Beetaloo Basin fracking inquiry gives gas industry more headaches

April 5, 2022
The packed-out inquiry into fracking in the Beetaloo Basin. Photo: Hannah Ekin

People from across the Northern Territory (NT) attended the Senate inquiry into fracking in the Beetaloo Basin on March 22. Many travelled hundreds of kilometres by road from the affected region to testify and put their opposition on the record.

The Senate inquiry was originally formed to examine how a controversial $21 million grant was given to oil and gas company Empire Energy. The company, which has links to the Liberal Party, is operating in the Beetaloo Basin. However, the hearing became a broader forum, focused on the deeply unpopular shale gas industry and its attempts to get started in the NT.

The chance to speak directly to federal decision makers is very unusual for most NT residents, particularly those from remote bush communities. Such was the enthusiasm to comment on the federal government’s “gas fired recovery” that the hearing room was packed, people had to sit on the floor or stand in the corridor.

The balance of power in the room was motivating.

This hearing was chaired by Yamatji-Noongar woman Dorinda Cox, the Greens’ spokesperson for mining. The panel included outspoken DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara women, Greens senator Lidia Thorpe and NT Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy, who is related to some of the Yanyuwa, Garrwa and Marra Nations of the country affected by fracking and who has been an advocate against it for many years.

The three First Nations women outnumbered Country Liberal Party senator Sam McMahon who tried to push the gas industry’s line.

The panel felt like a window into how different government could be if competent and compassionate First Nations women held the balance of power.

Thorpe challenged Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association CEO Andrew McConville on his acknowledgement to country, asking what that could mean to him. His confused response was that no production of oil and gas would happen without Traditional Owners’ consent, a point echoed by the two major companies active in the Beetaloo — Origin and Santos — when questioned later.

This was interesting, given that Traditional Owners have no legal right to veto under the “exploration” phase — the current stage where companies drill and frack to look for gas — to the “production” phase when they scale up and sell the gas.

There have been repeated calls to enshrine this veto right to First Nations’ communities.

The testimony from Nurrdalinji Chairperson and Beetaloo Traditional Owner Johnny Wilson, who lives 20 kilometres from Empire Energy’s exploration wells, was a highlight. He spoke of his deep concern “for our Country, our water, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage, which we know will be damaged if fracking goes ahead”.

The other highlight was Pierre Langehoven, who owns two cattle stations in the affected area, who said cattle and gas are incompatible.

This Senate inquiry cannot stop fracking in the NT. However, there is a real power in hearing from affected communities. It was energising for all those involved in the fight to stop fracking to hear from allies and know that they are not alone.

Traditional owners, pastoralists, environment groups and the broader Territory community are united in their opposition and this is already threatening the industry’s ability to get off the ground, no matter how much tax-payer money the federal government throws at it.

[Hannah Ekin is the Central Australian Frack Free Coordinator at the Arid Lands Environment Centre, NT.]

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