Gas Town, Darwin: Greenwashing fossil fuel expansion in northern Australia

Making weather

There’s a rhythm to life in the Top End. Every afternoon between September and April, in Garamilla/Darwin, a feature appears on the horizon with clockwork regularity. Known affectionately to locals as ‘Hector the Convector’, this spectacular cumulonimbus thunderstorm forms above the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin on most days at 3pm. It signals the end of the cool nights and relatively dry daytime heat of the Dry Season, the start of the ‘Build-Up’ and a dreaded increase in mind-bendingly oppressive humidity.

Hector is an agonising tease for those on the mainland. The clouds which form in this hottest of hot times across the Top End rarely relieve the heat in the Northern Territory’s capital, no matter how frantically we refresh the Bureau of Meteorology’s radar loop online. We must wait until January for regular monsoonal drenchings, the rains nourishing the thirsty savannah woodlands, recharging the groundwater upon which we rely, and breaking the banks of our free-flowing rivers to replenish our floodplains, wetlands and billabongs. Until then, we bear the maddening heat as best we can: avoiding the outdoors if possible, staying still under the constant whirring of fans, retreating into air conditioning, sweating buckets with the merest movements.

It’s hard to imagine it getting hotter here. Yet research suggests that Darwin will be uninhabitable within less than two generations due to climate change. We are projected to experience close to 200 days a year of temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius by 2070, a tipping point for human liveability. While I have chosen to raise my children in Darwin, I am ever conscious that I might be in the last generation to do so.

It might seem an incongruous place for the fossil gas industry to focus its expansion efforts. Yet Darwin is the locus of the gas industry’s planned growth in Australia, and all roads and pipelines lead to a place known as Middle Arm, a peninsula jutting into the lurid aquamarine waters of Darwin Harbour only a few kilometres from the outer suburbs of Darwin and its satellite city Palmerston.

Darwin is already a gas town. I am reminded of this by a new weather feature that has appeared regularly above our city over the last five years. The oddly luminous ‘Inpex cloud’ hangs above the Japanese energy giant’s LNG processing hub at Middle Arm—a facility that is one of the biggest carbon polluters in Australia. It came online in 2018, and the economic boom associated with its construction quickly turned into an all-too-familiar bust as tradies packed up and left and bought homes for their families in more sympathetic climes. Locals wryly jest on social media about the cause of the cloud, but it has arguably become as distinctive a local landmark as Hector, and a portent of what is to come as fossil fuel companies literally make their own weather. Around the corner, also at Middle Arm, is the Darwin LNG facility. Conoco Phillips processed gas from the Bayu Undan field in Timor-Leste waters here for close to two decades, until the company sold its assets to Australian gas company Santos in 2020.

Therese Ritchie, Mutant, 2021

Petrochemical romance

These developments will be dwarfed if new fossil fuel projects planned for the Northern Territory eventuate. Offshore, Santos is planning the highly polluting Barossa gasfield, located north of the Tiwi Islands, to backfill the Darwin LNG facility once the Bayu Undan field is depleted. It is monstrous in terms of its carbon dioxide footprint (some 18 per cent of the resource), causing the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis to famously brand it a ‘carbon dioxide factory with an LNG by product’. Also in the pipeline is Italian energy giant Eni’s rebranded Evans Shoal project, the Verus field, with an extraordinary 27 per cent carbon dioxide content. To the south of Katherine, we have the so-far unproven Beetaloo Basin. If this shale gas fracking field—unironically dubbed by proponents the ‘hottest play on the planet’ and often compared to the Marcellus Shale in the United States—is opened up, it could increase Australia’s emissions by a whopping 22 per cent, generating 1.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Middle Arm is the proposed terminus for all these climate-wrecking projects, turning them into one interconnected project via a network of pipelines and roads. If the NT government’s plans are realised, a vast industrial gas processing and manufacturing hub will flatten 1500 hectares of lush green savannah, rainforest and mangrove vegetation, servicing up to six enormous industrial wharves and ensuring tourists see a silhouette of factories against the skyline as they marvel at our world-famous Darwin sunsets.

