Fracked Futures

Funding climate collapse in the Northern Territory

Playing chicken

I steel myself for the last 380 kilometres of the drive between Darwin and Borroloola. After refilling the car at the Hi-Way Inn, I turn left from the Stuart Highway onto the single-lane bitumen of the Carpentaria Highway. This road can be treacherous after six hours of driving, especially for those unused to the etiquette of dealing with oncoming traffic on the Northern Territory’s remote roads. The rules are supposedly simple: when the time is right, you slow down and ease your way off the bitumen entirely and onto the gravel to allow the other vehicle to safely pass you. In practice, it can feel like a game of chicken, as you navigate the jagged edges of the paved road and the potholes washed out by the previous wet season, doing your best to avoid slashing your tyres in the process.

As roads go in the Territory, the Carpentaria isn’t even that bad. Our road network differs from others in Australia—a cause and effect of what politicians like to refer to as the Territory’s ‘under-development’. Only a quarter of the Territory’s roads are sealed, apparently putting us behind countries like Botswana, Togo, Senegal, Tonga and Afghanistan. But upgrading roads is expensive, particularly in the remote Northern Territory, where labour and materials don’t come cheap. It’s also hard to meet the criteria set for road funding by Commonwealth bodies such as Infrastructure Australia: there’s just not the population or the traffic to sustain the business case. Those living in the remote and predominantly Indigenous town of Borroloola, for example, must endure the hazards inherent in simply driving along their ‘highway’ if they want to get around.

Money for gas

If the gas industry gets its way, this hazardous reality will soon change. As I careened along the Carpentaria Highway in September, a trip I’ve done many times before, I was conscious that the fragile strip of tar was now designated a national Road of Strategic Importance, a critical piece of infrastructure connecting nodes within the highly prospective shale-gas fields of the Beetaloo Basin. Vastly inflated job and economic figures are bandied about to support largely unsubstantiated claims that exploiting the Beetaloo Basin using hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) techniques will somehow save an NT economy on the brink of collapse, simultaneously ‘gas-firing’ the Australian economy’s recovery from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The problem with that assertion is that the onshore gas industry doesn’t seem to be viable without an obscene amount of public money.

The ragged Carpentaria Highway is set to be one beneficiary. The Commonwealth government has promised $123 million to upgrade it, part of a wider strategic plan to ‘unlock the Beetaloo’. It’s not the needs of residents in places like Borroloola but the promise of wealth from exploitation of ancient shale-gas fields 4km underground that has prompted the government to finally fund the sealing of the road ‘to a dual-lane standard…offering substantial safety benefits for all road users’.

Fracking alley

If tying basic essential infrastructure to fracking isn’t cynical enough, there’s more. As I swerve on and off the bitumen, I pass familiar station entrances, now known more for their fracking wells than for their cattle enterprises, Amungee Mungee station (where gas giant Origin operates) and Tanumbirini Station (part of Santos’ fracking operations) among them. There’s no visible entrance to the Aboriginal-owned Carpentaria-Balbirini Station, where ‘gas junior’ Imperial Oil and Gas recently received approval from the NT government to drill seven new fracking wells, as well as $21 million in handouts from the Commonwealth government. 

Imperial Oil and Gas is owned by Empire Energy, chaired by Liberal Party figure Paul Espie. Empire paid for Espie and federal energy minister Angus Taylor to fly to its Beetaloo tenements in October 2020 in a promotional trip for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s gas-fired recovery and the Beetaloo Basin. Two months later, resources minister Keith Pitt announced a $50-million fund to speed up fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, giving Imperial its financial windfall. The Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Instrument grants public money directly to gas companies to fast-track drilling and fracking so that the ‘hottest play on the planet’ can be realised as quickly as possible. 

The hottest play on the planet

Hot is certainly the right word to describe the lands and waters overlying the Beetaloo Basin. 

The Territory is already experiencing profound impacts from climate change, and these are set to intensify, with more severe cyclones, increased droughts, erratic and extreme temperatures, saltwater incursion into drinking-water aquifers, and changed fire regimes. Climate change will make worse existing entrenched inequalities in housing, health, infrastructure and employment, with impacts felt disproportionately by Indigenous people such as those in nearby Borroloola. 

