22 April 2024

Top End secures funding for Beetaloo gas basin monitoring program following controversial Senate inquiry

| James Day
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Container ship off the coast

The NT Government said its monitoring program would ensure the fracking project had the strongest environmental safeguards, and is to be mostly run by Charles Darwin University. Photo: File/Creative_Curve.

After a week of tense public hearings into the Northern Territory’s Middle Arm Industrial Precinct, Chief Minister Eva Lawler said the government would commit to an environmental monitoring program for the Beetaloo Gas Sub-basin.

Two major energy projects currently underway in the Top End were the subject of recent Senate hearings in Darwin.

The NT Government has said the developments will help the Territory transition to renewable energy and accomplish its net-zero goals. However, there are concerns the projects will only worsen the effects of climate change on the NT.

There is a fracking project extracting natural gas from the Beetaloo Sub-Basin, where the NT Government has recently announced it will invest $2 million a year in its upcoming budget towards a regional monitoring program.

However, the core focus of the two public hearings held in Darwin was the Middle Arm Industrial Precinct, a sustainable development project focused on renewable hydrogen, advanced manufacturing, minerals processing, and carbon capture and storage.

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Earlier this month, Chief Minister Lawler and her government were brought before the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications for its Inquiry into the Middle Arm Industrial Precinct.

Chief Minister Lawler told the Committee – led by South Australian Senators Karen Grogan (Labor) and Sarah Hanson-Young (Greens) – the precinct would boost its economy with 20,000 jobs. She added that it had been carefully masterplanned since 2017 and undergone 200 technical studies, including some of the nation’s most exhaustive environmental, social and cultural assessments.

Yet when asked by ACT Independent Senator David Pocock whether the precinct would include petrochemicals processing, she said: “I won’t rule it out.”

Despite reassuring the committee that her government would do nothing to jeopardise the health of Territorians, the committee was alarmed by her statement – as the Commonwealth and NT had previously denied such a possibility.

Kirsty Howey, of the NT Environment Centre, provided the Senate committee with the findings of a draft social impact study report commissioned by the NT Infrastructure Department. According to the ABC, which saw this report, it found numerous health, environment and climate change concerns should be considered by the governments as either medium or high risk.

NT Chief Health Officer Christine Connors confirmed a range of industries posed a risk of harm, especially from industrial processing at the site.

Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe also asked the Territory Government why it had not gained the prior consent of Larrakia custodians for the Beetaloo basin fracking project, which they claim is damaging the waterways and sacred sites on their Country.

Djingili elder Samuel Janama Sandy told the inquiry that Middle Arm’s $1.5 billion in funding should instead be put towards education, health services, housing and infrastructure for the betterment of Northern Territory communities.

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Amid the inquiry, NT Coalition Senator Jacinta Price called the whole process more of a circus than a Senate inquiry. On Facebook, she claimed the hearings had started disgracefully with threats of cultural payback, intimidation and bullying.

“The NT isn’t just here for southerners to romanticise and admire as a museum timepiece,” the Senator wrote on her social media page. “There’s a reason why our most marginalised exist in northern Australia, and it’s because unlike the south, we’ve never had the opportunity to develop meaningfully.”

Coalition senators also accused Greens committee members of filling the hearing with the precinct’s critics. The Greens denied this, claiming that despite their invitations a number of gas companies had declined to give evidence at the Darwin hearings.

This was followed by a spirited response from Joel Riddle, the CEO and managing director of fracking company Tamboran Resources, the largest acreage holder and operator in the Beetaloo Sub-basin.

“For Senator Hanson-Young or anyone else to state the gas industry was not willing to appear at the Middle Arm inquiry in Darwin is false,” Mr Riddle said. “Tamboran told the Senate committee as early as last year we would appear, and had provided confirmation of attendance and witness names.

“As late as last Friday (5 April), we were told to expect a formal invitation to appear on April 11, however, on Sunday afternoon (7 April), we were told we weren’t on the agenda and dropped by the committee without warning or explanation.”

The Senate inquiry is due to provide its report on 13 August.

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