As well as processing gas for LNG export, a petrochemicals industry on a scale unprecedented in Australia is planned for the site, with some of the heaviest and most polluting industrial processes in the world producing plastics, fertilisers, paints and other products, using gas from the Beetaloo Basin and offshore gas fields as a feedstock. This vision was supported by Darwin-born Andrew Liveris, former head of Dow Chemicals in the United States and currently on the board of Saudi-owned oil and gas company Saudi Aramco, among a string of other prominent companies. Together with former Labor Chief Minister and current lobbyist Paul Henderson, who famously brought Inpex to Darwin, Liveris co-chaired the Territory Economic Reconstruction Commission established to steer the Northern Territory through the COVID-19 economic crisis. In 2020 the Commission recommended a petrochemicals industry at Middle Arm as the centrepiece of the Northern Territory’s planned $40 billion economy, creating a ‘value add’ for new gas projects. Their plan was unquestioningly adopted by the NT government, and is now being feverishly implemented.

While it has talked up the jobs associated with a gas manufacturing industry in Darwin, the NT government has been rather more circumspect about its potential harms. We have seen the human health impacts of these kinds of developments elsewhere in the world, with the petrochemical build-out in the south of the United States notoriously becoming known as ‘Cancer Alley’ due to its high rates of cancer, infant mortality and pregnancy defects. US environmental scientist Dr Michael Petroni modelled the potential impacts of the development at Middle Arm for the Environment Centre NT, finding that the precinct may increase fine particulate emissions in the region by over 500 per cent, increase greenhouse gas emissions in the Northern Territory by 75 per cent, and increase the industrial cancer hazard in the region four-fold due to releases of formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic compounds. This is troubling anywhere, but especially so three kilometres from the outer suburbs of the city with the worst air pollution in the country due to smoke caused by Dry Season fires. It will be First Nations communities, the elderly, the young, the chronically unwell and the poor who will be disproportionately affected by pollution from the Middle Arm precinct, not to mention the plants and animals that call this place home.

Therese Ritchie, Peacock with Long-range Missiles, 2021

Carpooling carbon

If it is built, the Middle Arm gas and petrochemical hub will transform Darwin like no other development has since the land and waters here were stolen from Larrakia Traditional Owners. It will turn a sleepy northern outpost defined by its wondrous harbour into an industrial city. It will also lock in mass expansion of fossil fuel extraction in the process, against advice from the International Energy Agency that we cannot open up any new coal or gas projects if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. That the Australian taxpayer is funding this dystopian vision during an escalating climate crisis is a national scandal.

The NT government’s plans for Middle Arm were thrust into the national spotlight in October 2022, when the freshly minted ‘climate-friendly’ Albanese Labor government backed into its first mini-Budget, a $1.5 billion election pork-barrel to construct supporting infrastructure at Middle Arm. This cash splash rightfully attracted questions from the cross-bench in Canberra. The money—a huge amount anywhere, but especially so for a jurisdiction with a tiny population like the Northern Territory—had been committed without an environmental impact assessment, a business case or any kind of cost benefit analysis. As has been recently revealed in the media, the bipartisan election funding promise for Middle Arm followed the NT government’s engagement of lobbying firm Dragoman—of which Andrew Liveris is an adviser—to design a strategy to secure support and funding during the ‘political giving season’, to quote one senior NT bureaucrat, of the federal election campaign. The subsidy clearly deserves scrutiny. Yet instead of accountability, what has followed since then is greenwashing and gaslighting of the public. Politicians have steadfastly refused to articulate just what is planned for the rebranded ‘Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct’, vaguely gesturing towards the potential for clean industries such as green hydrogen and critical minerals processing at the site and refusing to be drawn on questions about whether it is in fact associated with gas expansion. Suggestions that the money is a fossil fuel subsidy have been repeatedly branded as ‘rubbish’ and ‘mistruths’ by NT Chief Minister, at the same time as her government ordered the deletion of all references to the word ‘petrochemicals’ from its websites and publicity material. Australian government politicians have also ducked and weaved, with Labor recently backflipping on its previous promise to support a Senate Inquiry into Middle Arm.