If production proceeds in the Beetaloo Basin, it will unleash a carbon bomb of huge proportions, and expose the Northern Territory’s environment and people to numerous other risks associated with fracking, including contamination of groundwater supplies, which make up 90 per cent of the Territory’s consumptive water use.

Due to public concern about these risks, five years ago the newly elected Gunner Labor government announced a moratorium on fracking and convened the Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory to investigate whether it could proceed safely. The inquiry found that, if all of its recommendations were implemented, ‘not only should the risks associated with an onshore gas industry be minimised to an acceptable level, in some instances, they can be avoided altogether’. However, the inquiry also found trenchant opposition to fracking by an overwhelming majority of those who participated in the inquiry, including many Traditional Owners of the lands and waters where fracking would occur.

The Gunner government lifted the moratorium on the basis that all of the inquiry’s 135 recommendations would be implemented.

While less than half of these recommendations have so far been implemented, one has been a particular headache. The inquiry found that the life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions from fracking the Beetaloo would contribute between 4.5 per cent and 6.6 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse-gas emissions—an ‘unacceptable risk’. It recommended that the NT and federal governments ‘seek to ensure that there is no net increase in greenhouse gas emissions emitted in Australia from any onshore shale gas produced in the NT’. It turns out that the inquiry may have significantly underestimated the scale of emissions from the Beetaloo. Freedom of information documents suggest that the Commonwealth’s own environment department considered that emissions from the Beetaloo ‘may be difficult to offset’, would impact Australia’s ability to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, and could be more than four times larger than the inquiry’s estimate. 

Three and a half years on, Territorians have no idea how the Beetaloo’s emissions will be offset, if indeed that is possible. Leading forecaster for Australian energy markets RepuTex recently quantified the cost of offsetting these emissions using Australian Carbon Credit Units at around $22 billion, making fracking all but unviable without vast injections of even more public money. The Climate Council has estimated that fracking the Beetaloo will make the Northern Territory the highest-greenhouse-gas-emitting jurisdiction in the world on a per capita basis. In any case, the International Energy Agency recently made it clear that no new gas fields should be developed if we are to keep within the limits set by the Paris Agreement: this alone should sound the death knell for fracking the Beetaloo.

Stranded in gas town

You can detect more than a hint of desperation in the frenetic press releases by Morrison government ministers insisting that the Beetaloo will gas-fire our economy. Perversely, global pressure for immediate cuts to emissions has provided renewed impetus for continued funnelling of public funds to an industry destined for collapse. Time’s running out for gas, so you might as well get the stuff out of the ground and make a quick buck while you can. The Commonwealth’s Beetaloo Strategic Basin Plan itself concedes that there’s only a ‘window’ of time for ‘maximum gas demand’, reflecting widely held concerns that the Beetaloo’s fracking fields and associated infrastructure may well turn out to become stranded assets. 

Ever more preposterous plans to sustain the industry are unveiled by the month. For example, Darwin Harbour is slated for a new ‘sustainable development precinct’ that would see highly toxic industrial plants established, using Beetaloo gas as a feedstock for the creation of products such as petrochemicals and plastic. This is consistent with a global trend in the gas industry: as the world moves away from fossil fuels as an energy source, plastic production is used to justify continued fossil-fuel development. Quite aside from the considerable life-cycle emissions from plastics (‘solid climate change’), creating a new cancer alley in the highly valued recreational fishing grounds of Darwin Harbour is something that Territorians are unlikely to support. Even more troubling are plans for a carbon capture and storage facility in the same spot. Like every other CCS facility in the world, this plan has no prospect of offsetting the gargantuan emissions likely to be generated by fracking the Beetaloo Basin. 

The circuit breaker

Earlier this year a Senate inquiry into oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo Basin brought much-needed national scrutiny to this madness. In July, the inquiry heard explosive evidence about the nature and circumstances of the grants to Imperial Oil and Gas, the failure of the Gunner government and the Morrison government to implement a number of the fracking inquiry’s recommendations, and much more. 

