mataranka last August against fracking in the NT.
Friday, March 31, 2017

Some 50 people rallied outside the Northern Territory Labor Party conference on March 25 to demand NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner keep his promise to ban fracking in the territory.

The Labor government came into power in the NT in a landslide on August 27. Among the many promises Labor made was a commitment to a moratorium on hydraulic fracking until the process is proven to be safe.

This promise is threatened by Labor’s continued support for the $800 million Northern Gas Pipeline (NGP). Approved under the previous Country Liberal government, the NGP would connect NT gasfields to the east coast market.

The pipeline could carry either fracked or conventional gas and opponents were rallying to convince Labor to allow only conventional gas to be transported through the pipeline.

Last week the pipeline was under attack from Traditional Owners who said the Northern Land Council and the Central Land Council had not informed them that the pipeline could be used for fracked gas.

Representatives from the Warumungu and the Wakaya people appeared on ABC TV on March 7 claiming the Northern Land Council had misrepresented them when they agreed to the pipeline crossing their lands.

Diane Stokes of the Warumungu people said: "The main concern that we have is about fracking. We don't want any fracking anywhere to get gas to go through that pipeline that's going through our country."

On March 24, Jemena — the company building the project — said that it had reached an agreement with the Wakaya people and their opposition had been withdrawn. As part of their previous agreement, Jemena promised to fund jobs and training services in those Aboriginal communities.

But Traditional Owners are not the only ones critical of the fracking agenda in the NT.

On March 14, the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association toughened its stance on fracking, demanding the right for its members to veto fracking on pastoral land.

Previously, the Association had only demanded mandatory agreements between pastoralists and miners, but it now supports the NSW model where landowners can veto any agreement with miners for any reason.

The anti-fracking campaign, united under the banner of “Don’t Frack The Territory”, has brought together environmentalists, farmers, pastoralists and Aboriginal Traditional Owners across the NT.

This broad support has made it an influential force for change in the NT, and many Labor delegates stopped to declare their support for the moratorium.  

Some among Don’t Frack The Territory are opposed to all new fossil fuel developments, but others are more incensed by the unique threat posed by fracking. The process uses high pressure water and other fluids to fracture rock around pockets of gas previously unreachable. This fracturing has greater risks of fugitive methane gas emissions — a powerful greenhouse gas hastening climate change — and leaks into the water table threatening human and animal health.  

There is also the question of cost.

Supporters of the pipeline are quick to point out that it creates jobs and spurs economic growth but a report released last year claimed that it is unlikely that much of the money raised would end up in the NT.

Pipe Dream: A Financial Analysis Of The Northern Gas Pipeline claims that gas prices are likely to remain low for the foreseeable future, which means that the NT government will be contractually obligated to subsidise the project for a long time to come. $800 million is a very expensive way to create the estimated 800 jobs it would provide.  

Jemena faces other problems. On March 22, construction company McConnel Powell announced it was pulling out of the project, leaving Jemena to seek new tenders. While Jemena has said this would not delay construction, it is hard to see this as other than a setback.

Indeed the gas mining boom in general may be slowing in the NT. On March 14, ABC News reported that more than 800 workers were stood down at Darwin Inpex offshore gas plant. This could be a signal that a gas-fuelled boom in the NT will not be the way of the future.

A government of vision could see that the way forward for the NT is beyond gas. It remains to be seen if Gunner’s is that government.

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