The development is sustainable, insist politicians and industry; just don’t ask us any probing questions about what it is. As well as the potential for the site to host critical minerals processing and green hydrogen, its claim to sustainability primarily rests on a planned carbon capture and storage facility, which will allegedly process carbon dioxide from multiple gas and industrial facilities and send this waste by pipeline to the depleted Bayu Undan gas field in Timor-Leste waters. Gas industry peak body APPEA recently, perversely, claimed that the economies of scale achieved by this ‘carpooling of carbon’ would transform the Middle Arm development into a ‘net zero zone’. It does not seem to matter that the technology has never been proven at this scale anywhere in the world, and has failed miserably at sites such as Chevron’s Gorgon facility in Western Australia—nor that even if it does work at something resembling the scale claimed, it will sequester only a small proportion of the overall emissions that would be unleashed cumulatively by these new gasfields and factories.

All the spin in the world cannot turn the Middle Arm project into something that it is not. Freedom of information documents obtained by The Guardian have disclosed that the infrastructure build funded by the taxpayer is for wharves and jetties clearly labelled in conceptual drawings as being for LNG and petrochemical export. Development scenarios for the precinct, also released under freedom of information laws, show the majority of industries planned at the site will be gas-based, with LNG processing, a gas-to-liquids cluster, ammonia, urea, methanol, blue hydrogen and an ethane cracker among them. Petrochemical manufacturing and gas processing are explicitly in scope as part of the environmental impact assessment for the precinct, which is still in the early stages.

The zero emissions facade publicly crumbled when Texan fracking company Tamboran Resources, currently the biggest player in the Beetaloo Basin, announced in June 2023 that it would construct a 6.6 million tonne per annum LNG export hub at Middle Arm, with the potential to expand to 20 million tonne capacity. This would increase Australia’s LNG capacity by close to 25 per cent—and we are already one of the largest LNG exporters in the world. The company has been far more forthcoming than politicians about the true nature of the Middle Arm subsidy, proclaiming in an ASX announcement that marine infrastructure to support its fracking plans was ‘$1.5 billion funded by the Federal Government’. The realisation of this vision rests on the exploitation of the Beetaloo Basin, still with no plan to offset the life cycle emissions of this carbon bomb as promised by the NT government back in 2018 as a condition for lifting a moratorium on fracking.

Public discourse about Middle Arm shows how decarbonisation has been co-opted by the fossil fuel industry and the governments in their thrall, and how green versus fossil fuel narratives are not necessarily in conflict , but rather can reinforce each other. We are told that we do not need to make a choice: we can have both. Middle Arm is a Frankenstein-like convergence of superficially asynchronous industries, entailing the co-option of green narratives for what is essentially a mind-blowingly large fossil fuel expansion.

Threse Ritchie, They all look the same to me, 2021

Trolls and finches

The response from the NT government to growing local and national opposition to Middle Arm has been tone-deaf and classically parochial. At a speech to the National Press Club on 1 August 2023, Chief Minister Natasha Fyles doubled down, deriding opposition to the $1.5 billion subsidy for Middle Arm as the concoction of ‘teals and trolls’ from ‘down south’, ignoring the growing chorus of concern from her own constituents about the project and the valid concerns of taxpayers across Australia who are funding her vision.

The Chief Minister should perhaps take heed from another development in Darwin that has captured the attention of thousands of people living here and nationally. Defence Housing Australia is pursuing the Lee Point housing development in another area of exquisite ecological and cultural value. Lee Point has, like every other place in the Northern Territory, been cared for by Traditional Owners for millennia. It comprises part of the rich cultural landscape of Darwin that we settlers can barely begin to understand or appreciate. Home to endangered black-footed tree rats, northern brush-tail possums, Gouldian finches and up to 200 other bird species, the ancient savannah woodland that supports these natural wonders will be decimated if the project goes ahead, and Darwin will lose a precious pocket of biodiversity that attracts people from around the world, and has become something of a Mecca for its own people.