The inquiry also heard intensely moving evidence by Traditional Owners from the Beetaloo Basin who made clear their continued opposition to fracking. Yes, in many cases there were agreements in place negotiated under the Commonwealth Native Title Act (1993) and Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (1976). However, these were negotiated in time-constrained circumstances many years ago, well before the fracking inquiry revealed the manifold risks associated with fracking, and without the benefit of development scenarios showing hundreds of fracking wells and mammoth greenhouse-gas emissions if the industry proceeds. For Johnny Wilson of the Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, the injustice embedded in gifting public money to fracking companies in a place like the Northern Territory is profound:

Just like other traditional owners on country, we are struggling to even get the basic maintenance for our land, for our community, and yet the government is willing to pour so much money into destroying our country. 

Residents of towns like Borroloola wait years and years for infrastructure like public housing and will be subjected to the very worst impacts of climate change, while gas companies like Imperial are given taxpayer money only to return the profits extracted from Aboriginal land to shareholders in Sydney, Melbourne and overseas.

To the courts

The Senate inquiry is ongoing, yet it has so far failed to muster the necessary support to vote down the $50-million Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Instrument. Whether they are unwilling to intervene in the affairs of the NT Labor government, or simply wedged by toxic climate politics, it’s been a mediocre display by the federal Labor Party on an issue of existential importance to the people of the Northern Territory and Australia.

Despite this continued stasis, the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT) has made a last-ditch attempt to overturn the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Instrument, and the grants by Minister Pitt to Imperial Oil and Gas. In the shadow of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, and in the face of the Australian government’s decision to defer effective climate action for another generation (for that is all that net zero by 2050 really means), like many organisations ECNT has turned to the courts to try to obtain some measure of justice for the people of the Northern Territory. The essence of the argument is that public money should not be expended without all consequences being fully considered, including an examination of the impacts of climate change on the environment and the community. ECNT argued before the Federal Court that, in granting the $21 million to Imperial, Pitt didn’t make reasonable inquiries about climate-change risks, transition risks to a zero-carbon economy, and risks associated with failing to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. 

Whether the case succeeds or not, it’s part of the manoeuvring now necessary to hold governments to account over plans to entrench our dependence on fossil fuels in a time of looming climate disaster. It’s a game of chicken that no one wants to play, but one that the people of the Northern Territory are forced into as they stare down the barrel of uninhabitability caused by climate change. 

About the author

Kirsty Howey

Kirsty Howey is Co-Director of the Environment Centre NT. She was a native title, land rights and environmental lawyer in the Northern Territory for over a decade. Her PhD investigated the intersection of Indigenous institutions, the environment, the state and development in northern Australia. She is an adjunct research fellow at the Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University, a research associate at Deakin University and on the editorial board of the Australian Environment Review.

More articles by Kirsty Howey

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“Even more troubling are plans for a carbon capture and storage facility in the same spot. Like every other CCS facility in the world, this plan has no prospect of offsetting the gargantuan emissions likely to be generated by fracking the Beetaloo Basin.”
Kirsty, it gets worse.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is desperation technology born of a perceived need on the part of the fossil-carbon industry to be seen to be doing something to control emissions.
A pressure of around 100 times normal surface atmospheric pressure is required for the liquefaction of the CO2. That pressure can be maintained naturally, so the thinking goes, at the bottom of a bore hole around 1,000 metres deep. Pump the CO2 down to that depth, and it will eventually liuquefy, combine with minerals in the rocks, and be irretrievably there for ever and ever amen.
Trouble is, the current AGW is masking the fact that the Earth is entering a natural cooling phase, and the beginning of the thermal descent to the next glaciation of the series begun in the Pleistocene. If the last one is anything to go by, it will result in glaciers 2 km thick down to the latitude of New York City.
Under those circumstances, our descendants will need every molecule of CO2 they can get hold of in order to put the brakes on and turn the cooling around. They will likely curse the profligate CCS mob of today for depriving them of that resource.
But then, the sedimentary beds containing the desired gas lie UNDER the artesian and sub-artesian beds. So the drillers have to go through the water-bearing beds to reach the gas. Their plan is to seal the wells ‘permanently’ by filling them with reinforced concrete. But steel reo bars rust, and the Portland cement which is the main ingredient of concrete was first prepared in 1820. No concrete structures exist going back more thsan about 100 years. By the time the wells start breaking their seals all over the place, the frackers will have taken their $$$$ and skedaddled.

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