Despite the fact that approvals have been in place for the development for some years, a groundswell of public opposition to the project has mobilised here in a way not seen in decades, if ever. Hand-painted signs showing Gouldian finches and the words ‘Save Lee Point’ adorn front gates, shops and noticeboards throughout our city, often side by side with a yellow ‘No Fracking’ triangle. Public meetings attract hundreds of people from unlikely walks of life. Protestors have been arrested trying to block the bulldozers from entering. A camp has been established on site, where people gather in solidarity for bird walks, music, painting and collective learning. The battle to save Lee Point has become a lightning rod for those in the Northern Territory opposed to our government’s impoverished view of our precious home as a sacrifice zone for extractive development that may well tip us over the edge of habitability.

On 3 August 2023, something unprecedented happened. Defence Housing Australia agreed to stop work at the site for eight months following an emergency application under federal cultural heritage laws by Danggalaba Larrakia leaders and the withdrawal of support for the project by the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation. Politically, this was a watershed event for Darwin—a stake in the ground and a sign to developers that Larrakia people will no longer be ignored, and that the community will stand with them in solidarity when asked to do so.

NT and federal politicians should be worried about the implications of this opposition for Middle Arm. It too is a place of extraordinary ecological and cultural significance. Already, very senior and respected Larrakia Traditional Owners have registered their opposition to the Middle Arm project, the site of the only known petroglyphs in the entire Darwin region. Senior Larrakia knowledge holder Lorraine Williams, who has led the opposition to the Lee Point housing development, said to The Guardian of Middle Arm, ‘it’s like chopping off our hand, chopping off our arm, just taking all the little bits and pieces of us’.

The experience at Lee Point shows the power that the community can have when it acts in solidarity and partnership with Traditional Owners. Politicians would do well to note that the opposition to other gas projects in the Northern Territory is also being led by Traditional Owners, with Tiwi people stalling Santos’ Barossa project in the Federal Court over a failure to adequately consult them and the Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation leading the charge to oppose the industrialisation of Country from potentially thousands of fracking wells in the Beetaloo Basin. This momentum is building, not abating, as we head towards the NT election in August 2024.

White elephants

I walk to the end of the Elizabeth River jetty, a stone’s throw from Palmerston and a monument to the Northern Territory’s favourite recreational pastime. People of different ages and from all kinds of backgrounds are gathered here to fish with their eskies and camping chairs, despite the unseasonal mid Dry Season humidity. It’s too hot for July. Middle Arm peninsula is directly opposite, connected to the Palmerston suburbs by a bridge over the Elizabeth River.

No one I speak with knows that a huge LNG processing facility may soon rise up sphinx-like above the mangroves on the opposite side of the river, just a few hundred metres away. ‘We’ll be the last to be told’, one fisho remarked. State capture by industry is an accepted part of the culture in the Northern Territory; long-term residents are used to our government’s eager capitulation to whatever huge new economy-saving project promises jobs and income. Many, if not most, of these projects fail, however; a procession of such failures of northern development scars landscapes across the Territory. No one ever pauses to reflect on these repeated follies. Failure simply justifies more of the same. Will Middle Arm be another white elephant of the ever-present policy agenda of ‘Developing the North’?

As I cast my eyes to the right, towards the heart of Darwin Harbour, I try to imagine factories transforming the skyline of Middle Arm. I don’t have the heart to tell the people fishing that their access from the boat ramp to the harbour may well be blocked by up to six new wharves jutting out into the crystalline waters, and hundreds of new shipping movements each year. The Middle Arm gas and petrochemical hub is likely to usher in new weather formations in Darwin that will make the Inpex cloud seem benign as the temperatures and sea levels rise. By then, there may well be no one left in Darwin to develop the north.

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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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